Captain Don: In 1953, From Carroll Nightingale, in Washington, D.C. I was 15 years old at thetime, and traveling with Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus, and I went into town to get a tattoo. Nightingale was a paranoid old guy. You couldn’t just walk into his shop. He had a locked metal grate on the front door. You had to push a buzzer, and then he would look at you, and if he thought you were okay, he would press a switch that unlocked the door. Then on the inside of the shop there was a partition up to just about where you could see into the tattoo station, and there was wire mesh the rest of the way to the top, so he tattooed in a cage which separated him from the customers who had just come in to look at the flash. He let me into the shop and he said, “How old are you, boy?” I said, “Eighteen, Sir.” He said, “You’re a fucking liar. Sit down!” He just wanted to let me know that I wasn’t bullshitting him, and everything was cool. We got along fine. He smoked one of those Sherlock Holmes pipes. He was puffing on it all the time. He wrote a book called “The Tattoo Baron,” and also he patented a tattoo machine, too. I think it’s called The Magic Wand, or something like that.
Tattoo Observer: So your first tattoo was at age 15? And that’s about the time you joined the circus?
Captain Don: Yeah, that year, you know….now, kids run away and no one even bothers to look for them. In those days, they did, and I got picked up by the juvenile authorities and sent back home. Then the next year I went again, and didn’t come back. I stayed out there until I was 18, and then I enlisted in the Marine Corps. When I got out of the Marines, I went back to the circus.
Tattoo Observer: Did you get more tattoos during that time?
Captain Don: No, I started getting tattooed seriously in 1955. But the tattooist got so busy he couldn’t stay with it. One day he said, “there’s a young fella that’s just breaking into the business. He works with Bert Grimm over on the Long Beach Pike and his name is Lyle Tuttle, and he’s a good lad, a nice young man, and I’m going to ask him to help. I said, “that’s fine, and went up to see Lyle and he finished it. The other guy put the back piece on, and Lyle put everything else on. So Lyle and I have known each other for 43 or 44 years. At the time he was working on me, Lyle was so busy every day at the shop, what he’d do is close shop and we’d go to his house, and he’d tattoo me there in the living room. His wife would be in bed, because it’d be late when I’d get there. And there was a brand new baby about two weeks old in the crib there, when Lyle was tattooing me.
Twenty-seven years later, that little baby was grown up and she tattooed all the red and green back into my tattoos, which had faded from being out in the sun on the platforms in front of the side shows. It was his daughter, Suzanne Tuttle. She doesn’t tattoo any more. She did though, for years. Lyle won custody of the children in a divorce suit, and he raised both of those kids. They were raised in the back room of a tattoo parlor. When he went to Alaska he took them with him. They went to school right out of the tattoo shop. He raised them, he cooked for them, he got them dressed in the morning, off to school. He was the sole parent. Lyle Tuttle just doesn’t seem to fit that part, but he did. He’s bitter over it. But he was a good father.
Tattoo Observer: I’m curious to know more of your early circus days. Were there other tattooed attractions there?
Captain Don: Tattooed attractions were pretty much gone in the early to mid ’50s. The only one that they would hire was the Tattooed Lady. And Betty Broadbent was a good friend of mine, that’s her signature there [pointing to part of his body]. Her first husband was a marionettist and a puppeteer and a ventriloquist. She and Artoria Gibbons were the last two tattooed ladies out there, and they were old ladies when I knew them. Well, I shouldn’t say that about Betty. I was about 18 or 19 when I met her, and she was probably in her early 40s. That’s an old lady when you’re 18. She passed away in her 70s.
She was very maternal and motherly to me. I was a young wino, I’m sure. I was an alcoholic from Day One. As soon as I picked up my first drink, I was an alcoholic. I come from an alcoholic family. That’s why I ran away from home, to get away from an alcoholic situation. And then wound up in that same problem myself. Betty Broadbent and I were in Christiani Brothers Circus together. That’s an Italian circus and the owners of the show were very strict and abusive
For instance, if I hadn’t shaved they would say to me, “You goddamn son of a bitch, go shave!
And Betty would say, “Leave that boy alone! Just leave him alone! Get away from him!” She’s yelling at them, and they were scared of her, and I was scared shitless of them.
I’m saying, “go get ‘em, girlie girl!” I didn’t dare to speak up to them, they’d have whacked me upside the head.
