NORMAN ROCKWELL AMERICANA | THE TATTOOOIST, CIRCA 1944

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The Tattooist, ca, 1944 — Norman Rockwell.

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Simply no one captures the idealism and essence of vintage Americana like Norman Rockwell.  You can generously apply all the cliche descriptors enthusiastically, and without remorse — EPIC, ICONIC, etc. — because never have they been more appropriate.  1942’s “The Tattooist” above has long been one of my favorite Rockwell works– so I thought I’d share some of the history behind it, via the Tattoo Archive

Norman Rockwell worked from various staged photographs while painting The Tattooist, which was used as The Saturday Evening Post cover on the March 4, 1944 issue.  In Fact, Rockwell used photographs as an aid in doing most of his paintings.  Rockwell had many willing participants in his town of Arlington, Vermont.  For the actual tattooist, he used one of his fellow illustrators from the Saturday Evening Post, and a neighbor, Clarence Decker, as the sailor.  This was Schaeffer’s only appearance as a central figure in a Rockwell illustration.  Decker was ‘Master of the Grange’ in Arlington, and shows up in quite a few other Rockwell illustrations.  For The Tattooist, Rockwell borrowed a tattoo machine from the Bowery tattooist Al Neville.  Rockwell obviously consulted with Al Neville, along with former sailors to insure the accuracy in his painting The Tattooist.

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Staged photo of Clarence Decker (left) used by Norman Rockwell for 1944’s The Tattooist. Via

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The Tattoo Archive received an email from Ross Mosher, who is the great, great nephew of Clarence Decker, the sailor model for The Tattooist, which read–

“Clarence didn’t have a single tattoo in real life.  Also the last name on his arm is Betty– that’s because my great, great aunt Belle told Norman that if he put her name in the painting, she wouldn’t speak to him ever again.  So Norman crossed the L’s and added a Y.”

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THE NASHVILLE PORTRAITS, PART II | PHOTOGRAPHY OF JIM McQUIRE

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Chet Atkins– Known as “Mister Guitar,” Atkins was a trailblazer who is widely credited for the creation of the so-called “Nashville Sound.” One of the most influential and best-loved guitarists in the history of the instrument, he became the president of RCA Records and produced many classic country albums. — 1976 studio portrait, Nashville by Jim McGuire

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John Prine–  Country/folk singer-songwriter originally from Illinois, has achieved critical and commercial success since his move to Nashville in the early 1970s. His grandfather played guitar with Merle Travis, and he took up the instrument himself at the age of 14.  He was a postman in Chicago and had served in the military before beginning his musical career. Already a star in Chicago’s folk music scene, he was discovered in a local club by Kris Kristofferson. He is known for his wildly imaginative songs and unusual voice and singing style. His 2006 release “Fair and Square” was awarded the Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.  — 1984 studio portrait, Nashville by Jim McGuire

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John Hiatt– Originally from Indianapolis, Indiana, Hiatt, a rock guitarist, pianist, singer, and songwriter, moved to Nashville in the early 1970s to write songs and to find his musical voice. After his song “Sure as I’m Sitting Here” (recorded by Three Dog Night) became a top 40 hit, he was signed to a recording contract by Epic Records. This portrait was shot just before the release of his first solo album, recorded in 1974. Since then, he has released twenty albums, and his songs have been covered by Bob Dylan, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton, B. B. King, Joan Baez, and Jimmy Buffet, to cite just a few.  *** – 2004 studio portrait, Nashville by Jim McGuire

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THE NASHVILLE PORTRAITS, PART I | PHOTOGRAPHY OF JIM McGUIRE

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Steve Earle–  Born 1955 in Virginia, he grew up in and around Texas.  Steve dropped out of high school in the 9th grade and began his pursuit of breakin’ into the music scene, and becoming a real deal singer/songwriter– like his hero Townes Van Zandt, who he was obsessed with.   Steve often tells of being all of 17 years old in 1972, and playing at the Old Quarter in Houston in front of a handful of patrons– one of them being Townes.  He was petrified up there on that tiny stage with Townes Van Zandt, who he still considers the best there ever was, sitting dead in front of him with his moccasins propped up on the stage right at Earle’s feet– and loudly heckling him between songs.  (Steve Earle unabashedly fesses to going out and buying a pair of said moccasins the very next day…) The two became close, and will always be joined in legend and history– it’s flat-out impossible to talk about one without the other.  Steve moved to Nashville (like alot of the songer/songwriters did in the 1970s after Kris Kristofferson had become a big star there) and played bass with another future legend, Guy Clark. — 1975 studio portrait, Nashville by Jim McGuire

