Harry Lawson: Boston Tattooer

Before tattoo legend Harry Lawson (1872-1950) became a permanent fixture in Los Angeles, he plied needle-and-ink in cities throughout the country, including our beloved Boston. In 1914, Lawson joined veteran sideshow performer Frank Howard (1857-1925) at Howard’s deluxe tattoo studio and supply headquarters on Court Street in bustling Scollay Square. His stay there was brief, but memorable. 

Scroll down for a few pieces of rare ephemera related to Lawson's early career. 

 
 
 
 Frank Howard Business Card, ca. 1914. Courtesy of   www.LyleTuttle.com

Frank Howard Business Card, ca. 1914. Courtesy of www.LyleTuttle.com

 
 
 Harry Lawson's Arrest Notice, January 9, 1915

Harry Lawson's Arrest Notice, January 9, 1915

 
 Harry Lawson's Official Arrest Record (edited for readability), Suffolk County Crime Calendar, Jan. 10, 1915, The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives

Harry Lawson's Official Arrest Record (edited for readability), Suffolk County Crime Calendar, Jan. 10, 1915, The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives

 Summary of Harry Lawson's Court Case, 1915, The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives

Summary of Harry Lawson's Court Case, 1915, The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court Archives

 

*For an account of Lawson's Boston heist, see The Life & Times: Frank and Annie Howard (A Tattoo Archive Publication, researched by Carmen Nyssen). 

Sideshow Trouping with Oscar Bouchard

Today we’re visiting Boston tattooer Oscar Bouchard (1896 - 1987) on the sideshow circuit—and at home with his large extended family.  Both venues gave Oscar perfect outlets for his trickster nature and great sense of showmanship.

Oscar tattooed through both World Wars, the Great Depression and the inking trade’s waning years in the 1950s and 60s.  However, his early acquisition of a full suit of tattoos—as well as his innate resourcefulness and love of adventure—opened yet another opportunity to him: performing in sideshows!

 
 Prof. Oscar Bouchard, ca. 1925

Prof. Oscar Bouchard, ca. 1925

 

By 1924 Prof. Oscar was trouping in northern New England with the Lew DuFour Exposition Circus, tattooing fairgoers and performing as a tattooed man.  During his 13 years on the summer circuit, Oscar also performed as a sword-swallower and fire-eater, and may have shared an escape artist act with his younger brother, Romeo.  He left the carnival circuit for good in 1935. 

Oscar’s sideshow career peaked around 1928, when his act was picked up by the Gentry Bros. circus.  Oscar seems to have completed his full suit of tattoos around then.  Look closely at this Gentry Bros. pitch card—you’ll see fill work completed on his neck and torso.  Oscar claimed that he was so densely tattooed, there was no room to ink his Social Security number.  He worked that essential ID into an existing design—a peacock in a floral wreath on his right thigh.

 
 Professor Oscar Bouchard, ca. 1930

Professor Oscar Bouchard, ca. 1930

 

Oscar loved an audience, and loved being the center of attention.  At home and at family gatherings, Oscar the showman continued performing—entertaining his relatives with his sword-swallowing and fire-eating acts.  He loved to play poker, and was a great prankster.  A magic store in his hometown of Springfield, MA supplied him with the chattering teeth, fake dog poop, gag lightbulbs and magic tricks he used to keep everyone laughing.

Oscar was an entertainer to the very end.  The last time his daughter saw him at his home in Palmer MA, she asked him for family photographs.  He walked to a back room, presumably to retrieve the photos, but returned instead playing a mouth harp—expertly, his daughter recalls!

 
 Oscar Bouchard, 1981

Oscar Bouchard, 1981

 

Tattooing Over The Tasty

As promised, today we’ll take you upstairs above The Tasty restaurant, to the shop where first Frank and then Lefty Liberty plied needle and ink from the golden wartime years to tattooing’s untimely death in 1962.

During WWII Frank Liberty moved his business from 16 Cambridge Street to 49 Scollay Square, above The Tasty, a popular burger joint.  In 1948 his brother Lefty took over the space, renaming it The Scollay Tattoo Shop.  He worked there until the state ban on tattooing and the imminent demolition of the neighborhood forced him out.  Lefty’s struggle to make a living as the Square emptied of life is powerfully captured in this late photograph of his shop doorway.  “STILL IN BUSINESS” appears on a makeshift sign; someone has written the same appeal with a finger in the dust of the door’s glass.

