At first Steward occupied the booth on Wednesdays and weekends, Webb the rest of the time. But as Steward established himself as the superior craftsman, customers in search of tattoos began abandoning Webb in favor of Steward. In retaliation, Webb put the word out that Steward was homosexual. “In those days,” Steward later wrote, “you had to keep it hidden. Otherwise [you either risked a beating, or else] would be bartering blowjobs for tattoos.” (Faced with a sudden influx of “barter-boys,” Steward simply told them they had the wrong man, and directed them across the street to a grotesquely ugly and alcoholic tattoo artist named Shaky Jake.)

The neighboring Pacific Garden Mission also proved problematic. While it trafficked in “the usual holy-roller stuff of the far-right fundamentalist kind, derived from . . . Billy Sunday, who had actually been ‘converted’ on their premises,” the mission quickly revealed itself to Steward as yet another racket—one that after giving free doughnuts and coffee to sailors later milked generous donations out of their worried parents. Particularly galling to Steward was the mission’s practice of sending out its temporarily reformed drunks, known as “runners,” to stop sailors from getting tattooed. Steward eventually hired a lawyer to keep the mission from interfering in his business.

In opening his booth at the Sportland Arcade, Steward knew he was taking an enormous risk with his academic career. But it was, in fact, a calculated risk—for although he knew he wanted to be a tattoo artist, he did not yet know whether he would be able to make enough money at the job to survive, and he wanted to hold on to his DePaul paycheck for as long as he possibly could. While his moonlighting was surely an expression of rage against the university—for he felt extremely ill-used by its administration—working as a tattoo artist was yet another form of thrill-seeking for Steward. Never before had he done anything so potentially dangerous to his livelihood and professional reputation, and never before had he existed in any place so perilous as South State Street. As a result, he wrote, “The street’s miasma and excitement began to play hob with my sense of reality, giving me an almost schizoid separation in my mind and emotions . . . I [had entered] . . . the seamy, sodden world of whores and pimps and pushers and winos and con-men—yes, and of tattoo artists.”

While living a double life of this sort might well have been difficult for the average man, Steward was far from average. He had, after all, lived with a strongly divided consciousness since childhood, when he had appeared angelic to his aunts and teachers, yet as a renegade to neighborhood boys. As a closeted homosexual with an exceptionally dynamic sex life, he had again needed to live a life of constant concealment and trickery. For years he had courted danger and discovery as he moved between a series of highly compartmentalized personas. Now, however, he had become another person altogether: professor Sam Steward by day, tattooist Phil Sparrow by night.

There was, of course, no explaining any of it to his friends. Even among the most permissive and sympathetic of them, Steward could hardly begin to describe his erotic fixation on tattoos and tattooing, for at that moment in history, such markings were looked upon largely with horror, and were worn almost exclusively by misfits and outcasts. (Nor could he explain to his friends his overpowering attraction to delinquents, criminals, street toughs, and working- class men.) To many of his most liberal acquaintances, including Alfred Kinsey, tattoos were a mark of degradation, and to be a tattoo artist was to traffic in corruption. In that sense, tattooing was just the opposite of Steward’s vocation as a teacher, for he had by now devoted nearly twenty years to the enlightenment of young minds.

Even Steward himself was quietly conflicted about this new activity, for a great deal of its allure came directly out of his gut sense that what he was doing was profoundly bad, sinful, and wrong. “[My] secret embarrassment over the whole matter,” he later wrote, “led me to denigrate the skill by usually referring to it as ‘tattoodling’ . . . as if to show my ‘intellectual’ scorn of such a profession.”

After Steward had set himself up as a tattoo artist down at the cage, Kinsey made a proposal, one that would add an intellectual component to the work there:

After a month or two passed in my new career, [Kinsey said], “You are probably one of a half dozen literate tattoo artists in the country—if indeed that many. And we’ve noticed tattoos of hundreds of persons during our interviews. But they seem totally unable to tell us why they got them, and we don’t have the time to probe as deeply as we would like into that aspect . . . [So] keep a journal for us on what you can perceive as the sexual motivations for getting tattooed. You may not be a trained scientific observer, but you have a writer’s keen eye, and you should be able to unearth a great deal.”