Then she said, “Now you go and wash up and get your costume on. Be a good boy.
I stayed on her good side, boy. I’d have got my ass kicked several times if it wasn’t for her. Because the circus was like the military, they ain’t fooling around, you know. Carnivals, too. You just can’t walk out of the fairgrounds any time and go downtown anytime. You’ve gotta get permission to leave. When you get fired on a circus or a carnival, you just don’t get fired. They beat the shit out of you. They go to the office, get your pay, hand you your pay, knock the shit out of you, and take you off the lot and you’re on your way.
Tattoo Observer: What are your thoughts on the changes that have occurred in the last 20-30 years, in tattooing?
Captain Don: Well, when we had the big rock and roll movement in the early sixties, and the so-called renaissance started, Lyle Tuttle tattooed the likes of Janis Joplin, Cher, Kris Kristofferson, the Allman Brothers, and people like that. The Woman’s movement was going on then, too. Well, most people then had the notion that anyone who had a tattoo was either a drunken sailor, a criminal, or a prostitute. And it was a really a bad no-no for a lady to be tattooed. Janice Joplin said,”Fuck you! I’m getting a tattoo,” symbolically speaking. And she went and did and Cher got tattooed and Joan Baez, a lot of them. So they said to the Women’s Movement, hey, we’re equal citizens, not just men can get tattooed, we can get tattooed, too,and whoever doesn’t like it, to hell with them. We own our own bodies. Society doesn’t tell us what we can do with our bodies. That’s our decision.
Tattoo Observer: What do you think of the work that’s being done today?
Captain Don: I hate to sound like I’m the age group for the old school. Anybody that hasn’t been tattooing for at least 30 years are Johnny-Come-Latelys, they’re still wet behind the ears as far as I’m concerned. The little bit of tattooing I have on me blew people away in the ’50s. I mean, whooo! it turned fuckin’ heads! I had to put a long-sleeved shirt on to go to the store because it was blowing people away. Now, people don’t pay any attention to me. I can go walk in a bank or anything else and I’ve got tattoos, so what? And I remember when I used to come on the sideshow stage and I had a cape on, and as soon as I disrobed, took that cape off, I hadn’t done anything yet. In those days people had never seen anything like that. Now, sometimes, there’s 60 or 80 fucking people in the audience that have more tattoos that I have. I play nightclubs where there’s people out in the audience that have much more work than I have. And so once the piercing started, they’re getting into not just body modification, but they’re getting into the spirit of what pain means to you.
It’s all bullshit to me. I don’t go for any of that. I’m an atheist to start with. I’ve been around palm readers for years and I know all the tricks. I’ve read palms myself, and tarot cards and all that bullshit. Priests, ministers, rabbis, palm readers, tea leaf readers, and astrologers, they’re in the same fucking business!
But there is magic, though. I don’t mean to sound real hardcore. There is magic, because there’s magic in tattoos. I’m the person I am today because of my tattoos. I can’t tell you why or what, but I just know that. If I didn’t have my tattoos, I would be a totally different person. The magic is…first of all, you’re motivated to get a tattoo from deep within your psyche, and also, the psyche even helps you pick out the design. That’s why people get tattooed when they’re drunk. Once you get alcohol in your system, you’re not you anymore. You just block that thing out and that’s why they wake up and say, “Well, I was drunk, I wish I didn’t…” They wouldn’t have picked that piece had they been sober.
But one of the nicest feelings that you can get if you’re a tattooer is every now and then you’ll tattoo somebody and they are just, man….they look at that mirror and they’re speechless and you are part of that good feeling, that they might never have that again, ever. And you are a part of it. That’s the magic.
Tattoo Observer: Those memories are wonderful.’
Captain Don: Yeah, I tattooed a sailor boy, he was just fresh out of boot camp, out of the Great Lakes, and he came to San Francisco. He was happy to be in the navy, too, because his great-grandfather, grandfather, and dad were all in the navy, and now here he is. All enlisted men, too, no officers in the family, all real sailors. And I put an eagle head and an anchor on him and he just kept staring at the thing in the mirror and I was in the background, tears were coming to my eyes. I almost started crying because he was bawling. I felt guilty taking the money from him.
I came goddamn close to saying, “That’s all right, son, be happy. Just go.” You get one of those once in a while and that’s what makes it worthwhile. Any tattooer will tell you, you get a burnout period, and then a tattoo like that comes along and you’re good for another 20 years.
