Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Apprenticed under: August "Cap" Coleman but also considered Charlie Wagner to be a mentor to him

Shops: Had shops in Tampa (1936), Biloxi, Mississippi (1950 - 1957) and in Columbus (1970 - 1980). Also worked with people such as: Ted and Bob Liberty in Boston (1930, 33, 34), Charlie Wagner in Bowery and also with Bill "Frisco Bill" Moore in Chicago (1931, 32). And most likely countles others.

This is the story of Leonard L. "Stoney" St. Clair and the story is just like any other story. Not better, but just as good.

Mister St. Clair was born 1912 in Bluefield, West Virginia. He was the oldest of the 8 children and might have been the most out going one of the lot. When he was 15 years old he got that wild hair up his keester and joined the sideshow in the Cole Brothers Circus as a sword swallower. In 1928, when the circus was in Norfolk, Virginia, he went downtown with his cousins and in there he saw a tattoo shop and guy tattooing an eagle on this fellas back. He looked at the eagle and knew that he could do a better job. Nothing special about that, but in that shop just happened to work arguably one of the greatest tattoo artists ever to grace the green earth, August “Cap” Coleman, who's flash designs are still the basis of numerous Old-School Tattoos. So Leonard had to step up and put his money where he's mouth was. Over the desk he saw some typing paper, took one and proceeded to draw an eagle. Then he showed the design to Cap. The man was impressed and asked how did he learn to draw like that? Leonard said he just picked it up along the way (he had learned to draw in children's hospital). Well, he shoot the shit with Coleman for a while and then he left back with his cousins.

Next day he was back in the shop and Cap asked if he ever thought about tattooing? Leonard said No, I could never do that. I don't think I'd ever like tattooing. But there was something that kept pulling Leonard back to the shop. Maybe it was the fact that in those days tattoo studios in towns could be counted with one hand and sometimes not a finger had to be risen. They had magic. So, Leonard kept coming back to the shop and on the fourth day old man Coleman gave him two machines and some colors. Well, there was only two colors: red and black, but that’s about all you need. Cap also showed him how to use the machines, told him to practice on his friends and if he runs out living skin, he can practice on a grapefruit. And if he ever would get stuck and didn't know what to do he should write him. Leonard said OK and went on his way holding his future in his hands.

So, Leonard started tattooing and people didn't even care if he wasn't that good at first because they had some terrible work already, mostly hand poked stuff. (After all, tattoo machine was invented only 37 years earlier and many of the people wearing tattoos could be over 50 and gotten them in their teens) But Leonard being the stand up person he is always tried to fix his mistakes. It takes a lot of balls to admit when you are wrong. Even more to fix the mistakes. And like all tattoo artists he too practiced on himself and his first tattoos were stars on the back of his hands, short version (Leo) of his real name in the inside of his lover lip and stars inside his eyelids. Why these spots you ask? Well, according to him they were easier to tattoo because they didn't sweat! Also he did some real fishy experimenting when he tattooed his name on a goldfish. When it was still alive. Luckily the fucker lived on for a month, swam in the fish bowl with Leo written on its side.

The name Stoney was bestowed upon Leonard because of tattoo related “issues”. He wouldn't give credit for two forty milers (slang for people who start in the carny biz but leave as soon as they are 49 miles from home because they get home sick) so they said that don't get tattooed by him, his stoned all the time! Well, Stoney liked to booze it up and go to whore houses to relieve some pressure, but when it came to tattooing he was all business.

Stoney got his first real chance when the tattooer in the circus got drunk (he was drunk all the time but that’s besides the point) and got into a fight. Boss told Leonard. “Kid, get up on that platform. I know you've been sneaking around and tattooing. Put on names, hearts, whatever you think you can do, and I'll run an ad in the Billboard (that's were all the open jobs for the circi and carny were at). I'll have another tattooist in here next week.” Leonard started tattooing and the ad was never posted. He was just 16 years old.

What followed is years and years of traveling around and tattooing in places such as Little Rock, Miami, Hopkinsville. Grayson, Havana, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Memphis Tennessee. He also tattooed with Ted and Bob Liberty in 1930, 33, 34 in the city of Boston. With Charlie Wagner in the Bowery who Stoney considered to be his second mentor in addition to Coleman. Then in Chicago with Frisco Bill Moore in 31 and 32. Even though he liked Bill he didn't like tattooing in there because you had to work too cheap and had a lot of competition who talked against others.

He opened his first steady tattoo shop in Tampa in 1936. And it was in Biloxi, Mississippi, where he was from 1950 to 1957. Last shop that he opened in 1970 was located in Columbus.

In those days the atmosphere in tattoo shops was raw and uncompromising. Not like today when the customer expects that they are always right, no matter what. You had to be harsh in words. Like one time few people, with no apparent interest to get tattooed arrived in the shop. One of them asked Stoney if he gives like a shot of liqueur for clients before tattooing them. Stoney replied No, I hit them over the head with a hammer! Well, that didn't phase him and he went back to look at the designs. 20 minutes later his friend walked up to the counter and asked Stoney “Could you explain the sensation, how it feels to get tattooed?” Stoney replied Did you ever jerk off with a handful of barbed wire? And off they went... If they didn't, well, he always had his gun next to him, hidden, but ready to go. Then the fuckers who didn't listen to words certainly left! But he didn't want to intimidate people and that's why his shop was more like someone's home and people were drinking coffee, eating sandwiches, swapping stories and telling jokes. He had learned that if you treat people with respect they will treat you right back. His life would have been much harder if he didn't.

You see, Stoney tattooed out of a wheelchair, a struggle-buggy as he called it. He had been in that chair for all his life. In 1916 when Stoney was four years old, his tonsils burst and he contracted rheumatoid arthritis. He learned to draw while being treated in Johns Hopkins Hospital for two years. He couldn't open his hand much but could stick a pen between his two fingers. He always said that he never felt like a “cripple” and never used the word “freak”. Because for him, it wasn't the sideshow where he used to work that exploited the disabled and “deformed”, it was the society at large – the general public. But all this pain that he had didn't stop him from being happy. Actually, all he probably did was smile, shoot the shit and tattoo like the best of them. And he was always wearing nice clothes such as pearl snap button shirts and ties. Just like the old timers many times did. They took pride in their profession and so did Stoney. A sign in his shop stated the following;

I, Leonard 'Stoney' St. Clair, am in the business of rendering a service to the community for the small group of people who choose to have their bodies decorated in some way or another. I choose to pursue my profession with intelligence and skill, wishing not to offend anyone, but instead, with my love of mankind, to do what good I can before I die

Signed -Leonard L. Stoney St. Clair, Tattooist of the Old School since 1928-

He died peacefully in his sleep on December 3, 1980, never breaking that promise.