Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2018/Fall/Section 3/John L. Walters

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John L. Walters[edit]

John L. Walters was a tattoo artist who lived in the Triangle area of North Carolina in the early 20th century.

Early Life [edit]

John L. Walters was born and raised in Danville, Virginia with a brother and three sisters. His father, a foreman in a tobacco factory, was born in Chapel Hill, while his mother, a boarding house owner, was born in Roanoke. In early childhood Walters father died following an accident at the local Tobacco factory, and soon after began working in his mother’s boarding house as a food runner. In attempt to gain more money Walter’s began tagging chewing tobacco at Reynold’s Sun Cured. At the age of 14, Walters moved to Durham, the home of his uncle, and began working at the local cigarette factory, The Golden Belt, in addition to working odd jobs as a carpenter and painter.[1]

Naval Service[edit]

Walters enlisted in the U.S. Navy on July 18th, 1900, and was trained off of [Island] in South Carolina. Walters served for a cruise, a 4 year period of service, in which he worked aboard 3 ships:the Topeka, [Lancaster], and [Indiana]. During his service Walters was appointed a first class sailor. He participated in 3 separate voyages to the West Indies and New England.

Career and Later Life[edit]

Following his tour of duty Walters worked solely as a tattoo artist, practicing in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Ending his travels a few years later, the exact dates are unknown, Walters returned to Durham and continued working at his previous position in The Golden Belt Factory as a sack counter. He was eventually promoted, acting as a mechanic for the sack counting machines based upon his proficiency in working with tattoo machines. Proceeding his marriage Walters attended two years of night school at [high school] where he received his [[1]]. No information is recorded regarding Walters spouse, date of marriage or birth of children. He would go on to have one son, two daughters, and eventually grandchildren. As a tattoo artist Walters prided himself in providing artistry to the common people who he interacted with, specifically in the [region of North Carolina]. Walters’ date of death is unknown.

Development of Naval Dominance in the Early 20th Century[edit]

During the early 20th century following the Spanish-American war, Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the United states enacted major changes to encourage the development of a dominant [Navy] stating, “a good navy is not a provocation of war. It is the surest guarantee of peace.”[2] This belief was essential in the development of his [[2]] policy of international diplomacy in which Roosevelt argued that the best defense of peace was to, “walk quietly and carry a big stick.” Through major changes in naval regulations, Roosevelt launched the U.S. into modern era of naval history. Roosevelt outlined his plans for naval reinvention in his scholarly papers published at Harvard, based upon his studies as a maritime strategist on the [of 1812].[3] The implementation of new technology and standards facilitated by Roosevelt, resulted in several major brokerages of international conflict. These victories included the installation of [Panama Canal], peace negotiations of [Russo-Japanese war], and the procurement of several crucial [held territories]: [[3]], [Philippines], and the Dominican Republic.[4] The modernization efforts of the [Navy”] lead to a sharp increase in enrollment, a 20% increase in men, that resulted in the U.S. navy being the largest naval force of the 20th century.[5]

Evolution of Tattoos in the Early 20th Century[edit]

The tradition of tattooing in the United States in the early 20th century was almost exclusively reserved to sailors, criminals, and carnie actors. The majority of tattoos were inspired by patriotic iconography, specifically in the military where the “Rose of No Man's Land,”and personal symbols acted as “reminders of their lives back home.”[6] One subgroup historically emblazoned with symbolism was the Navy, with tattoos acting as superstitious wardings against drowning, specifically the “swallow”, “pig and rooster,” and “palm trees.” These symbols acted as a signifier of camaraderie and tradition. Additionally, many of the designs were allusions to the indigenous tattoo styles that were adapted following contact with native groups by the U.S. Navy.[7] Tattooing in the United States was normalized by the exposure of the art form to rural communities through traveling circuses and carnival acts. Increased visibility evolved tattooing “from an act of rebellion to a widely practiced personal statement”[8] demonstrating the impact of normalization, and its ability to incorporate historically ostracized groups from the fray of society.

  1. Rapport, Leonard. "Undated." Federal Writer's Project, February 25, 1939.
  2. Hendrix, Henry J. Theodore Roosevelt’s Naval Diplomacy: The U.S. Navy and the Birth of the American Century. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009.
  3. Hendrix, Henry J. Theodore Roosevelt’s Naval Diplomacy: The U.S. Navy and the Birth of the American Century. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2009.
  4. JO2 [Journalist Second Class] Mike McKinley (1 April 2015). "Cruise of the Great White Fleet". Naval History and Heritage Command. Retrieved 11 November 2015.
  5. The Great White Fleet by Department of the Navy-- Naval History and Heritage Command Archived copy at the Library of Congress (4 February 2012).
  6. Crum, Maddie. "The Prickly History Of Tattooing In America." The Huffington Post. December 07, 2017. Accessed September 25, 2018.
  7. Schmid, Selma. "Tattoos – An Historical Essay." Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease 11, no. 6 (2013): 444-47. doi:10.1016/j.tmaid.2013.10.013.
  8. Crum, Maddie. "The Prickly History Of Tattooing In America." The Huffington Post. December 07, 2017. Accessed September 25, 2018.