Tattoo Observer: Tell me more about your early days in the circus. What were you doing there?
Captain Don: I was running the pony ride, taking the children off and on the ponies, tearing tickets, stuff like that. The sideshow was on the midway where they bring an act out now and then to entice a crowd. And a guy would come out there and swallow a sword, and I said, “Wow!” For some reason or other, I knew, because I had heard all these stories about the sword being a fake and folding up. I didn’t touch the sword, and I was probably about 200 feet away, and I said, “That’s for real.”
So on one of my breaks, instead of going to get a hot dog or soda, I went into the sideshow. I started going in there every day, on my breaks. The sideshow, you know, is continuous entertainment. Stay as, long as you like, and leave when you’re good and ready. And so I’d stay in that whole hour and I’d see him three times in that period. So one day he was wiping his sword up, and putting it back up, and the crowd had already dispersed and gone on to see the fat lady or whatever, and I was still standing there, and he said, “I see you every day, boy. Are you with the circus?”
I said “Yeah.” And I said, “Boy, I sure would like to learn to swallow swords and eat fire.”
And he says, “How old are you?”
I told him, and he said, “Your folks know where you are?”
And I said, “No.”
And he said, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll make a deal with you. If you let me telegram your people, I promise not to tell them where you are. Let me telegram your people, and tell them that you’re alive and well, and I’ll teach you,” him thinking that I’d never take him up on it. He figures, the first time this kid gags or throws up or something, hes out of the contract. But I made him stick to it and teach me. And that was Alex Lang, the Guinness Book of Records world champion. He died in ’64. He swallowed four 27-inch blades simultaneously.
He never lived to see me break his record; I broke his record in 1981. I swallowed five 30-inch blades. But everybody is trying to get into the “Guinness Book of Records” and there are “multiples,” or “sword sandwiches,” we call it. The last entry a guy named Desmond. He swallowed eleven swords, but that’s nothing. There was a woman at the turn of the century who swallowed twenty-four swords. Nobody has ever beat her record-ever.
Tattoo Observer: Twenty-four stacked?
Captain Don: Yeah, at the turn of the century, there was a sword swallower whose name was Prince Nelson. But anyway, he swallowed a carriage axle. So I said, “someday I’m going to swallow an automobile axle.” And over on circuses, we used those stakes you know, with the gear head on top of it. And the actual axle shaft itself, we’d drive them into the ground with tin stakes. And so I thought that it would look great if I machined it down, to put inside my esophagus, to put a great big fuckin’ gear head stickin’ outside of my mouth.
But in ’89, I got seriously hurt, bad, in Seattle, Washington, so I haven’t swallowed multiples since. I swallowed five.I finaled my act for years with five swords. And when Modern Primitives came out, the Re-Search magazine, they did that article on me. They also hired me for the release of the publication. It was released in Seattle. They rented facilities in the city of Seattle, the Commission for the Performing Arts government building. And so, in that performance, when I withdrew the five swords, when I pulled them out, and blood just ran down my chest and it scared the shit out of me.
Sword swallowing…. that’s my main thing, you know, because fire-eaters are a dime a dozen. They’re tripping over each other. But sword swallowers are hard to find. There’s never been more than a couple dozen of them at any given time over the past 300 years.
Tattoo Observer When did you start doing the pincushion stuff, the piercing?
Captain Don: I was with a show, a “Norman Brooks Strange People Show”, and the pincushion was always a separate act. We called it an “annex act”-you went around, you saw the whole show and then:
“Now, ladies and gentlemeen, behind this curtain…” big spiel, you know, “And for an extra half a buck go back and see this.” You’d come on all strong: “This person could never walk down the street like you or I,” and all that jazz. It’s all just to get you in there.
But anyway, the pincushion keeps half of that money, and the show owner gets the other half. He has no salary, but shit, he’s making more in one day than any one act in there is making in a weekly salary.
And I saw that, and so one morning, we got up and the pincushion had left during the night. He was a drunk anyway, but he was a hell of a performer, even drunk
So Norman Brooks was all bummed out, “Goddamnit, I lost my pincushion, my annex act…”
I said, “I do annexes.”
He said, “You do?” My sister was on the show with me and she looked at me, like “oh, boy.”
And he says, “I didn’t know that.”
I said, “Yeah.”
He says “Kid, you’re on!”
