Published May 6th, 2022 at 6:00 AM8 minute read
By the time James Holman sat down to craft a feature story on the life and times of Bert Grimm in July 1979, the subject’s legend as a tattoo artist was all but written – in permanent ink.
The faded two-page spread in the Astoria, Oregon, newspaper titled “Bert Grimm, The Tattoo Man” is one of Wes Grimm’s favorite articles about his great grandpa.
“This one here does a pretty good job of summing it up,” Wes said.
A reflection of Wes’ jet-black sunglasses and cowboy hat pop out from the framed print.
The old newspaper hangs among the treasures that cover the waiting room walls at 3915 Broadway in Kansas City — Grimm Tattoo. A quick read might reassure the anxious minds of waiting patrons that they are in good hands.
For others, it’s the story that brought them to Grimm Tattoo in the first place.
In 1912, at age 12, Portland native Bert Grimm watched the art of tattooing up close, lingering around the shop run by his father and fellow tattoo artists Sailor Gus and Charlie Western. The electric tattoo machine was barely 20-years-old.
By 1914, the grade-school dropout moved to Chicago, sold newspapers on a busy street corner and saved up for a slick new tattoo gun. The teenager practiced on his fellow newspaper boys. Two years later he opened a shop of his own on Chicago’s Main Street.
“You know he went on the road with Buffalo Bill?” Wes Grimm said, interrupting his own train of thought behind a cigarette, sitting on a bench below Broadway’s “WORLD FAMOUS GRIMM TATTOO” signpost.
The 1979 feature in the Daily Astorian captures then 79-year-old Bert Grimm’s recollection of an August afternoon in 1916 that changed everything. He looked up from his work at a white-haired older man.
Grimm is quoted in the story: “He says ‘I’m looking for a tattooer… and I’ve looked in every tattoo shop in Chicago and you’re the guy I want.’”
The man was William Cody, famously known as Buffalo Bill.
Wes says that his great grandfather learned to tattoo people where those who wanted tattoos hung out during those days.
The son of a carnival worker, the “Godfather” of Grimm Tattoo was a part of Buffalo Bill’s traveling carnival shows. As a 16-year-old, Grimm would tattoo subjects and show off his own tattoos. Buffalo Bill made up old-timey carnival stories about the young prodigy and they were presented to the audience — stuff similar to circus attractions like “the bearded lady” or “world’s strongest man”.
Before his death in the winter of 1916, Buffalo Bill introduced Grimm to the likes of Wyatt Earp, Pawnee Bill and Teddy Roosevelt. From there, Grimm bounced around carnivals, town to town by train, essentially with built-in clientele.
In 1926, Grimm settled in St. Louis, Missouri. A savvy businessman, the 26-year-old noticed the influx of riverboat workers who were more than willing to go under the needle for a patriotic eagle or pin-up gal design.
“He also didn’t hesitate to tattoo women at that time and that was a man’s world,” Wes Grimm said, showing off another newspaper clipping that emphasized that very point.
In St. Louis, Bert Grimm met and married his wife Julia and settled in for 30 years of tattooing and photography. Notable clients included one of John D. Rockefeller’s daughters, members of the Barrow gang, including dozens of sessions with Bonnie and Clyde and one with “Pretty Boy” Floyd.
As the story goes, the latter appointment was unbeknownst to Grimm until sometime later, when a U.S. marshal came in contact with “Pretty Boy” Floyd and admired the very tattoo Grimm placed on the notorious criminal. The marshal soon thereafter stopped in the shop himself.
The design can be found in Grimm Tattoo today. The shop’s walls are more like a page out of a hardcore-edition “I Spy” book.
Many of the “flash” tattoo drawings — the simple pre-designed and ready to pick out pieces — decorating the space date back to the St. Louis days. Others are from the back half of Bert Grimm and his son Gene’s tattooing careers, which eventually made their way to six shops in Long Beach, California, and another Portland-area shop as the most-senior Grimm reached his 70s and wrestled with retirement on-and-off for decades.
Despite a pause in tattooing during cancer treatment, Bert Grimm tattooed into his 80s. There’s a grim reaper on Wes Grimm’s arm completed by his great-grandpa in 1980 — the day Grimm Tattoo landed in Kansas City.