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Townes Van Zandt– One of the great tragic figures of country music, Fort Worth, Texas, native Townes Van Zandt was a folk singer, songwriter, performer and poet. He was particularly influential in the emergence of alternative country in the nineteen-seventies. Steve Earle described him as the greatest songwriter who ever lived, and his influence was felt by many other artists, including Emmylou Harris, Nanci Griffith, and Lyle Lovett. Bob Dylan refers to this Texas native as his favorite songwriter. He wrote hundreds of haunting songs that have been widely recorded, perhaps most notably “Pancho and Lefty” which was a number one hit for Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard in 1983. — 1990 studio portrait, Nashville by Jim McGuire

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Texans Guy and Susanna Clark, both singer/songwriters, first came to Nashville at the time that same McGuire did, back in 1972.  They became fast friends when McGuire shot the cover photographs for Guy Clark’s first studio album “Old Number One”, which was released by RCA Records in 1975. During the 1970s, when this photograph was taken, the Clark’s Nashville home was a haven for emerging songwriters and musicians. Guy Clark has served as a mentor to many other songwriters, most notably Steve Earle and Rodney Crowell, and numerous artists have recorded Guy Clark-penned songs. — 1975 studio portrait, Nashville by Jim McGuire

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BEST IN CLASS FOR BUILT TO LAST | CHIPPEWA BOOTS

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Circa 1939, Ola, Idaho — Farmers turned Loggers with a load ready to go to their self-help cooperative sawmill, started with a Farm Security Administration loan.

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From the desk of Contributing Editor, Eli M. Getson–

The thing about great American design is that, for the most part, function is the driving element.   It’s this functionality that’s ultimately the true spirit of what MADE IN AMERICA stands for.  It ain’t about being pretty; it’s about being tough and working the way it’s supposed to.  A lot of it harkens back to a time when Americans toiled long and hard outside, with their hands, and demanded gear that could hold up to their hard-scrabble lives, and unforgiving the elements.  The gear was simple, honest, and true.  You got your money’s worth.

Our forebears would probably be more than slightly amused by the fact that many of today’s American workwear brand purists are not loggers, miners, and metal workers– however, the quality, core values, and classic designs behind these brands still resonate deeply within us.  I believe down inside, most of us value the dignity of hard work, quality goods, and simpler times.  There’s something honest and pure that’s sadly missing in the daily gadget grind of our increasingly disposable lives.  It’s like some of us have a primal itch that we just can’t scratch– so we gird our loins with garb from days gone by, to pay tribute to a life and times we’ll never know, but long for so badly.

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Circa 1908– Lumberjacks in Northern Minnesota –Image by © Minnesota Historical Society

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Recently I had the honor of sitting down with Clark Perkins, brand manager for legendary Chippewa Boots.  Full disclosure– I am not exactly Charlie Rose, I am a cultural observer and men’s wear guy who gets excited about a lot of different things, especially product I use and love.  I traffic in hyperbole, but in this case everything I pen about Chippewa boots is 100% true!  Ok, maybe a little opinion is thrown in there, but when I interview brand managers, merchants, and design folks I admire, I melt into the form of  a 13 year old girl watching Twilight than an objective observer, but what the hell.  When you’re talking about ‘best in class’ products, respect is due.

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Circa 1930s– Loggers (or Lumberjacks) working every muscle in their body, and living off the land.

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Tell me a little about the Chippewa Story?

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SHE RIPPED AND SHE ROARED | EPIC WOMEN OF DESTINY & DETERMINATION

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Circa 1920s– Lillian La France in her early Motordrome riding days. This must be 1924, or so. She looks a little green, and that signature smile and exuberant confidence is not quite present.

