Throughout the articles presented here as a dedication to those who have undoubtedly inspired and influenced not only my passions and interests, but also have assisted me in cultivating an ever evolving aesthetic. While there is an auspicious ode to the women of the past who challenged perceptions of beauty by covering their skin with hundreds of tattoo designs, I feel there are certain individuals who deserve a prominent place in the proverbial aristocratic hierarchy. Michael Wilson is granted this honor though I never met the man nor have even seen a single performance. It is his character, however, that managed to reach me through the pages of Shocked and Amazed by way of an interview conducted before his death. A few years later I was staring at his tattooed face again, this time on the cover of [body mod zine], which had come into my possession through a collection of tattoo magazines once owned by renown body modification artist John Cobb. He was introduced to me by Enigma one afternoon at the Blue Grotto in West Philly, but that is another story for a different time. The point is that Wilson stood out from the other heavily tattooed exhibits of sideshow history due to the fact that he had his face inked, and my curiosity of what set him and others apart from all of the other tattooed people dove me to investigate the phenomenon further.
When it comes to notable figures of tattoo and sideshow culture, John Rutherford is considered to be the first professional tattooed Englishman and was covered in broad Maori designs which extended to his face. His 1828 appearance was followed by James F. O’Connel, the first tattooed person to be put on display in the United States at Barnum’s American Museum in 1842. Prince Constantine, more famously known as Captain Constentenus, became his successor in the 1870’s and is regarded as the most remarkable of these men due to the degree of tattoo coverage. He may have even been the most tattooed man of that century, though certainly earns the merit of being the first to have a full body tattoo that included work on his face, scalp, genitals and even the webs of each finger. Blue and red depictions of native Burmese animals and creatures of eastern mythology were considered to be the made by masters of the craft, the quality revered as being the most elaborate at that time.
Deemed to be one of the most popular tattooed men of all time, the Great Omi began his life as Horace Ridler, a man who served the British Army and earned the rank of major before departing from the military. In the early 1920’s he found himself in financial trouble and sought out show business as a means of amassing a new fortune. Thus he began to turn himself into an attraction, though the early work was rather crude. At the later part of the decade, Horace paid a visit to George Burchett [London’s famed artist] and the wide black stripes were a means of covering those tattoos. It is said that he endured 150 hours and this dedication in choosing to transform his body is something I admire because of the determination he had to literally make himself into a spectacle. Nonetheless, it is clear that Omi created an image which played on the natural curiosity of others that still remains as a prominent example of what the human body can endure.
A contemporary counterpart to this impressive list would be Jack Dracula, also known as “the Marked Man”, who was born in 1935 near the Brooklyn shipyards. After completing high school he quickly enlisted with the Navy to avoid being drafted into the army and spent four years working as a petty officer. Following his discharge, Jack returned to Brooklyn in 1957 and took on a number of odd jobs, though his life would be changed forever when he walked into a tattoo parlor on Coney Island. He was looking to compliment a few pieces that had been acquired during service and wound up having a machine thrust in his hand as he was told to do it himself. Executing a tattoo on his thigh with success, he soon took up position as an artist at several shops in the area. This was when he gained the most prominent of his tattoos, which included a black mask that circled his eyes. He then went on to find employment with Hubert’s Dime Museum in Times Square and Barnum Bailey’s Circus in Madison Square Garden. Tattooing was outlawed in New York in 1961, causing Jack to exclusively work with sideshows, though dissatisfaction moved him to a town in Connecticut with a prime demographic for an artist and only one shop. Subsequently that city went on to ban tattooing as well, and Jack had to relocate once again, opening shops in Philadelphia. He closed up shop for good in the early 80’s and by 2003, his deteriorating health required him to take up residence in Park Place.
Jack’s remembered experiences earns him a place in mid-twentieth century tattoo culture and was even the recipient of discrimination due to his facial tattoos. During an interview he submitted a well-rehearsed answer that was partially true when asked why he got them. In a follow up he revealed much more self-awareness and stated “It kept me from getting married. Women were my weakness and I was a good-looking guy.” He went on to reveal that his tattoos were intentionally meant to nurture his ostracization from normal convention, yet was more than happy to allow others to invent stories about his reason for being tattooed. Forming a sense of self was meticulously attached to the conditions that made up his life, though it becomes apparent that he selected an exceptional path while deliberately influencing the way other people saw him as well as the way he viewed himself.
