Chuck Eldridge and his wife, Harriet Cohen, affectionately call their Tattoo Archive business in downtown Winston-Salem “the three-ring circus of tattooing.”
That’s because the couple operates a working tattoo shop, a tattoo museum and tattoo bookstore all under one roof.
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Tattoo Archive’s goal is to promote the history of tattooing through research and education, and its walls help make that history come alive.
Eldridge estimates that Tattoo Archive’s walls are covered with at least 150 years of tattoo history from his collection.
“There is information and images from American tattooing,” Eldridge said. “There are kind of whimsical images of (P.T.) Barnum, who wasn’t really tattooed.”
Visitors will find photographs of famous tattooists such as Percy Waters, George Burchett and Paul Rogers.
Rogers was a tattoo artist from Western North Carolina who was born in 1905 and started tattooing in 1928.
“He was a real big inspiration for a lot of people,” Eldridge said. “He built (tattooing) machines and sold them around the world.”
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Rogers died in 1990 and left his collection to Eldridge. The Paul Rogers Tattoo Research Center, a nonprofit corporation with the primary goal of preserving tattoo history, is also part of Tattoo Archive.
Eldridge said he has had an interest in history since his early school years.
“I wasn’t a very good student, but history was one of the classes that I liked,” he said. “Once I started getting tattooed, I realized that there was this amazing history behind the art of tattooing. I just grew to really love that and feel that it’s important for us to keep these tattooers’ names, these ideas and designs and stuff alive.”
A love for tattoos
Eldridge said that the art of tattooing can be traced back to the cave man.
He said the oldest discovery of tattooed human skin that people can see with the naked eye is found on the body of Ötzi the Iceman that dates between 3370 and 3100 BC.
Born in Elkin, Eldridge joined the Navy in 1965 and got his first tattoo in the military.
When he got out of the Navy in 1969, he worked with a traveling circus then got into the bicycle business, where he worked as a bicycle mechanic building custom bicycles on the West Coast.
“In the ‘70s, I was building bicycles in Oakland, Calif., and getting tattooed in San Francisco, and the fellow that I was getting tattooed from offered to teach me to tattoo,” Eldridge said.
He worked in San Francisco, Calif., for a couple of tattoo artists then opened his own shop in Berkeley, Calif., where he remained for 30 years.
“It was literally a miniature version of this,” Eldridge said of Tattoo Archive’s current location in Winston-Salem.
Cohen grew up in Montreal, Canada, and worked as a paralegal for 30 years. She moved to California in 1982.
“One day, I went to get a tattoo when my dog died, and I met Chuck,” Cohen said. “I like to say, ‘My four-legged companion introduced me to my two-legged companion.”
The couple later married and moved to North Carolina in 2007.
Three in one
Cohen said it was always her dream to put their tattoo shop, the museum and bookstore under one roof.
She started the BookMistress, which sells tattoo-related books, years ago in her dining room. The BookMistress offers an extensive selection on tattoo history, contemporary tattoo and children’s books, hard-to-find tattoo books, cards and postcards.
BookMistress also sells Eldridge’s self-published books under Tattoo Archive Publications. Topics include sailor tattooing, Paul Rogers, the history of San Francisco tattooing and historical tattoo business cards.
“We have one of the largest collections of tattoo books under one roof in the U.S.,” Cohen said.
Tattoo Archive’s tattoo shop provides custom tattooing. Johnny “Tugboat” Helms is the tattoo shop’s tattooist.
Throughout the year, Tattoo Archive presents changing exhibits on the history of tattooing. The current exhibit is titled “Suppliers of the Trade,” which showcases tattoo suppliers and machine builders. The exhibit will run through Sept. 30.
“I did this research probably a year ago, and I easily found in my collection 100, at least, tattoo suppliers from about the 1890s up to about the 1970s,” Eldridge said.
The images on the walls make up most of the tattoo museum.
“There’s everything on the walls,” Cohen said. “There’s a little bit of modern. There’s back in the day.”
In addition to photos of famous tattoo artists and the humorous P.T. Barnum poster, there is a sideshow banner from the Barnum and Bailey Circus that includes the rubber skin man, the sword swallower and the fat lady.
Eldridge has several “Rock of Ages” pieces. “Rock of Ages” is a religious image that was originally painted by Johannes Oertel under the title “Saved, or an Emblematic Representation of Christian Faith” and later reproduced under the title “Rock of Ages.
The image “worked its way into the tattoo business and became a really popular back piece to put on people’s backs,” Eldridge said.
Other items on the walls include tattoo machines; a photograph of a woman in her 90s, who was a tattoo attraction in a sideshow when she was a young woman; a Black Eye Specialist sign, and masks from New Zealand that highlight the tattoo style of the Maori Tribe; and flash sheets, which feature pre-made tattoo designs.
Tattoo Archive also sells tattoo collectibles, ranging from pens to temporary decals to a Norman Rockwell plate.
Home in Winston-Salem
Tattoo Archive wasn’t exactly welcomed into the community in the beginning because of the tattoo shop, Eldridge said.
“Whatever stereotype you can imagine in your mind, that’s how people seemed to think about us,” he said.
But things have changed.
“We were always respectable,” Cohen said, “but I think that they started seeing us as respectable.”
She said Tattoo Archive has become a destination, attracting people from all walks of life.
“People now bring their parents to visit when they are in town,” Cohen said.
She believes part of the reason for the attraction is that there are more things to do in the business than get a tattoo.
“Here, you can look at the exhibit,” Cohen said. “You can look at the art. You can buy a book and a postcard. You can talk about history.”
The COVID-19 pandemic shut Tattoo Archive down for several months.
“We came in and Chuck just did his writing and research,” Cohen said.
When the city started to reopen last year, Tattoo Archive operated by appointments only. At the end of May 2021, the business reopened its doors to the public.
“We believe in the CDC and engage in their policies,” Eldridge said.
The couple found that people were waiting to return to their business.
“There was a pent-up demand from all that closure,” Eldridge said.
On Oct. 9, the Tattoo Historical Society, started by Eldridge and Cohen, will hold its second gathering in Winston-Salem. The event will include tattoo museums and collectors from around the country. History talks also will be given throughout the day.
“It’s a gathering of like-minded people interested in the history,” Cohen. “There’s no tattooing.”