I was met at the top of the stairs by the charming Madam Chinchilla of Triangle Tattoo and Museum who was tattooed from neck to feet.
I have always been a wanderer, happy to be on the road, excited to see new things. I still am. But blogging has changed my perspective. I think more about what will make a good story, and what photos I should take to illustrate the story. I do more research. Sometimes I think, “Damn! This resembles work.” Posts have to be written, photos processed, deadlines met. The thought passes quickly, however. Blogging has made my travels more meaningful and interesting. On occasion, it has even led me down paths I might never have taken. Today’s blog is a good example.
I was taking advantage of Starbucks’ free Wi-Fi in Fort Bragg, California to check in on my WordPress blog when a promotion came up listing “things to do in Fort Bragg.” I expected options like ‘visit Mendocino,’ or ‘go for a walk on the coast,’ etc. Much to my surprise and bemusement, number one on the list was a tour of the Triangle Tattoo and Museum at 356 N Main Street. It caught my attention. I had never been in a tattoo parlor, much less a tattoo museum. The thought of someone scratching an animal, flower, skull, naked woman, snake, dragon, Mother, or even Popeye the Sailor Man on me sends my skin scooting away in hasty retreat. I am a wimp when it comes to such things. Even a trip to the dentist seems like more fun.
If ever there was a symbol of sailors and tattoos it was the spinach eating Popeye the Sailor Man, who yam what he yam. (Photo from Triangle Tattoo Museum.)
The walls of Triangle Tattoo in Fort Bragg are covered with traditional tattoo art. I would have to be drunk, knocked out, and tied down to have a tattoo of a snake, skull or Mother scratched on my body…
Or even a dragon with a scantily clad woman.
But I was hooked. I had to go. I packed away my laptop, pulled out my camera, and headed downtown. I didn’t have a clue what I was getting myself into, which often makes for the very best adventures. I was greeted by a wonderfully garish stairway and begin my climb upward, nervously.
The entrance to Triangle Tattoo pulls you in and up the stairs. I was fascinated about what I might see next.
One thing I found was circus side-show poster art. Tattooed men and women were once prime circus attractions. (I believe this was done by Captain Don Leslie, the sword swallower.)
Madam Chinchilla was waiting for me at the top.
Whatever I was expecting, she wasn’t it— she is an absolutely delightful, attractive, and charming woman in her late 60s, tattooed from head to toe. Over the next hour she served as my tour guide. We started out at the business end of the parlor where Mr. G., her partner in the business since 1986, was busily tattooing his pharmacist. Next she took me into her studio and told me to take all of the pictures I wanted. The walls were covered with photos of her life and interests. There was even a picture of her mom, proudly displaying some fish she had caught.
Madam Chinchilla in her studio. A large elephant tusk, which she was quick to point out was not made of ivory, stood behind her. A strong Oriental theme is found throughout the room.
A close up of the tusk with an appropriate fire-breathing dragon.
Madam Chinchilla’s exotic studio.
One of many photos I found of Mr. G. and Madam Chinchilla in her studio room.
Madam C’s mom proudly displays fish she caught as a young woman.
The museum reflected tattooing down through the ages and within various cultures. Masks reminded me of my time in West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I thought of Sam, the young man who worked for me, and the scarification/tattoos on his chest that represented marks made by the Bush Devil’s teeth, an experience reflected in my book title about my Peace Corps experience: The Bush Devil Ate Sam. Modern tattoo machines are much more sophisticated than whatever tool was used to carve Sam’s skin. The control of depth, speed, and force of the needle allowed by tattoo machines has turned tattooing into an art form.
The doorway to the Triangle Tattoo Museum. You are welcomed by traditional native masks.
A close up of the masks.
I brought this African Medicine mask home with me when I returned from being a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa. Note the tattoo marks above and below the eyes.
The tattoo machines on the right are capable of producing sophisticated body art. Feathers are extra.
There is more to the museum than tattooing, however. Numerous photos and artifacts, such as boots and a sword, serve as a memorial to Captain Don Leslie, a world-renowned sword swallower and circus sideshow attraction. Madame Chinchilla and Mr. G had befriended Captain Don in 1986 when they had first started their tattoo business. It was a friendship that had grown and lasted up until the Captain passed away in 2007. His presence is still very much felt at Triangle Tattoo. In 2010, Madam Chinchilla published a biography on Leslie that she had co-written with Jan Hinson. I bought a copy, which I read that night and was immediately transported back in time to when the circus came to town.
Captain Don Leslie, sword swallower. Captain Don began his career by running away and joining a circus as a teenager. Both his sword swallowing and tattoos served as draws to circus side shows.(From a photo at Triangle Tattoo and museum.)
Captain Don’s first sword he ever swallowed and his boots hang on display at the Triangle Tattoo and Museum. Madam Chinchilla described how Captain Don would join Mr. G. and her for each Fourth of July Parade in Fort Bragg. Madam C. and Mr. G would drive their pink Cadillac. Captain Don would walk in front, with sword in hand and breathing fire. What a show it must have been.
Don’t do this at home. A graphic made by Captain Don displays the anatomy of a sword swallower. How do you swallow a sword? “Very carefully,” he notes. But the question remains…
How do you swallow several swords? Captain Don also mastered breathing flames, laying on a nail bed, and walking on glass. (Taken from a photo in Madam Chinchilla’s biography of Captain Don.)
Madam Chinchilla holds the book she wrote on Captain Don.
Madam Chinchilla’s inscription to me in Captain Don’s book. I truly enjoyed the museum. If you get to Fort Bragg, it is definitely worth a stop. And the hospitality is great! Thanks Madam C.
As I was leaving the museum, Madam Chinchilla left me with two thoughts. One was that “the human body is a historical site for the inscription of culture and its history/herstory.” The other was about how popular tattooing has become— it is now mainstream. Judging from all of the tattoos I see around me, I have to agree, but I am still not going to offer my body up as a tattoo artist’s canvass.
NEXT BLOG: This blog completes my North Coast series but provides an excellent introduction to my Burning Man series. I am running it now to coincide with the time that Burners prepare to buy their 2016 tickets. The 2015 theme was Carnival and is the subject of my first blog. Captain Don would have loved it. In fact he would have quickly become a main attraction. Join me.