Steward’s sex-and-tattooing journal would run for six years, and ultimately amount to more than a thousand pages in single- spaced typescript; with it he kept remarkable statistics about physical and emotional responses to tattooing, basing these statistics on interviews he conducted afterward with his clients. He later noted that along with its investigations into the psychology and sociology of tattooing, the journal evolved into a partial record of segments of the subcultures that existed in the 1950s. “The tattoo shop was of course a magnet for the very young boot sailors stationed at nearby Great Lakes Naval Training Station, but it also drew into it the youth gangs of Chicago, the juvenile delinquents, the sexually confused and rootless (sometimes illiterate) young men—the rebels without causes. In a sense, the journal crystallize[d] a troubled time that included McCarthyism, Korea, and the seeds of the deeper rebellion of the 1960s.”

What Steward neglected to mention in this description, however, was that the journal was also a highly detailed sexual confession—for even as he began it, he found himself erotically transfixed by the men coming for tattoos, and also found himself surprisingly successful at propositioning them. Through the strange sort of sorcery that came with applying tattoos to bodies, he discovered he was able to establish a powerfully intimate connection with one young man after another. Sometimes he merely observed sexual responses in the men; at other times, he ended up having some sort of sexual interaction with them. Just as often, however, he found himself becoming emotionally overwhelmed by these men whose bodies he was handling so intimately, for their exceptional youth and beauty left him in a highly responsive state. As a result their joys were his joys, their sorrows, his sorrows:

[The other day at the tattoo kiosk] there had been standing around a young 17- year- old in a big black navy raincoat and a civvie hat. . . Came his turn—he took off the raincoat [and] he was wearing a grey corduroy jacket too small for him, and a pair of nondescript trousers . . . [I put an arrow- pierced heart on his] forearm . . . He was a little pressed for time, mentioned East Liverpool and the train leaving shortly. It was only when he stood up to put on his Navy coat, however, that he took hold of the corduroy jacket, and said, “Navy suit.” Whereat the whole story tumbled out—he had got to Great Lakes, and there been rejected for a strain or sprain, and was now going back. I was floored, and felt the emplastic unfolding within me so much that my own lip began to tremble, as his was doing, restrained only by will. I felt it all vividly, perhaps because it was so close to my own experience: the shame at rejection, the great burning to wear the uniform—and then to that I could add his feeling of loneliness in the big city, and the final desperate gesture of something to remember the Navy by—or some little sign of his all too short period of service: the tattoo, to show the folks at home, at least, a pathetic souvenir of a career cut short, and high hope extinguished.

I was more shaken by the kid than I cared to admit . . .

With entries such as these, Steward began to discover the real significance of his journal: like Lieutenant Seblon in Querelle de Brest, his writing would explore feelings that were otherwise denied all expression—for there was no one in his life with whom he could share them, including even the young men who evoked them. Such stories could never be published, or even told to friends. Steward was entirely alone in this new world of his own creation, but the idea of an understanding listener—the father-confessor he had so vainly sought in his conversion to Catholicism in the 1930s, and subsequently thought he had found in Alfred Kinsey—now propelled him to write about his sexual thoughts, feelings, and activities as never before. It was the only place he could tell the absolute truth about his life. As a result, his involvement with the journal became all-consuming, and would ultimately prove the most intimate relationship of his life.

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JUSTIN SPRING is a New York based writer specializing in twentieth-century American art and culture. He is the author of many monographs, catalogs, museum publications, and books, including the biography Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art (Yale University Press, 2000) and Paul Cadmus: The Male Nude (Universe, 2002). He has been the recipient of a number of grants, fellowships, and awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the International Association of Art Critics Best Show Award. He has held research fellowships from Yale University, Brown University, Radcliffe College and Amherst College. His monograph on Paul Cadmus was a finalist for the Lamda Literary Award in Art History.

One response to “An Excerpt from Secret Historian

  1. Greg Boose says:

    Interesting that Kinsey was his acquaintance, and even more interesting that his tattoo journal led to so much important information. Sounds like a fascinating read.

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