The Dynamic Duo Who Changed Tattooing Forever
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because teamwork always pays off.
By Dan Peleschuk
The seasoned tattooer must have been shocked when the sailor broke the news to him. For ages, August “Cap” Coleman had considered himself the top dog of American tattooing — so good that he didn’t even need an address on his business card. Clients would seek out his shop in Norfolk, Virginia, on their own.
But on that day in the mid-1940s, it looked as though Coleman had met his match. While admiring what he assumed was his own work on the sailor’s arm, he was told it was actually done by someone else. A young tattooer named Franklin Paul Rogers, from nearby North Carolina, had been copying Coleman’s often patriotic or nautically inspired designs and tattooing them on his own clients.
Perhaps on a bad day, Coleman might’ve given the upstart the cold shoulder. Fiercely independent, most early tattooers weren’t exactly what you’d call pleasant people — and Coleman was apparently no exception. Instead, he invited Rogers to come work in his shop on East Main Street, and though fleeting, their five-year collaboration was a defining milestone in tattoo history, a blend of talent and skill that left an indelible mark on a craft critically shaped by such early practitioners. “Their tattooing abilities, their machine-building and tuning abilities and their personalities just moved them up the scale,” says C.W. Eldridge, who runs the Tattoo Archive in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
He put a tattoo on that looked the best and wore the best for decades.
Doc Don Lucas, tattoo historian
Before Rogers showed up in 1945, Coleman had built a reputation as one of the best artists on the East Coast by taking classic, highly detailed European designs and rendering them in his own style. No one knows much about his life before he arrived in Norfolk in 1918, or even about the provenance of his own ink. But the way Coleman tattooed anchors, eagles and dagger-pierced hearts, among other common designs, is widely recognizable: stripped down, boldly outlined and saturated with bright, striking colors. Now known as American traditional, or simply “old school,” it’s a timeless style that has informed much of modern tattooing. “He put a tattoo on that looked the best and wore the best for decades,” says Doc Don Lucas, a New Orleans–based tattoo historian and collector.
It caught the attention of Rogers, a country boy who’d taken to tattooing (by way of a traveling circus) to escape grueling labor in North Carolina cotton mills. Once discovered by Coleman and invited to his shop, the two went to work on the sailors who streamed through Norfolk’s bustling port. It wasn’t the coziest setup — Coleman subsisted on unlabeled canned food, while Rogers crashed with him on the studio floor — but the two made brisk business. “They would be swamped when payday came,” Eldridge says, adding that Coleman kept strict shop hours. “[Competitors] came and set up on East Main Street around Coleman, because they knew they could catch all the overflow.” All the while, Rogers kept close watch on his boss, soaking up whatever he could learn.
Among the skills he picked up from Coleman, who in turn had learned from another master, was the know-how needed to build and tune tattoo machines. Before long, he was working on virtually every Norfolk artist’s gear, applying a gentle touch that made the device work just right: powerful enough for the needle to evenly penetrate the upper layer of skin but not so much that it blew out the ink into a splotchy mess.
After his stint with Coleman — which was like “going to tattoo university,” he later told Lucas, who published his autobiography — Rogers went on to establish the industry’s top tattoo supply company and build what became known as the best machines in the business. “Paul was like the hub of the wheel,” says Lucas, the tattoo historian. “He brought it from old-school to modern day.”
After all, that’s how tattooing’s been taught for generations: passed down from teacher to apprentice, the lessons of one artist inspiring a whole new crop of others, until it becomes widespread practice. “It’s a classic progression of how trades are passed down,” says Eldridge, of the Tattoo Archive. Today, names from the tattoo world like Sailor Jerry or Ed Hardy are widely recognized, thanks to various spin-offs, such as spiced rum and clothing lines that bear their brands. Indeed, those men also had a monumental impact on the craft. But the next time you’re under the needle, remember that “Cap” Coleman and Paul Rogers had plenty to do with it too.
- Dan Peleschuk, OZY Author Contact Dan Peleschuk