In the early 1950s, when tattoos were the indelible mark of a lowlife, an erudite professor of English—a friend of Gertrude Stein, Thomas Mann, Andre Gide, and Thornton Wilder—abandoned his job to become a tattoo artist (and incidentally a researcher for Alfred Kinsey). Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos tells the story of his years working in a squalid arcade on Chicago’s tough State Street. During that time he left his mark on a hundred thousand people, from youthful sailors who flaunted their tattoos as a rite of manhood to executives who had to hide their passion for well-ornamented flesh.
Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos is anything but politically correct. The gritty, film-noir details of Skid Row life are rendered with unflinching honesty and furtive tenderness. His lascivious relish for the young sailors swaggering or staggering in for a new tattoo does not blind him to the sordidness of the world they inhabited. From studly nineteen-year-olds who traded blow jobs for tattoos to hard-bitten dykes who scared the sailors out of the shop, the clientele was seedy at best: sailors, con men, drunks, hustlers, and Hells Angels.