Monday, November 15, 2010

Secret Historian: the life and times of Samuel Steward, professor, tattoo artist, and sexual renegade 

by Justin Spring

I don't remember how I stumbled across Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo with Gangs, Sailors, and Street-corner Punks, 1950-1965 by Samuel M. Steward, but I do remember the picture on the cover:

Um, how could I not read that?

Anyway, I think I heard the author of this exhaustive biography on Fresh Air and got interested in reading more about the unusual life of the real Professor Sparrow (his nom de needle during his tattooing years). I was pulled in right away and became excited to read about the fun, sexy times of a guy who kept a Stud File (including, in some cases, forensic "samples") with deets on every one of the many hundreds of dudes he hooked up with. Of course, he was also a writer of poetry, novels and erotica; a friend of Thornton Wilder and Gertrude Stein; a collaborator and chum of the infamous Kinsey; an artist; a compulsive collector and record-keeper; and a capable self-analyst.

The book is quite long for a bio of a non-famous person, and does drag just a bit in some places, but it really is quite engaging throughout. Perhaps not very easy to recommend to someone you don't know fairly well, but it is written so as not to be titillating and it is a fascinating glimpse into the largely undocumented demimonde of pre-Stonewall gay life.

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