In a small, two-story green and wood paneled house around the corner and across the alley from Grimm Tattoo’s spot on Broadway, an alternative cover of Paul McCartney’s “Let Me Roll It” plays quietly as Davey Gant, a Grimm Tattoo artist, moves around the creaking floors.
The space, which will officially become the Bert Grimm Tattoo Museum at 311 W. 39th St. sometime this summer, is slowly coming together.
Many of the flash designs, antique artwork, tattoo machines and a collection of black-and-white Grimm family photos and photos of Grimm-tattooed subjects have made their way into the space.
A designated 501 (c)(3), the nonprofit museum will serve as a venue to protect and display much of Bert Grimm’s world famous and award winning work and other artifacts. In addition to the timeless, once taboo collection of artwork, Grimm Tattoo will offer services in the museum, complete with a tattoo room-viewing window for museum visitors to see the real thing up close.
“So that serves as an arm of our gift shop, in a way,” Gant said, prepping his workspace for a 10:45 a.m. appointment.
Gant has been an integral part of the Grimm Tattoo team dedicated to creating the museum.
To Gant, the work to be displayed in the museum is priceless — sort of.
Bert Grimm’s flash tattoo designs that bring tattoo artists and enthusiasts from all over the world to Grimm Tattoo, he says, are a reflection of society through decades of clientele. While Bert Grimm is gone and so are many of the thousands and thousands of people who had original Bert Grimm work permanently etched into their skin, the designs in the shop and now museum are ready to go for the next paying customer.
“It’s a very valued part of our history as tattooers, you know. (Wes Grimm) has been carrying this wobbly stack of treasure around for 40 years — I call it ‘the football,’ ” Gant said, adding that the nonprofit distinction will help the museum to continue to preserve and display the timeless work, or perhaps take it on tour.
“Just to kind of further tell the story, because it’s like folk history. A lot of the stuff isn’t really written down. Tattooing is still kind of in the taboo world, so we’re trying to piece together academically, a history that was pretty much folklore.”
In 1980, Bert Grimm traveled to Kansas City to help his son Gene, Wes Grimm’s grandfather, open a shop on Main Street. Wes worked on a riverboat in the city at the time.
Fresh off his 30-day shift, 20-year-old Wes was facing 30 days off and stopped on the way home to unwind with a bottle of whiskey and a newspaper.
The folds of the paper, which is now displayed in the shop, revealed that Bert and Gene had opened their shop in Kansas City. Wes immediately cleaned up and headed over to Main Street.
“I was like damn, they are leaving me behind. I thought I was going to be a part of this,” Wes said, having gained some experience as a teen, drawing and watching his family members tattoo up close.
Upon arriving at the tattoo shop, great-grandpa tattooed the grim reaper onto Wes Grimm’s arm. Gene Grimm said his grandson could have the tattoo for free, but Bert — even at age 80 — was in Kansas City to do business.
“(Bert) said, ‘I’m working here for 50%, so my 50% is going to cost you $25 bucks,’ or something like that. So I bought a tattoo from Bert,” Wes recalled, touching his arm.
With his grandpa Gene’s blessing, Wes was cleared to tattoo any willing customer that very day. Wes already had an uncle in mind.
The next day, Wes gave his very first tattoo — a parrot to cover up the name of an uncle’s ex-girlfriend. And just like that, the Grimm Tattoo legacy arched to Kansas City. Grimm Tattoo at its former Main Street location became the last shop opened by Bert Grimm.
With the Bert Grimm Tattoo Museum nearing completion, Wes Grimm has found a place for “the football” and he says it’s largely thanks to many of the Grimm Tattoo employees and adjacents who have a true appreciation for the art.
“The thing that I lacked was a dream,” Wes Grimm said, “And I started being surrounded by some of these artists that that dream hard, big and huge.”
Grimm Tattoo is open seven days a week for walk-in tattoo appointments. Scheduled to officially open Summer 2022, Bert Grimm Tattoo Museum is currently in a “soft open” period, also providing tattoos on the weekends.
Flatland contributor Clarence Dennis also is a social media manager for 90.9 The Bridge.