Queer Tattoo History and my visit to Modern Electric

Queer Tattoo History and my visit to Modern Electric

Sam Steward’s fascinating life as a shapeshifter linked many disparate worlds: literature, sexual research, academia and tattoo art.  For this iteration of Homo File I’ve taken a dive into researching Steward’s life as a tattoo artist. In this world he went by the name Phil Sparrow. I recently read his fascinating and really well written book Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tatoo with Gangs, Sailors and Street-Corner Punks 1950-1965It’s pretty pricey since it is a rare book. So I borrowed it from the vaults of the SF public library page desk for a few hours and I was enchanted by its humor and candor. No pictures, but who needs them with a writer as visually descriptive and poetic as Steward.

His book tells the personal and social history of a tattooist  in the pre-Stonewall era navigating a very homophobic world from the point of view of a gay man. He was 41 and still working as an English professor at De Paul University when he took up the art form. And in a little over a decade Phil Sparrow became one of the most popular tattooists in Chicago.

Phils Tattoo Joynt, Chicago  1950s

                                                            Phil at work @ Phils Tattoo Joynt, Chicago 1950s

Phil’s Tattoo Joynt was always packed with sailors, motorcyclists, hustlers and guys seeking a good ink slinger. When he moved to the Bay Area in 1965 he opened a shop in Oakland called Anchor Tattoo Shop on San Pablo Avenue in Oakland.  He went on to mentor Ed Hardy and Cliff Raven who both became well respected tattooists in their own right. Ed Hardy went on to open several very popular tattoo parlors in SF and then in LA and now around the world with our very own Ed Hardy’s Tattoo City down in North Beach till this day.

Cliff Raven was perhaps the best known queer tattooist in the US until his death in 2001. As I see it, the queer tattooists  are part of a lineage of American queer tattooists following in the footsteps of Sparrow and Raven that is still very alive today. But when I went seeking out the guys in the queer tattoo scene I came up  with very little. What I discovered is that the tattoo world is very guarded and still very much dominated by a heteronormative paradigm. Well, except for a few radical queers who do things differently. Enter Suzanne Shifflett.

Suzanne Shifflett of Modern Electric Tattoo

                                                              Suzanne Shifflett of Modern Electric Tattoo

Suzanne (also known as Fish) “apprenticed under Wayne Bruce Lee. Who apprenticed under Cliff Raven. Bruce Lee, as he goes by, was also a gay leather biker. He’s part of the queer family tree of tattooing”. She invited me to her tattoo and painting studio Modern Electric a few weeks ago and it was like coming home. Just a few blocks from CounterPULSE, Modern Electric is an inspiring place filled with art and a very homey and relaxed environment. She opened in 2007 after moving here from Portland where she had another very successful tattoo business. Suzanne was really open to my questions and sharing her wealth of knowledge about the life of a tattooist. Some questions that came up in that conversation were:  Why are there so few queer male tattooists? Have Queer tattooists influenced the form and content of tattoo art over time? What does queer sexuality have to do with queer tattooing? Steward in his book sees a huge connection between the two. And finally, is there a queer aesthetic?

Now I get that these are not such easy questions to unpack but I did get a feel for a bit of the tattoo scene and the straight male conventions that have been part of the tradition for a few centuries at least. I learned how HIV and the fear and ignorance about it  has helped to keep queer male tattooists in the closet. That is of course an oversimplification and an idea I will unpack in further postings and events we will do with Homo File. But I got a feel from Suzanne and others that the larger tattoo world  is one that is largely homophobic and heterocentric. One look at the advertising for the recent Tattoo Expo where they touted hot chicks and beer as the central draw, says a lot. I get that it is a very competitive world especially with the growth of popularity of body modification and tattoo art in the past 25 years. So my quest for the lineage of Phil Sparrow continues. And it seems that with Suzanne I have found where the queer tattoo lineage is at now. She shared lots of cool books from her collection and I was impressed with the warmth and creativity and queer aesthetic that filled her bright studio. She is mentor to a younger generation of queer tattooists both trans guys and women. Her generosity of spirit was infectious. I think Sam would be happy to see that her practice and business is as creative and sexually liberated as he might have hoped for 30 plus years ago when he closed his Oakland based Anchor Tattoo shop.




Through Suzanne I have met Airick Redwolf, another queer tattooist,    body modification artist and activist who is more in the European queer tattoo lineage with the likes of Ron Athey, Mr. Sebastian and Herbert Hoffmann. He shed a lot of light on that part of the queer Euro tattoo lineage for me and I hope he will be able to blog about it here soon. Thank you Suzanne and Airick for preserving the queer spirit in your work and activism.





You must check out this video and then come to our video shoot this Sunday if you have tattoos and want to be part of Homo File and keeping the queer tattoo lineage alive.





This is tom my Pinterest collection of queer tattoos.


We are planning a video shoot for our show Homo File about a famous queer tattoo artist that opens May 30th at CounterPULSE. We’re seeking tattooed male models –all ages, shapes and sizes to join us for a fun few hours posing, cruising, schmoozing and showing off your ink. All for the sake of preserving the little known story of queer tattoo history.

Join us Sunday, April 6th at CounterPULSE from 5-8pm 1310 Mission St@9th. We are recreating the always packed 1950s-1970s tattoo parlor of famed queer tattooist Phil Sparrow.

What you get out of it?
**The opportunity to be part of a show that tells the story of one of the most radical queers of the past century–
**Many people will see your amazing ink!
**Food drinks and socializing with other guys about tats.

**Sam Steward (Phil Sparrow)- was a sexual outlaw and one of the most important queer tattooist of the 20th Century– Sparrow was the tattoo mentor to Ed Hardy and Cliff Raven. He was the tattoo artist of the Hells Angels, friends of Gertrude Stein and Dr. Alfred Kinsey. He kept records of all of his sex acts for over 60 years, authored many books, articles and poetry that bring light to the mostly underground life of queer people of the 1930s-to the late 1960s. He was the famed homoerotic author (under the pen name) Phil Andros. He lived in Chicago and moved to Oakland/Berkeley in the late 1960s where he had a shop on San Pablo Ave and lived for 30 years till his death. This is a chance to be part of this amazing tattoo legacy.

Bring: Simple 1950s, 60’s, 70’s style clothes- Jeans, khakis, boxers, tightywhities, white t-shits, plaid or white tank tops, converse sneakers, boots, leather, chaps, sailor–military garb. Leather boots, Jock straps and —anything that could be from the 1940s-1950s.

Simple tattoos, American Folk style tattoos, anything queer ODD or unique. Not as interested in tribal or contemporary designs if you are covered in them. More old school preferred- at least on part of your body.

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