Phil Sparrow in photo with tattooed torso and cigarette in mouth

Phil Sparrow, Gay Pioneer in Tattooing

Phil Sparrow in photo with tattooed torso and cigarette in mouth  Samuel M. Steward, PhD aka Phil Sparrow was a gay pioneer in the world of tattoo, sexual researcher as an associate of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, and a writer of gay erotica under the name Phil Andros. His book Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos chronicles his years as a tattooist among the derelicts and young sailors that roamed the darker side of Chicago. He kept a detailed diary of his customers and their reasons for tattoos.

   Phil Sparrow was a pseudonym for Dr. Samuel Steward after he left a 20- year position in academia in the early 1950s that was dull and unrewarding and entered the wild and at the time, underground world of tattooing on the shady side of Chicago. His book Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos offers an interesting view into the life of a gay man, a tattooist no less in the 1950s and 60s. I found this book when I Googled “gay tattoo artists” and his name appeared, among others. His story is fascinating and deserves a place not only in tattoo history but in our gay archives as well.

   Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos was published in 1990 and the era in which it takes place now seems archaic compared to the surge in popularity of tattoos and modern well lit, sanitary shops. When Phil Sparrow started his tattooing much of it was done with flash, a premade design displayed on the walls of tattoo shops. Phil started in the bad side of Chicago where gangs, drunks and sailors from a nearby naval training base gathered to get a tattoo and sometimes share their sordid tales. His was a step above the “jaggers”, a derogatory term for unscrupulous tattooists. Phil made certain his equipment was sanitary and refused to tattoo under the age of 18. He would not, like some would, tattoo someone who appeared drunk. Later when he moved from Chicago to Oakland, CA he became the “official” tattooist for the Hells Angels

   What of Samuel’s gayness in the days before Stonewall? In this book he mentions the subject only briefly and without much detail. He was out in his personal life but feared being labeled a homosexual in his business and on the street as it might attract too many “tricks”. He writes, “In those days, before the Stonewall incident, it was imperative that if you were homosexual you had to keep it hidden”. As far as gay men that he knew there was not much interest in getting tattooed with such reasons as “I hate needles” and “I would never put THAT on my body.”

   Samuel’s book is a fascinating look into the world of tattooing in the 50s and 60s from the perspective of a literary and artistic gay man. As much as the gay community and society as a whole has now embraced tattoos Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos is a fascinating snapshot of the artforms mid to late 20th century history.

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