And then when he walked away my sister said, “You ain’t no pincushion.”
I said, “I am now!”
And so what happened was: I had watched him and a hundred other human pincushions before. I knew their whole routine: what they did, their whole spiel. So I borrowed a little from each one. The first show had about 150 people in the audience…. because, 150 faces looking at you, they had paid to see you, now it’s fucking time to do something: give them back their money, or shit or get off the pot. So I did it, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
Tattoo Observer: When was it that human exhibitions and sideshows were outlawed?
Captain Don: No, it was just that the exhibit of deformed people. The freaks were taken off the road. But the marvel acts stayed. That’s why for the last 20 or 25 years of the sideshow, you saw sword swallowers, fire-eaters, human pincushions, the bed of nails, knife throwers and maybe a tattooed woman and a midget. That was it. You didn’t see any three-legged people or people with six fingers on each hand. The freaks were gone.
Tattoo Observer: Can you tell us….last night, you told us wonderful stories over dinner. Can you recap that situation, and your feelings on it?
Captain Don: Well, this woman had some sort of a birth affliction and she came into the sideshow with a wheelchair and she was really turned off by what she saw. And she had a bit of a beef, you know. But she had preconceived notions and stereotypical ideas that freaks in the sideshow, like the Elephant Man, were mistreated and robbed and that the showmen kept all their money and kept them locked up and all that. That shit did happen, in the 1700s and 1800s, mostly in England. But P.T. Barnum paid the highest salaries of anyone ever. Tom Thumb made $4,500 a week in the 1860s and 1870s. I’d love to make $4500 a week today. He paid Tom Thumb $4500 a week for his salary. You could never accuse Barnum of mistreating people.
But of course we had what they called Pinheads. The medical term for them is “microcephalic.” Now those people have the mind of about a three or four year-old child all their lives. So they’re absolutely helpless. They’re physically and mentally disabled. Most of them are incontinent, too. So you had to have someone on the show, a nurse, somebody to attend to all the time. So, they’re a hassle. But they were a hell of a draw. And they weren’t mistreated, but you had to deal with them like you’d deal with a three or four year-old child, with temper tantrums and everything else, even though they’re 50 years old.
And so people saw that and thought that they were being mistreated. When you’re deformed like that, and not very attractive physically, there aren’t too many places you can go. You can’t go downtown shopping or go to the movies because people will look at you. You’re an attraction wherever you go. And not only that, they had to stay hidden on the fairgrounds, because after all, the circus was selling tickets to see them. So they couldn’t go out on the Midway and they couldn’t mingle with other carnival or circus people. The circus didn’t want the public to see them for free.
So they had no social life. The only social life was the sideshow. The sideshow is a family whether you’re with a circus or a carnival. The sideshow is a tribe inside of a tribe; it’s a family inside of a family. Circus people are close knit, but the sideshow is close knit again, inside, tighter than that. And the only normal people if you will, whatever that is, were the marvel acts ourselves, fire-eaters, sword swallowers, tattooed people: those of us who purposely made freaks of ourselves. And ticket sellers and that. But it was very close and when you’re around those people all the time, you don’t see them anymore, they’re just regular folks.
Tattoo Observer: And who was it who took it to the Supreme Court?
Captain Don: I don’t know what her name was. She was an outsider. She was a customer that came in to see the sideshow.
Tattoo Observer: Yeah, but there was a circus sideshow…
Captain Don: Oh, that show was Slim Kelly and Whitey, on the James Carnival, that that happened. And Silo the Seal Boy was a very good friend of mine, and he was born with arms and legs that looked like flippers. They made banners of him that looked like a seal with flippers, you know. And he challenged it in court, and had it turned over, to where, okay, a person with a birth defect like that can exhibit himself or herself for profit, if they own the show. But it’s worded so that nobody else can cash in on it. He said, “My family are sideshow people: other people that were born into this world deformed and physically disabled like myself, and those people have chosen to swallow a sword and eat fire and they’re the only people I have left. I don’t have anybody. And I’m self-sufficient. I don’t depend on the government for anything. I ask for no welfare, no handouts. I pay into social security. I pay income tax. I own my own home. I’m a landowner, and a citizen. I vote. And you want to take all of that away from me and put me in a state hospital and pump me full of thorazine and forget all about me.” So that court ruling about exhibiting people with birth defects was amended because of the action brought by Silo the Seal Boy.