KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Wes Grimm comes from a long line of untamed eccentrics — ramblers and hustlers, prizefighters and riverboat steersmen — and at 63 years old he still very much honors the family tradition.
On a recent Monday morning, Grimm arrived at the new Bert Grimm Tattoo Museum wearing a black cowboy hat, a bolo tie dangling over a floral shirt, jeans and oxblood cowboy boots. He did not remove his sunglasses. Sitting in an old wooden chair with his legs spread wide like a cattleman, he pulled up his sleeve to reveal a faded tattoo of a grim reaper on his right arm.
“Great-grandpa put that on me,” Grimm said, his voice all Texas and cigarettes.
He meant Bert Grimm, a pioneering tattoo artist whose life and work Grimm and a handful of other local tattoo enthusiasts have spent the past few years cataloging, documenting and processing for public consumption. The museum opened in May inside a creaky old converted house at 311 W. 39th St.
“Bert came up around carnivals and circuses,” Grimm explained. “Back then, in the early 1900s, tattooing was illegal most everywhere other than circuses, so you had these tattoo artists traveling around from show to show and interacting and keeping an eye on each other’s work. And that developed into a style, what they call American Traditional. All of tattooing in America today trickled down from what they did. And Bert was among the last of those guys who were part of that tradition — who rode those trains and worked those circuses and created those tattoos.”
Tattooing in America has long been a folk art, its traditions and secrets held by those who work the trade. It is ignored in the art departments of the country’s universities, and outside of a few books and studies, there exists little rigorous academic work devoted to its history.
Those omissions can largely be attributed to a society that for most of the 20th century pointed the crooked finger at tattoo parlors and the people that patronized them. But today it is estimated that at least 30% of Americans have at least one tattoo, and nearly half of all Americans under the age of 40 have tattoos. Taboos associated with tattoos have faded like the ink on an old sailor’s saggy forearm.
Social media and the internet have also made information about tattoo culture much more shareable and accessible, and in recent years a smattering of operations devoted to tattoo history have cropped up in the U.S.
The idea for the Bert Grimm Tattoo Museum was hatched early in the pandemic. Bert died in 1985 at the age of 85, and over the years, Wes Grimm had amassed a large collection of his great-grandfather’s belongings and ephemera: old tattooing instruments, photos of Bert and other legendary tattoo artists, and sheets and sheets filled with tattoo “flash” — the pre-drawn designs posted on the walls and in books at tattoo shops.
“I’d been lugging this stuff around with me for 40 years, from Hawaii to California to Texas,” Grimm said. “Whenever I could, I’d try to bring it to a tattoo convention or show it to friends. I wanted people to see it. But what I lacked was a dream. Then Dave came along with a dream.”
Making a museum
Davey Gant is an artist who’s been working for the last five years at Grimm Tattoo, which Wes Grimm opened in 2011 at 3915 Broadway, just around the corner from the museum. Gant is also a bit of a history buff. The property on 39th Street was on the market. Why not lease the place, Gant suggested, and put Bert’s tattoo treasure trove on display there? They could apply for 501(c)3 designation and have all the art and artifacts formally appraised and inventoried.
They could, in short, make it a bona fide nonprofit museum.
“I had a very basic knowledge of American tattoo history, but seeing what Wes had, to me it seemed super important,” said Gant, who has kind eyes, a gentle Southern accent and a vanishingly small amount of surface area on his body for new tattoos. “The history of it just comes screaming at you when you see it all en masse. I felt that this stuff needed to be out there so that people could see it and study it.”
Gant was also dazzled by the details of Bert’s biography.
Bert opened the first tattoo parlor in St. Louis, in 1926, where for nearly 30 years he tattooed scores of riverboat workers coming up and down the Mississippi River. After World War II, when the river jobs dried up, he relocated to Long Beach, California, purchasing an old tattoo shop near a Navy dock in a seaside strip. He renamed it Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo Studio.
According to an OC Weekly article examining the shop’s influence, Bert purchased several shops in the area shortly after moving to Long Beach, and soon “many of the country’s top tattooers moved their businesses to Grimm’s kingdom rather than shop-hopping in various cities, creating the first major tattooing scene in the United States.” The building where Bert opened his shop, 22 S. Chestnut Place, is the oldest continually operated tattoo shop in the country.
He is also said to have rubbed ink-stained elbows with several historical figures. Bert was plucked out of a Chicago tattoo shop at the age of 16 by William “Buffalo Bill” Cody to work the last of his famous Wild West shows and later tattooed famous outlaws like Pretty Boy Floyd and Bonnie and Clyde.
Or at least that’s how Bert told it. One gets the sense that, like many showmen and shopkeepers of his era, Bert was not above embellishing the truth in service of publicity or sales.
He definitely tattooed the legendary artist Don Ed Hardy; they have a photo of it in the museum. But did Bert actually tattoo Pretty Boy Floyd? He told some newspapers he did, and the museum’s collection includes an old drawing of a “nurse in rose” tattoo, beside which Bert wrote, “This is the design I done on Pretty Boy Floyd about 60 years ago.” And FBI documents confirm that Pretty Boy Floyd had a “nurse in rose” tattoo. But a meticulous historian might struggle to verify it as fact.
