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Tattoo Museum honors ink

by Amy Kingsley

Paul Rogers, the namesake of Winston-Salem’s lone tattoo museum, was born in 1905 – the third of five children born in a small cabin in Jacksonville, NC.

More than 40 years later, the mountain town of Elkin, NC welcomed CW Eldridge into the world. The men, separated by four decades, conducted eerily similar lives, traveling, discovering the art of tattoo and turning it into a livelihood. Then, in 1990, Rogers – now a legend – passed away and left his papers to Eldridge.

Eldridge, who lived in Berkeley, Cal., took the papers, rounded up some friends, and opened a modest tattoo museum. Then in August, he moved it to the corner of 4th Street and Marshall in Winston-Salem. For Eldridge and his partner, Harriet Cohen, the move was a matter of livability.

“Both of us had lived there for decades,” Eldridge says. “Our California cup was a little full.”

“It’s a better cost of living,” Cohen says, “slower pace, no earthquakes.”

Eldridge practices his trade in a small studio as sterile as a surgical theater, but with decorative touches. Most of the space is given over to the museum, a revolving shrine to body art composed of old flash, documentary photographs and relics that range from shop signs to tattoo guns.

Rogers is a fanatic for this stuff. And he’s got big plans for this place, including creating self-guided tours and docent-led excursions once a week.

“Not a lot of tattoo shops can do this sort of thing,” he says. “In a tattoo shop, the wall space is like gold.”

There are other tattoo museums, he says. Baltimore has one. Fort Bragg, Cal. does too.

Eldridge is a professorial type, natty in a clean white dress shirt and black belted pants. He started tattooing in the 1970s, after a hitch in the US Navy and a series of odd jobs. In 1979, he started a mail order business, trading what he calls paper goods.

Cohen manages the museum’s book collection – an assortment of spiral-bound flash, glossy collections of Japanese and Maori art and used copies of Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man.

The museum itself occupies a bright, square room with hardwood floors, track lighting and exposed ductwork. In the middle sit a pair of plush chairs.

Tattooing is a seasonal business, Eldridge says. The visibility of summer skin drives the customers into his chair, and winter is the slowest season of all.

So the museum is empty on a blustery Wednesday afternoon. The exhibition opens with posters and photographs from early carnival sideshows like “The Peerless Prodigies of Physical Phenomena.” Further along the exhibition, a picture shows one of the denizens of the sideshow, tattooed lady Imogen Cunnigham, bloated by age but still bearing the dark marks of her livelihood.

In another photograph, Rogers ministers to a stoic sailor. He joined the circus as a young man with acrobatic dreams that suffered for want of a reliable partner. Instead, he took up tattooing and traveled with the circus three months out of the year. In the winter, he returned the North Carolina’s textile mills.

Along the way, he married the daughter of one of the circus owners, a girl by the name of Helen who danced the hula and charmed snakes.

“He was a legend in the tattoo business,” Eldridge says. “He spent 62 years in the tattoo business; he started in 1928 and never looked back.”

During the last 20 years of his career, after he and his family settled in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., Rogers turned to making tattoo machines. Now, nearly every manufacturer offers a Paul Rogers-style model.

“I got to spend a lot of time with him,” Eldridge says. “He was very generous, almost to a fault. He’d let you watch him work on his machines, and if you had a question, he’d answer it.”

When he died, he left more than 700 pounds of paper in a trailer. Eldridge is sorting it into exhibits, the first, which spotlights his early years, is up until February. Up to five more will follow.

“We like being here,” Eldridge says. “It’s kind of like coming home.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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