Winston-Salem’s ode to ink

Neither reality nor expectation prepares you for Tattoo Archives. Winston-Salem’s self-made museum of body art is bright and perverse, yet as inviting as anywhere downtown. The only connection to expectation is CW Eldridge’s willingness to let you admire his collection before he interjects with history lessons. Eldridge smiles as he hammers in a brand new piece “Ah, that’s Paul Rodgers,” he says. His eyes alight. “We’re about to put out a book chronicling his body of work.” The pun is not lost.

Born in Elkin, not far from where Tattoo Archives opened in 2008, his past includes a long stint in San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif. where TA started. “I was an apprentice in San Francisco before I opened up in Berkeley. I liked it better [in Berkeley]. San Francisco is such a big city, you know?” The Archives would stick out in any city. Unlike most shops and parlors, the art on the walls counts as the main attraction rather than the art on your skin. You can get a tattoo here, but they offer so much more. “Tattooing pays the bills, but we’re not interested in tattooing you as much as we’re interested in the history of tattoos.”

Since the ’70s, he has attended countless trade shows, traveled to conventions and lectured on collecting. He met Rodgers at one such event. He remarks on his chance to get tattooed by the legend: “There were dozens of us, so by the time he got to me he was tired. I missed my chance, but I got to know him pretty well over the years.” Eldridge knows he’s rambling a bit as he describes Rodgers time in the circus and how Rodgers married the boss’ daughter, but the storytelling matters more than written history. The history of tattooing exists on a mental plane, the art a conduit to the past. He shows off pieces from former cartoonists, concert posters, a bus advertisement and a wall of books that his wife, “Bookmistress” Harriet Cohen, sells via mail order and over the counter. Even the clave room, the tattooing room and his office swell with memorabilia — reminders that while you can remove tattoos these days, you cannot remove the history of ink.

“Any shop would let you film them working, but it’s not my work that matters here. It’s everyone’s. It’s Paul, it’s everyone.”

Now, Eldridge is back on Rodgers. “He was the father of American tattooing.” Eldridge points to a glass box. “And he retired in his fifties to make tattoo machines. They were revolutionary. He handmade them in three pieces and they moved with you instead of controlling your movements. It was the beginning of advanced artistic tattooing.” Of course, Rodgers has one of the machines. His grey mustache-soul patch combo curls in a smile and he nods. Neither self-satisfied nor preachy, he would allow you to leave his collection unfettered though he remains eager to teach you more.

He retires to the back after the long lesson, but moments later the bell rings as a customer enters. Eldridge has had barely enough time to sit and let our visit register. He ambles toward the customer and her teenager. “How can I help you?” The woman admires a piece on the wall. Before he can describe anything, she tells him that she had an appointment for a touch-up. He smiles. Eldridge leads her to the tattoo room. “Give me a few minutes to set up and I will be right with you.” Time to pay the bills.

Paul Rodgers: The Father of American Tattooing will be available in early March via Tattoo Archive both online and in-store.