Last month I came across an image in the lantern slide collection at the City of Toronto Archives. I immediately recognized it as the portrait of a tattoo artist, subject of a 1913 Toronto Daily Star character sketch that had been published without illustration.
Hello Charlie White. After all, can there be more than one man with the distinctive Buffalo Bill Cody tattoo that White describes having done on himself?
Below, are published article and photo portrait reunited.
The Toronto Daily Star, Friday, May 23, 1913 p. 5
HAVE YOU BEEN TATTOOED YET? There’s a Man in Toronto Who Makes a Good Living at This Business—AN ODD CRANNY, TOO—Is the Place Where He Works—He Has Travelled With “Buffalo Bill”—
Toronto has nooks and crannies, little hidden spots of mighty interest and quaint charm, which no one seems to see, in the excitement of ascending sky-scrapers and buzzing central traffic.
Now in the more ancient and dowdier part of Queen street, there is perhap the quaintest nook of all, the little box of a shop in which Mister Charlie While hangs out his shingle as a “tattooer.”
It is only a box of a shop, crowded and jammed in among bigger buildings. If you approach it on a wet evening and are aware of the amazing quaintness of the profession it houses, it will look to you exactly like one of those dim little shops in dim little old world streets which you read of in Dickens.
Has Travelled With B.B.
You push open the door of the shop, and peer into a dark, untidy room.
“How do partner,” says a voice from a dim corner. And Charlie White rises from his reclining case on a suitcase and turns up the light.
Charlie is not more than thirty. But when he has talked for a few minutes, and his personality has come across, so to speak, he seems old, old. He has seen the world for he has traveled with Buffalo Bill Cody’s circus. He is master of a queer profession and looks on all plain ones with a seeing eye. Hence he is old, old.
Charlie White broke his ankle thirteen years ago when he was on Ranch 101, in the State of Oklahoma. And when he was lying in his bunk, he chased the lonesomeness away by having an Indian amuse him by showing him the crude Indian art of tattooing. In the several weeks he lay in his bunk, his interest grew in the art and he took up the practice of it. With the white man’s mind, he improved on the Indian’s crude designs, and soon he mastered his dusky master. He did blue initials and green snakes on the arms and chests of his fellow ranchers and his patronage grew with his increasing skill.
Finally, he joined Buffalo bill and for three years he had his little tent, and toured America. He was by this time an artist of his class. He had hundreds of his present 10,000 designs. He had sixteen colors at his needles end. And he was working with a needle turned by electricity that made fine lines rapidly, that soaked in the pigments quickly. He went back to the ranch for a few years after touring the States, and finally five years ago he came to Toronto and has stayed here ever since. For Toronto is his native town.
And Girls Too
Sailors, navvies, and lumberjacks roll into Charlie White’s shop and have fierce dragons done in carmine on their chests or entwined hearts in pink on their arms, with “Mary” enscrolled. And Highlanders—dozens of them who want their bare knees decorated with thistles, crests, plaids, and dirks, for decency on parade. Charlie has a portrait of Colonel Cody he did himself by a mirror. And girls and women come too, to have their lovers’ names inscribed on their arms.
“That there Chink who was killed by an automobile night before last,” says Charlie, “had his name on his shoulder for identification—a piece of my work. Chinks are so afraid of being thrown into the ground un-known. Lots of them come in to have their names and addresses put on their arms in Chink letters.”
Contrary to the general belief, the tattooing does not make the flesh of the subject sore. The outline of the design is traced on by a powdered celluloid transfer. The fine, vibrating needle makes the necessary scratches. The vegetable inks, which come from China, are then rubbed in, and in a week the design, in its glory, is on for life. The more elaborate ones take five hours to do, and cost $35. The smaller ones, such as flags, flowers, snakes, names, run from three to ten dollars.
Charlie White is the only tattooer in Toronto. But there is a brotherhood of them, about thirty five in all, through Canada and the States, which clings together by means of letters and occasional visits, telling each other of new designs and new methods. Charlie has 10,000 designs, and is making new ones on request every few days.
“I make from $30 to $40 a week on an average,” says he, “Lodge men for their brotherhood designs, sailors for sweethearts’ names, Englishmen for names and flags, and Chinamen for squiggles of identification. Oh this is a flourishing business!
Tattoos seen recently at Wychwood Farmers’ Market
Henna artist Noam Sienna, scholar and practitioner of this ancient art form, was at the Wychwood market today. Noam also has been investigating how Charlie White figures in the early history of professional tattooing in Canada. Read his blog post here.
Thank you Noam!