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LILLIAN LA FRANCE WALL OF DEATH RIDER

“It was the thrill of risking my life that made me to take to drome riding. I was the girl who flirts with death. From childhood I was inspired by wanderlust. I was always alone, dreaming of adventures– how to ride a pony out West, to follow my calling to fame. This was my secret. I shared it with no one.”

–Lillian LaFrance

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OLD SCHOOL STYLE ON THE SLOPES | JEAN-CLAUDE KILLY

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From the desk of Contributing Editor, Eli M. Getson–

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Circa 1946 — (original caption) Hollywood Stars Ski at Sun Valley.  Active sports are the best things in the world to relax one after a session before the Kleig lights, and these Hollywood stars chose skiing as their sport. Shown on a crest at the famed resort at Sun Valley, Idaho are, left to right: Mrs. Gary Cooper, Jack Hemingway, Ingrid Bergman, Gary Cooper and Clark Gable. Used by the Navy during the war, the resort will be opened to the public in the fall of 1946. — Image by © Bettmann

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With the snowfall upon us (and where I live, it will be falling until late April) it gives me a chance to induldge in my obsession with old school style on the slopes.  I want to be clear that I will not include snowboarding in this post– different sport, different style altogether.  I also want to be clear that this obession of mine is very rooted in the years 1967-1977, when I feel ski style was at its height.  I’ll get many an argument from all the Polo alumni that read TSY that the Sun Valley/Gary Cooper 1930s & ’40s look (above) is the ultimate; and while the snowflake sweaters, melton wool jackets, gentsy trousers (with zippered pockets to keep out the snow), and waffle stompers of that era certainly do have their appeal– I am more fixated with vintage Fila, Bogner, Descente, Addidas (very rare), Rossingnol, and Head.  Courreges did some skiwear in the 1960s for women that is highly prized by vintage heads the world over.  I have combed many a vintage store in Europe looking for an old school graphic Fila or Bogner coat in all its pieced, color blocked, and technicolor splendour so I could work it like a skier on the pro tour, circa 1968.  Who wouldn’t want to rock the, “just hit the mountain in Gstaad, heading to Chamonix, and then off to Aspen to wind down the season” look.

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Circa 1968 — Aspen, Colorado: French skier, Jean Claude Killy manages a smile for his fans after placing 3rd in the Roch Cup men’s downhill event here, March 15th. Killy’s legion of fans can be seen reflected in his sunglasses. — Image by © Bettmann

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Without a doubt, my obsession was fueled by Jean Claude Killy, the King of the slopes and one of the most stylish athletes of all time.  A world champion skier without peer– In 1966–67 Killy won every downhill race he entered, earning the first World Cup for men.  Killy also won the triple crown of Alpine skiing– capturing all three golds medals (downhill, slalom, and giant slalom) at the ’68 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France .  He was blessed with movie star looks, and came on to the scene when more obscure sports like sking acually got Saturday afternoon airtime, and the Olympics still tended to be a top two sports draw on TV.  Killy had ridiculous style and even more ridiculous skill.  He was, and is, how I want to look on the slopes– slim silhouettes,  graphic colors boldly streaking by on the turn, and geared towards peak performance.   Killy is one of those athletes I will always associate with the epic ABC Wide World of Sports.  I’m not sure how Jim McKay and Howard Cosell did it, but they mythologized athletes, especially international athletes, on the level of jet-setting movie stars.  I miss those dreamy days of my youth.  I miss how the lifestyles of the athletes of old had real class, and were larger than life.  Mostly, I miss their character, and how incredible they looked in competition– and everyday life.  They inspired me then,  and still do to this day.

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August 1971 — French Skier Jean-Claude Killy in Saint-Tropez — Image by © Apis/Sygma

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PHOTOGRAPHY OF DOROTHEA LANGE | AN AMERICAN ARCHIVE– HARD TIMES

Oregon, August 1939. “Unemployed lumber worker goes with his wife to the bean harvest. Note Social Security number tattooed on arm.” Shorpy determined through a public records search that 535-07-5248 belonged to one Thomas Cave, born July 1912, died in 1980 in Portland, OR. Which would make him 27 years old when this picture was taken. This pic has long been a favorite of mine. First, there’s the handsome rake with his devilish “cat that just ate the canary” grin, and his beautiful bride lounging in the background with her equally impressive model-worthy looks. Second, there is more than a little irony for me in this image, as we so often equate physical beauty with material success these days– but here’s a stunning couple eking out a living through sweat and toil one meal at a time. I’m tellin’ you, as sure as I live and breathe– poverty is the ultimate equalizer, folks.