  Lefty Liberty's Tattoo Shop at 49 Scollay Square, Boston, March 18, 1962. Courtesy of the Bostonian Society

 Lefty Liberty's Tattoo Shop at 49 Scollay Square, Boston, March 18, 1962. Courtesy of the Bostonian Society

We are fortunate that Lefty Liberty, a meticulous record keeper, repurposed an outdated Shepard’s Diary to tally his earnings—and to jot occasional terse, journal-like notes.

 
 Lefty Liberty's Account Book
 

In his last days at 49 Scollay Square, Lefty expresses the anxiety and sense of loss he feels in a few hasty, penciled lines.  He works six days during the week of April 16, 1962, tattooing a total of only 17 clients—no one at all on Wednesday.  (“Business is bad during Holy Week,” he reminds himself).  And then, in sprawling, heavy script down the center of the page, he writes, “Closed up.  Moved out.  Out of business.  1962.”

 A Page from Lefty Liberty's Account Book, Boston, 1962

A Page from Lefty Liberty's Account Book, Boston, 1962

Before we end this post, let’s visit happier times at The Scollay Tattoo Shop. In a photograph from the mid-1950s, Lefty can be seen at the window, taking in the action from his perch above The Tasty.  The restaurant’s marquee trumpets “hot frankfurts”, coffee, “tonics”, pastry and hamburgers.  You can imagine the buzz of Lefty’s tattoo machine blending with the murmur of late-night diners, the faint clatter of plates rising above the hum now and then. Those were the good old days of tattooing in Boston. 

 
 Lefty Liberty's Tattoo Shop at 49 Scollay Square, Boston, ca. 1955

Lefty Liberty's Tattoo Shop at 49 Scollay Square, Boston, ca. 1955

 

I Shall Undress at Home

It’s only fitting that our inaugural blog post should honor the Liberty family of Boston tattoo artists.  For more than fifty years, at least one Liberty family member—and often several—tattooed in Boston’s gritty Scollay Square, the city’s entertainment district.  Edward “Dad” Liberty opened his first shop in the neighborhood sometime before 1920, and maintained a presence there for over 30 years.  His sons Frank, Lefty and Ted also took up the tattoo trade, setting up studios within steps of each other in the Square, where they worked for decades.  The statewide ban on tattooing drove the last Liberty out of Boston in 1962.

 
 

We have a special, slightly off-color bit of Liberty memorabilia to share with you.  This treat comes courtesy of the eldest of “Dad” Liberty’s three sons, Francis William, or Frank (1904-1956), who in the 1930s opened for business in the basement of 16 Cambridge St. in Scollay Square.  Over his 30-plus years of tattooing, Frank went by the handles “Professor” and “Captain,” and—perhaps as a thin disguise—occasionally called himself “Bill”.

 
 Frank Liberty Tattooing in Scollay Square, Boston, ca. 1952

Frank Liberty Tattooing in Scollay Square, Boston, ca. 1952

 

While at 16 Cambridge St., Frank slipped this novelty business card to customers.  You can imagine the chuckles when its hidden message was revealed.

 
 Frank Liberty Business Card, Boston, ca. 1935
 
 
 Front and Back of Frank Liberty's Business Card, Boston, ca. 1930

Front and Back of Frank Liberty's Business Card, Boston, ca. 1930

 

These cards were not handed out by prostitutes, as is sometimes asserted.  Instead, they were a clever marketing tool, drawing tattoo trade with a bit of shared, bawdy male humor.  Nor was Frank the ingenious creator of this gag.  Identical and similar versions appear on trade cards for other businesses.  We’ve traced Frank’s first use of this novelty to a very intriguing Boston address!

In our next blog post, we’ll take you upstairs over the Tasty, where Libertys tattooed amidst the aromas of coffee and griddled hamburger patties . . . and where Lefty Liberty documented the demise of Boston tattooing in a few wrenching, scrawled words.  Don’t miss it!