A certain amount of carnivalesque mythmaking is baked into tattoo culture and its history in America, though. It adds to the mystique. The tales that trickle down are, in a sense, truer than whatever the facts might be.
“I kind of see it like a ‘LIVE GATORS’ type of thing — like those signs for roadside attractions you see when you’re driving around Florida,” Gant said of the museum. “The vision is to get people in the door by taking that nostalgic roadside carnival approach that a lot of us tattooers have, but bring it up to a little more of an academic level as well once you’re inside.”
On the walls of the museum hang vintage collections of Bert’s flash: mermaids and anchors, butterflies and roses, shrieking eagles and bloody daggers. Wes Grimm has trademarked and copyrighted several of Bert’s most iconic designs — a weeping heart, a grinning sun — and sells shirts and totes with their images at the shop and on its website.
Nonprofit status has been secured, but the museum is still a work in progress. Grimm and Gant have assembled a small staff that includes Aaron Olivio, who is handling community outreach and helping assemble a board of directors; Cory and Meghan Wheelock, who hold down curatorial and communications roles, respectively; and Mickey Haake, who works the front desk and acts as a kind of docent for visitors.
Johanna Perry Diercks with the Madison Group, a local fine art appraisal firm, is lending a pro-bono hand to the museum’s efforts, helping Grimm and the gang inventory and value the collection. It’s a change of pace for the firm, Diercks said. They tend to appraise paintings and prints and drawings by fine artists with active sales in the auction world and retail galleries. They don’t see a lot of flash sheets and ancient tattoo contraptions on the auction block.
“He’s quite well-known in the tattoo community, but if you type ‘Bert Grimm’ into our usual databases, his name doesn’t pop up,” Diercks said. “So I’m sort of starting from scratch, which means reaching out to tattoo shops and tattoo artists across the country and asking them, you know, ‘What did you pay for this flash sheet, when did you acquire it, from whom, how much?’ It’s challenging, but it’s also exciting, being on the ground floor of researching this really interesting figure of the 20th century.”
Bert the businessman
Grimm and Gant wanted to pay tribute to Bert’s influence as a proprietor. So in addition to displaying his art and objects and photographs, the museum is also a functioning tattoo shop with Gant serving customers during museum hours (10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Friday through Monday).
“That part was very important to us,” Gant said. “By making this place an active shop, it gives continued life to what we’re displaying. It returns this stuff to the electric environment it came from.”
As tattoo culture becomes more mainstream, talented tattoo artists increasingly find themselves in the position of being more selective about who they tattoo, how often they tattoo, and even what they tattoo. Sought-after local artists often have several-months-long waiting lists for appointments and prioritize clients who give them a great deal of artistic freedom over the work.
That ain’t the Grimm way. At the Bert Grimm Tattoo Museum, and around the block at Grimm Tattoo, walk-ins are always welcome.
“I’m an artist,” Gant said, “and in fine art, it’s all about you. But I believe tattooing is different. I think a belief system we all have here is that what we do is less of an expression of the artist and more of an expression of the people it serves. I see tattoo flash as a kind of collective conscious hieroglyph — the images on the wall reflect the people and the particular time. It’s our job to create and paint tattoo designs that are sellable and readable and meet a certain criteria outside of any specific artistic expectation you might bring to it.”
“We sit down with the people who walk in and talk to them and draw the tattoo right in front of them,” Grimm said. “That’s from great-grandpa. That’s the approach he brought us here.”
Though Bert is most associated with Long Beach, and to a lesser extent St. Louis and Oregon (he spent much of his childhood in Portland and retired to Seaside), he did spend some time in the city where his museum is now located.
In 1980, Bert came out to Kansas City to help his son, Gene, open a shop at 3825 Main. (The building no longer exists.) That’s a whole other story.
“Gene, my grandpa, he tattooed all around the Midwest,” Wes Grimm said. “And back then it was all bikers who wanted tattoos. He needed help, and I started following him around when I was about 20 years old. We’d go to motorcycle shows, rallies, races. There were no laws about it back then, no restrictions. We’d go tattoo a group of guys in a pickup trailer in Iowa or Kansas, wherever. You can’t do that anymore.”
He went on: “Anyway, I left my grandpa and went to work on a riverboat. And on the river, you work 30 days on and then 30 days off. So I get off the boat in Sugar Creek and I go to the 7-11 and I get a pint of whiskey and a newspaper. And I open the newspaper and there’s an article about great-grandpa and Gene opening a tattoo shop together.”
Grimm rushed home, washed up, and drove to midtown. He’d been drawing and painting and helping Gene out on the road. He wanted in on the family business. They agreed. He could start the following week. That’s when Bert put the reaper on him.
Gene said it would be free, but Bert had other ideas.
“He charged me $25 for it,” Wes Grimm said. “He was 80 at the time, but he still had that circus thing about him. He’d sort of bark at you while he worked. He’d say, ‘You’re being tattooed by the greatest tattoo artist on earth.’”