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California, March 1937. “Toward Los Angeles.” Another ironic pic– “Next Time Try The Train– Relax.”  Well– give me the fare and I will, buddy.  We ain’t walkin’ for our health…

The American photographer Dorothea Lange was a product of Hoboken, NJ (May 26, 1895 – October 11, 1965).  She started out her career in photography taking commercial portraits in 1920s San Francisco. Dorothea then worked in the Southwest with her first husband, painter Maynard Dixon. In the early 1930s, Lange intuitively took her camera to the streets, recording the breadlines and waterfront strikes of Depression era San Francisco.  That marked the beginning of a radical shift in her philosophy & photography, that would mark her life and give us some of the most iconic American images known.

In 1935, Lange began her landmark work for the Farm Security Administration, a Federal Agency. Collaborating with her second husband, labor economist Paul S. Taylor, she documented the troubled exodus of farm families migrating West in search of work. Lange’s documentary style achieved its fullest expression in these years, with photographs such as Migrant Mother becoming instantly recognized symbols of the Depression.

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THE WALL OF DEATH DAREDEVILS | LIONS & RIDERS & FAIRS — OH MY!

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Circa 1929, Wall of Death, Revere Beach, MA

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With the quickly improving build quality, speed, and more oil-tight engines, motorcycle racing was able to move from dirt tracks onto the motordromes of the 1910s– large wooden board tracks used for streamlined competition with banked turns of 70-80 degrees.  Riders soon learned a neat trick– that with a little speed, centripetal force made it possible for them to stick their bike sideways in turns on a completely vertical wall.

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Motordrome racer on an Excelsior motorcycle, circa 1914

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Motorcycle companies here and abroad (Indian and BSA, to name a couple) found that the public loved the thrill of peering down just a few feet away from the gunning biker beneath them, and thus it quickly became a highly promoted spectacle as manufacturers used it as a vehicle to advertise their brands, and daredevil riders upped the ante at breakneck speed to make a name for themselves and  solidify their reputations on the infamous Wall of Death.

With roots that can be traced back to New York’s own Coney Island, the Wall of Death attraction morphed into a motordrome on crack.  Motorcycles, carts and yep, even lions– simultaneously racing and criss-crossing in a raucous blur of fumes, fury, and fur inside the equivalent of an over-sized wooden barrel. The sport had a strong run from the 1930s- 1960s (with Indian Scouts being the over-riding bike of choice), but there are still hardcore enthusiasts to be found all over keeping it alive today.

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Dick Monte with two handsome-as-hell Wall of Death riders, circa 1945. The rider on the left is Elias Harris, and  on the right is Tornado Smith.  Photo from the late Carrie Tindale collection.

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JOHNNY CASH | RIDIN’ THE RAILS

In “Walk the Line,” June Carter refers to Johnny Cash’s voice as “Steady like a train, sharp like a razor.”

Amen, sister.  When I think of Johnny, without fail I’ll get an image in my head of an old steam train– big, black, strong & steady.  And of course that classic Cash chicka-boom rhythm sounds just like a trusty ol’ train a rollin’ round the bend, and right on time– so reliable, you could set your watch to it.  Yeah, Johnny Cash sang a lot about trains, prison and hard times– and we all know through his epic lyrics that the beauty of the train is that it represents the freedom of leaving the past behind.  All that crap that you just need to separate yourself from with miles and miles of railroad track and dust. A new start, a second chance.

There’s also something lonely and soulful about a train ride– staring out as the barren landscape goes drifting by.  It’s just you and that train.  It holds you there firmly, with nothin’ to distract you from who and what you’re leaving behind– as the soothing click of the rails beneath your feet reminds you that soon it’ll all be long gone.

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