On my way to Charlie Cartwrights home in Modesto, California, I was excited to be conducting a rare interview with the pioneer of single-needle tattooing.
Cartwright (plus Jack Rudy and Freddy Negrete) changed the tattoo scenes course; better yet, they helped build it to what it is today. All of them were inspired by 20th-century penitentiary-like black-and-grey tattoos and refined them to a mainstream level.
Here, I am sitting on a brown sofa in Cartwrights living room, looking around at the Christian crosses hanging on the walls, native American sculptures on the floor, and tons of Good Time Charlie memorabilia and merch stacked on one side of the room. He still goes by the name Good Time Charlie (which he autographed on a poster for me), the alias meaning a carefree and social person, which fits him perfectly.
Cartwrights neck tattooed with a Polynesian-style pattern, and his tattoo sleeves on their 5th layer of black ink making it hard to depict the forms, but he was happy to have covered up older work, telling me, there was nothing wrong with what was there. His hands are also heavily tattooed with religious crosses and the words hold fast on his fingersthe latter suggesting to bear down and fight through the storm like the sailors would use, or relating to the bible to hold your position, or fix your gaze and not lose sight of. Cartwrights faith has always been present, guiding and balancing his career and personal life.
He disagreed with it, didnt like it, or go along with what I was pursuing. One day, my dad woke up my brother and discovered that he had three tattoos [done by me]. My brother was ten years old [and I was 15]. He got really mad about it and told me, Dont ever put another tattoo on him. And so I was threatened not to do that again. After that, I didnt come home often because he didnt like what I was doing. Well, unknown to him, probably a year or two later, I think I was 17, I came home to eat a good meal and see my mom I walked in the kitchen, and I ended up in the dining roommy father gave me an uppercut that wouldnt quit. I slid down the wall, and he said, I told you not to put another tattoo on him! My dad had seen another tattoo on my brothers leg (one that I hadnt seen before), and thats why he did what he did to me. And I said to him, Okay, Im leaving! So I left and went back [somewhere in the] neighborhood, and two weeks later, he came to tell me, Your mom wants you to come home. And I said, Yeah, what about you? And he said, Yeah, I want you to. And I asked, Are we ever going to talk about tattoos? Because I dont know how to explain it, dad, but Im just going to dig them until I die. And that was that.
Yes, he was a Pentecostal preacher for 47 years with one organization. He was probably a preacher for 60 years of his life.
Well, I never did rebel against religion. Except for my dads standpoint, he thought that it was what they called practicing legalism, by expressing his desire that tattoos werent cool because of something written in Leviticus 19:28, which is You must not make any cuts in your bodies for the dead or put tattoo marks on yourselves. But as I have discussed with other people, were not Jewish, and were not subject to the Levitical Law. Were Gentiles, and we live under grace as Christians. And so that was my difference, the difference in my opinion. And besides, even though we memorialize our loved ones on our skin, were not doing it, cutting ourselves to appease false gods, to remove our loved one from some state of purgatory or limbo.
Oh yeah. I never quit loving the guy. I just knew it was his knee jerk reaction to what I had a passion for.
Even though he accepted it and resigned himself to it, I dont think he ever fully appreciated it. After 25 years of tattooing, he said: Son, I never make it my business to make your business my business, but you sure spend a lot of money! What do you mean I spend a lot of money? I said. (My dad was dirt poor as a kid.) Well, you and your family fly all over the place. You live so wildly. I dont quite get that. Can you give me a ballpark of how much you make? And so I told him, and his eyes just bugged, Thats more than the president of the United States makes! I dont know what the president makes, and I dont care. But anyway, I think he appreciated the success because he measured everything in dollars. Which I had financially, but I dont measure happiness by money.
Well, no, I never was a biker. I did buy a trike from Lady Blue worked for me in East LA. She said she would sell it for $1500. I didnt even want a trike, but because she had spent $4,500 on parts and many of Hells Angels had built it for her, it was cool looking, but I rarely ever rode I would be mobbed by people wanting to talk about it.
It has been a good thing for both of us. I still talk to Jack often, and we get together periodically. I have absolutely no regrets for breaking the guy in because hes made a major contribution to the industry. Thats why I even started the guy off because he wasnt just another person that liked tattoos. I could tell that Jack had talent. So he became more than just a guy you break in and go on down the road. Weve been friends for over 45 years.
