They’re really a bunch of nerds.

Hundreds of grown men — and a few women — decked out in everything from three-piece suits to casual tees, covered in beards and hundreds of tattoos, swarmed the American Legion building off Miller Street in Winston-Salem on Saturday.

Cars with license plates from Kentucky, South Carolina, Ohio, Indiana and as far as Massachusetts filled the parking lot. All had gathered to attend the first Tattoo Historical Society Meeting.

“This was truly an experiment,” says CW Eldridge, the founder of the society and the owner of Tattoo Archives in Winston-Salem. “There’s four or five tattoo conventions every weekend but they’re for tattooing. They have history lectures but usually everyone is so busy tattooing that they don’t get to go to them.”

According to Eldridge, and many of the people attending, this is the first ever convention dedicated solely to the history of the art form.

“There’s never been a gathering of these museums and these lecturers under one roof at one time,” he says.

Eldridge has been in the business of collecting and preserving tattoo history for years. According to the Tattoo Archive website, Eldridge has been collecting and learning about tattoos since he joined the Navy in 1965. Fifteen years later, he founded the Tattoo Archive in Berkeley, Calif. and in 2008, Eldridge and his wife, Harriet Cohen, who co-owns the shop, moved to Winston-Salem, reopening Tattoo Archive in the city. The shop includes a vast selection of books on the history and art of tattooing while acting as a working tattoo shop for custom work. It also includes a nonprofit that works to preserve the history of tattooing. This year, the two founded the Tattoo Historical Society.

“The interest has just grown,” Eldridge says. “The tattoo boom that we enjoy now started in about 1980. What’s happening now is that tattoo collectors are publishing books on tattooing.”

To collect tattoos is to collect art.

At the inaugural Tattoo Historical Society meeting on Oct. 12, more than a dozen tables covered from end to end with binders, books and plastic sheets full of tattoo art fill the room. Sheets of drawn tattoos, or flash, are highly coveted among enthusiasts, depending on who wielded the pen.

On the table closest to the entrance, tattoo artist Arnold Rojas from Corpus Christi, Texas, shows off flash by William Matthews, known in the community as Bill the Beachcomber.

“I started looking for his stuff in the ’80s,” says Rojas, who owns Electra Art Tattoo in Corpus Christi. “He’s not as well-known because he died before tattooing got popular.”

Some of Beachcomber’s work that Rojas has collected dates back to the 1920s. Rojas even managed to find Beachcomber’s descendants and buy several of his designs and one of his tattoo pens from his daughter. He says preserving the history helps understand the experience of many of the earliest tattoo artists.

“It wasn’t easy tattooing back then,” Rojas says. “It wasn’t accepted. Tattooers had to change their name. Having a tattoo artist in the family was taboo.”

Arnold Rojas from Corpus Christi, Texas, has been collecting work by Bill the Beachcomber since the 1980s. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

Charlene Anne Gibbons knows exactly what that’s like.

The daughter of famous tattoo artist Charles “Red” Gibbons and “tattooed lady” Anna “Artoria” Gibbons, Charlene says she remembers having to ignore snickers from neighbors and stares from passersby as a child.

“I felt the repulsion and sneers,” she says. “But I also saw the pride in my parents. I felt everything.”

Gibbons gives a talk at the event, speaking about her parents’ history as tattoo artists and as sideshow and circus performers. Her mother became known as a “living art museum” who performed with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and is still considered one of the first tattooed ladies in the nation.

In contrast to her mother, Gibbons is inkless.

“It’s not in my skin but it’s in my blood,” she says.

Several attendees approach Gibbons after her talk to ask for photos or to purchase autographed pictures of her mother, as shown in the feature image. She’s kind of a celebrity. And although she doesn’t have any tattoos of her own, Gibbons says she’s dedicated to preserving her family’s history. She’s even writing a book about her parents.

“It shouldn’t be forgotten,” she says. “Both of my parents gave their lives for this profession.

“I’m always glad to be around people in the tattoo community,” she continues. “I grew up in it my entire childhood. It has sustained me.”

Nearby, Leif Hansen from Greenville, NC, carries around a display case that contains flash by an unknown artist. Other tattoo historians and artists gather around to scrutinize the thickness of the lines and the coloring of a carefully hand-drawn dragon.

“It’s got an early British vibe but it’s an all-American style,” Hansen says. “The illustrations are some of the best I’ve ever seen.”

Tattoo artist and enthusiast Leif Hansen paid thousands of dollars for this tattoo flash by an unknown tattoo artist. (photo by Sayaka Matsuoka)

He says he bought it from another prominent tattoo collector for a few grand.

“It’s amazing,” says Hansen about the gathering. He runs his own shop, Great Wolf Tattoo, back in Greenville and says he puts flash on the walls to educate customers who come in.

“I definitely enjoy teaching them about it,” he says. “They wouldn’t be getting the tattoo here without the guys that came before.”

Paul “Rambo” Ramsbottom understands the need to preserve tattoo history.

Hailing from Manchester, England, Rambo claims to run the largest tattoo museum in the world, aptly named Rambo’s Tattoo Museum.

He says it’s important to remember the work of the founding fathers of tattoo.

“If we do not preserve any history, it can get distorted by different medium,” he says. “It only takes three or four generations to change history. It’s important for tattoo history to stay true, simple and honest.”

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