Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/John L. Walters

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John L. Walters
BornCirca 1875
Danville, Virginia
Died?
NationalityAmerican
OccupationTattoo Artist and Textile Worker

Overview[edit]

John L. Walters (Born around 1875) was an American tattoo artist and U.S. Navy sailor. He served on the U.S.S Lancaster and the U.S.S. Indiana shortly after the Spanish American War. He later moved to Durham, North Carolina and made a living as one of the only tattoo artists in central North Carolina[1]. He was interviewed in 1939 by Leonard Rapport as a part of the Federal Writers Project.

Biography[edit]

Early Life[edit]

John Walters was born in Danville, Virginia around 1875[2]. Neither of his parents held consistent employment but his father worked as a foreman in a tobacco factory for several years. His father, born in Chapel Hill, North Carolina was injured in a work accident in Danville, which left him moderately disabled. He died an indeterminate number of years later.

After his father died, Walters' mother turned their home into a boarding house where Walters helped carry meals and clean. When he was about twelve, he worked tagging tobacco for Reynold's Sun Cured Tobacco, based out of Danville[3].

When Walters was fourteen, he and his mother moved to Durham, North Carolina. He went to work in a cigarette factory and did some carpentry and painting.

The Navy[edit]

Walters enlisted in the US Navy on July 18, 1900, just a year after the end of the Spanish American War. He was trained on Parris Island, South Carolina, where there is currently a major mixed-use military base.[4].

The U.S.S. Lancaster was one of the ships Walters served on in the navy[5]. It was a sloop-of-war constructed during the American Civil War and used continuously until the end of the Spanish American War.

He served one four-year 'cruise' in the Atlantic on both the U.S.S. Lancaster and the U.S.S. Indiana. The Lancaster was a screw sloop-of-war and the Indiana was functional battleship[6]. While in the navy, Walters traveled to the West Indies three times, the northern East Coast of the United States, and Santiago, Chile.

By the end of his cruise, Walters had risen to the rank of seaman first class.

Tattooing Career and Later Life[edit]

Walters learned to give tattoos aboard the U.S.S. Indiana during his service in the navy.

Walters returned to North Carolina after his service and began tattooing as his main source of income. He traveled frequently from city to city throughout the South wearing a white sailor suit covered in colorful tattoo designs. Eventually Walters had to quit his practice because of it was not providing him with enough money[7]. He returned to Durham and took up employment at Golden Belt textile mill, where he worked as a foreman and then a machine repairman. During this time he attended two years of night school at the now defunct Durham High School and was married.

The Golden Belt textile mill was one of the largest mills in North Carolina at the time of Walters' employment. He worked there for an unknown number of years as a machinist and a foreman.

He continued to tattoo as a side job for the rest of his life. His own body was covered in markings from where he had practiced on himself. Walters' hand showed five small dots in the shape of an 'L', the universal sign of a professional tattoo artist at the time[8]. He also claimed to have tattooed a pupil onto the whitened eye of a blind child.

After he was married, Walters rarely left Durham and would only travel as far as Hillsborough to give tattoos.

The date and location of Walters' death is unknown.

Social Issues[edit]

Veterans of the Spanish American War[edit]

The Spanish American War was a heavily naval conflict fought over the course of two years between 1898 and 1899. Most American sailors served in Cuba, where the Spanish had heavily occupied and armed the island, but some also served in the Pacific fighting in the Spanish colonies of Guam and the Philippines[9]. The war ended in 1899 with an American victory and the annexation of the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico by the United States as well as the American oversight of an independent Cuba. The veterans of this conflict were generally lauded as heroes who liberated the nation's backyard from the Spanish threat. The U.S. government awarded veterans of the Spanish American War with pensions, although it is unclear if these pensions were enough for the average man to live off of in the early twentieth century[10].

Tattooing in the Navy[edit]

Modern Western tattooing originated aboard naval ships in the late sixteenth century when British explorers emulated the markings of native Polynesian people[11]. The practice was originally done with the same tools that the islanders had used: bundles of small, hollow reeds filled with natural dyes that punctured the skin and deposited the ink. Sailors did not start to use needles until around the turn of the twentieth century[12]. The earliest designs were small and simple, typically stars and crosses. As sailors became more practiced with tattooing, the designs became more complex, including flags and intricate military insignia. A common design for American sailors in the early twentieth century was some variation of the Great Seal of the United States, featuring a bald eagle grasping at thirteen scepters and and olive branch. Many sailors also had mermaids tattooed on them, as some navy men believed that a man with a mermaid on his body was impervious to drowning.

Sailors brought tattooing to the port cities of their respective countries and the practice spread slowly inland over several decades.

References[edit]

Citations[edit]

  1. Rapport, Leonard. John L. Walters, Tattoo Artist. Durham, NC: Federal Writers Project, 1939.
  2. Rapport, Leonard. John L. Walters, Tattoo Artist. Durham, NC: Federal Writers Project, 1939.
  3. Schnapper, M.B. American Labor, A Pictorial Social History, New York, 1972.
  4. Rapport, Leonard. John L. Walters, Tattoo Artist. Durham, NC: Federal Writers Project, 1939.
  5. Rapport, Leonard. John L. Walters, Tattoo Artist. Durham, NC: Federal Writers Project, 1939.
  6. McSherry, Patrick. U.S.S. INDIANA, Spanish American War Centennial Website, 1998.
  7. Rapport, Leonard. John L. Walters, Tattoo Artist. Durham, NC: Federal Writers Project, 1939.
  8. Rapport, Leonard. John L. Walters, Tattoo Artist. Durham, NC: Federal Writers Project, 1939.
  9. Carlstrom, Oscar E. "The Spanish-American War." Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984) 16, no. 1/2 (1923): 104-10. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40187096.
  10. Buehler, Alfred G. "Military Pensions." The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 227 (1943): 130. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1023634.
  11. Dye, Ira. "The Tattoos of Early American Seafarers, 1796-1818." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 133, no. 4 (1989): 524. http://www.jstor.org/stable/986875.
  12. Dye, Ira. "The Tattoos of Early American Seafarers, 1796-1818." Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 133, no 4. (1989): 544. http://www.jstor.org/stable/986875.