Thats also why I decided to do the book with Jack, Tattoo ManThe Story of Good Time Charlies. Our history is so connected. The fact is I never started [gave apprenticeships] to hardly anybody in the business. Jack is the only one of three people that werent relatives. And my only relatives were my children, that I ever broke in, all three of them tattooed at one time, and only one remains. But Jack, he was a good one. Hes carried on the name big time [Good Time Charlies Tattooland] and contributed greatly to the legacy of a black-and-gray fine line.
Sometimes we would finish at 7:00 in the morning. We would only open from 5:00 PM until 1:00 AM. I think I had been open for about a year, when Lady Blue (who worked with me at The Pike), phone calls, Hey buddy, I went by your shop, and the sign says it opens at 5:00 PM. Whats that all about? How come you are not opening at noon? I said, Well if you want to open it at noon, you open it; I dont want to go in until 5 PM. I like the night shift.
Lady Blue said later, I just had a visit from the health department today, and they said, Well, we can never get in here all those years because we go home at 5 PM. And were not open on the weekends. And so anyway, I thought, I figured that right. But it wasnt because of that; the later schedule worked better for me.
Presently custom tattoo art is typical; however, 50 years ago, it wasnt.
It wasnt that I was trying to do anything unique. I was trying to do whatever the customer wanted, whether it was unique or not.
When I first came here [to California], all the tattoo shops I went into, they were like: you pick something off the wall, or we dont have it. And I thought, why cant you have anything you want? So I would do portraits of the customers wife sitting beside them in East LA. And Id look at them and draw it on them. I used to stand out in the sun and draw their van on their arm or their motorcycle, and draw it directly on them because thats the real art to me. Thats how I always did it as a kid. I didnt even know what stencils were. I never even heard of paper stencils or any kind. I just used a ballpoint pen.
Yes, me and Ed were kind of on the same trip, but he was on a much higher (i.e. appointment only type basis and doing larger works). Well, I would do anything the customer wantedsmaller pieces. It was walk-ins all the time, having to approach as a street-shop tattooer.
Personally, no. No idea at all that it would expand beyond where it was, meaning there were only half a dozen shops, maybe, at the Pike and Long Beach, and two or three in the Los Angeles area, period. One in Van Nuys and one downtown. And there just werent that many shops around. And at one point in time, you could look at anybodys arms and tell them, hey, youre from Philadelphia, or youre from New York, and so-and-so did that tattoo, and theyd all wonder how you knew that. Well, there were only probably 300 tattooers in the whole nation.
Yeah, there were so few; you just became familiar with everyones styles. Right now, even Little Annie that lives six doors from you couldve done that tattoo, for all you know.
Because the whole world seems to be adapting to the problem with COVID and so forth, I believe tattooing will survive. Still, its never going to be the same again because of what people have been forced into, operating behind closed doors, or possibly with limited finances. And the economy being so rotten a lot of people cant work or even aspire to work and dont even see any job in the future. So thats going to limit the amount of money thats spent on tattoos. Affecting people economically and physically and probably emotionally and mentally. I mean, I dont personally know of any tattooer thats committed suicide yet. Still, it wouldnt surprise me if some around the world have done that because if school children are doing it because of the difference in life that they cant accept, this is real. As we speak, I believe were talking about possibly another year maybe of this in the future of limited meetings and going to fall on
Yes. And so obviously, thats going to affect the business in many ways. And so I believe the ones that do make it are the ones who are probably Johnny-come-lately that doesnt even realize the problems that face them, but theyre so committed to the course that theyre going to figure it out regardless. So there will be some that enter the business during this time of trouble. That will probably be okay. But by and large, I would say the industry will never be the same. I believe much more private tattooing will be happening rather than publicly. For sure, if we cant have any conventions, well, thats obvious. So I think its just going to become such a private enterprise, and tattooers lifestyles will change somewhat. Theyre going to have to learn to adapt to less popularity and fame.
For sure. Its already doing that. Many shops have closed permanently and tattooers quite frankly are relying on other skills. A lot of them are going into engraving metal, knives and guns, or paintings. Theyre selling their paintings. Some of them are carvers and sculptors. You are looking for something else to supplement the lifestyle or the income period. I mean, the lifestyle ceases after if all youre doing is going into your studio and molding clay or something, youre still an artist. Its just a different medium.
Yeah. Its absolutely going to be a different animal.
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