Sunday, September 14, 2014

"Plus the Cost of the Henna": Traces of Jewish Henna in Egypt

I had a request from a client whose family are originally Karaite Jews from Egypt, and wanted to know if I could offer any specific information on what henna traditions might have looked like for them.

[Side-note: the Karaites are a sect of Judaism which attempts to live only according to the Bible/TaNaKh, and does not recognize the legal/halakhic authority of the Talmud and later Rabbinic thought. In modern times, there were large Karaite communities in Egypt, Iraq, and the Crimea, which now live in Israel or the United States. Non-Karaite Jews are referred to as Rabbanites].

Prayer at the Karaite synagogue, Ashdod, Israel, 1985.
Photo by Ira Nowinski.

Unfortunately, there’s not a huge amount of information about Jewish henna traditions in Egypt, and they appear to have largely died out by the early 20th century. In this post I’ll try to collect what we do know about henna in Egypt, why it disappeared, and what we can do to revive it.

Friday, September 5, 2014

"Master of a Queer Profession": Charlie White and Toronto's Early Tattoo History

I recently met a local Toronto historian and artist, Teresa Casas, who is working to reconstruct the visual and social atmosphere of Toronto in the early 1900s through the photography of William James, combined with the text of the Toronto Daily Star (the precursor to the Toronto Star).

She pointed me to an image depicting a tattooed man, and a fascinating article in the Star on a tattooist working in Toronto at the turn of the century. I thought I would put together a little research to feature this important piece of local Toronto tattoo history. And don’t worry, regular readers, we’ll be back to henna in our next post!

Magic lantern slide of tattooed man, Toronto,
photo by William James, ca. 1910-1920.

The beginnings of professional tattooing in Canada have been hard to trace, especially due to the historical lack of scholarship devoted to tattooing. Some scholars of tattoo history have laid important ground, especially the crucial work of collecting oral histories; I have benefitted in particular from the work of Anna Felicity Friedman, Matt Lodder, Lyle Tuttle, Vince Hemingson and Lars Krutak, Bob Baxter, Charles Eldridge, and Clément Demers.

Maud Wagner, an early American tattoo
artist, ca. 1911.
Some context on turn-of-the-century tattooing: while tattoos had always been present in North American and European culture, they had become very popular by the end of the 19th century among all social classes, with nobles and royalty displaying tattoos acquired abroad (especially in the Levant and Japan) as well as at home. The Who's Who With Tattoos list includes King Edward VII and his son King George V, Czar Nicholas II, Charles Longfellow (son of Henry Wadsworth), and (according to legend) Lady Jennie Churchill (Winston's mother).

In 1891, Irish-American tattoo artist Samuel O’Reilly patented the first prototype of an electric tattoo machine, which was refined by his student Charlie Wagner in 1904. Tattoos rapidly improved in quality and dropped in speed and price. The Harmsworth magazine wrote in 1898 that there were 20 tattoo artists working in London alone, with 100,000 tattooed clients. 

But what was happening in Canada? There are a few well-known names associated with early Canadian tattooing: Fred Baldwin, a former British soldier, and Vivian “Sailor Joe” Simmons both began tattooing in Montreal around 1910 — they were still using the old method of tapping tattoos with hand-held needles. 

Baldwin switched to the electric machine in 1916, and Simmons followed suit in 1918. In 1920 Baldwin opened the North Street Shop, on Barrington St. in Halifax, joined by another ex-Brit, Charlie Snow. Snow trained Sailor Jerry Swallow, another one of Canada’s legendary tattooists, who is still working today!

“Sailor Joe” Simmons eventually migrated to Toronto, where he died in 1965. In 1948 Simmons tattooed a young Toronto teen named Ken Cotterell, who became a famed tattoo artist in his own right under the name “Beachcomber Bill.” Simmons was featured in the Guinness Book of Records as the most heavily tattooed man in the world, with 4,831 distinct tattoos.