Earlier I mentioned the interview Wilson, often affectionately referred to as “Tattoo Mike”,where Jonathan Shaw explains how he broke barriers in the sideshow community by having his entire body tattooed including his face and hands. Managers did not customarily hire anyone with these areas inked, and though there is a progressive amount of people who have these places tattooed, Mike Wilson became an icon as Coney Island’s Illustrated Man, his image used to sell everything from breath mints to clothing. “When I was first getting my face and head tattooed,” he states, “I didn’t know of anyone else except for legends like Jack Dracula or Omi.” He goes on to explain how “at that time it was going over the line” but remarks that he has seen a lot of younger people with heavily tattooed faces. “As I say in the spiel that I do, and I’ve said it a thousand times, tattoos are like potato chips-you can’t just have one.” Wilson confesses that he used to draw and paint a lot so we he was quite fascinated with conveying them on his skin.
Here are a few excerpts from that interview where he explains where his interest in sideshow came from and how he accumulated his tattoos:
“Since I was a kid, I was fascinated with sideshow and carnivals and that whole thing, and the more heavily tattooed I got, the more I was reading. I was bartending, and a tattooist told me they were looking for performers at the sideshow, and I went down to Coney Island USA and got the job that day. I already had my face tattooed. What my boss said at the time was that there were plenty of people who had their bodies tattooed, but no one had their face. So they put a big mask over me and put me outside on the stage.”
“I remember seeing a picture of Jack Dracula, and as much as I admired how he looked, I wanted something different than that. I wanted something specifically with designs instead of pictures on my face. So I started doing research.”
“I had been getting tattooed by a man named Pat Maninuik in San Francisco; he tattooed me quite a bit, and also did the backs of my hands as well as the work on my arms. I went to him with this idea about getting my face tattooed and he flat refused. Then I started making this trek to tattoo parlors in California, and they all refused. Then when I heard it was outlawed in New York City, I thought I could get it here if I had the money. So I cam here and met a couple of people and went to Don Boyle and started getting tattooed. Then I went to FineLine Mike, and he was very nervous to do it because my face was pretty much unmarked. But finally he agreed, and I really got started. Other people have picked up from there.”
“Getting my face tattooed really became an obsession. I was going though all of the files and researching the tribes that tattooed their faces, and at the same time I’m smart enough to know that it was definitely going to change my life dramatically. I’m the tattooed man all the time, but one thing I’ve learned, specifically in getting my face more and more tattooed, is that during the summertime I keep my shirt on. I’ve learned to read people. Getting my face and neck tattooed was something I wanted to do. My intention isn’t to go out and shock people or get a rise out of people. It was totally personal for me. Unfortunately, I didn’t figure out how big of an effect it was going to have on other people, with them getting freaked out or angry.”
“During my spiel, I try to answer all of the questions people have about tattooing and put it in a good light and educate people. One of the reasons I had to think about it for a long time was that when I was first being introduced as the tattooed man, my boss was painting this picture of this “poor me” individual. And the more I heard him doing this spiel on me, the angrier and more dissatisfied I got. I wanted a change, so I could feel proud of my tattoos.”
“I very rarely regret having my face tattooed; I feel like I have really been out in the mainstream in terms of showing my tattoos and explaining them.”
Touching on the topic of younger individuals who are getting facial tattoos, Wilson stated he is not one to judge but thought “it’s probably wise to be a little older and more experienced in life before you embark on a commitment like that. It can close a lot of doors. I’ve had a lot of young guys come up to me and they’re talking about sporting some tattoos on their face and I tell them that they really should be older and really think about it a lot before they choose that path.”
Certainly this allows insight as to what can motivate a person to willingly lend their body to countless hours of being penetrated by a tattoo needle. Though they are far more commonplace than in the times of those men and women who went that extra mile to showcase not only the quality and quantity of the art, but also played up their ability to endure the pain. No matter how exaggerated narratives of their origin may have been, there is sufficient evidence to document that they were in fact just as a complex human being as you or I, perhaps just a more colorful version of the same people who know, care for and love in our own lives.
Resources, Reading & Research: Made Marvels – the Tattooed Man , Captain Costentenus – Tattooed Prince, The Great Omi – Tattooed Gentleman, Of Freaks and Inks: Self-Identifying Jack Dracula, Shocked and Amazed! Volume 7