The Triangle Tattoo & Museum in Fort Bragg tells the story of tattoos

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“People used to faint when they saw a tattooed person,” Mr. G said with a smile, pointing to a pair of black-and-white photographs hanging on the wall.

The photos show a female circus performer whose ink-covered body shocked audiences in the 1920s and 1930s. Today, her chest and back tattoos would barely raise an eyebrow.

Mr. G and Mrs. Chinchilla, as they are known professionally and personally, are tattoo artists and historians who have been collecting original stories, photos, artifacts and “flashes” – hand-drawn tattoo designs – since 1986. The couple run Triangle Tattoo & Museum in Fort Bragg, a work studio and museum that invites the curious to climb a cherry-red staircase and step back into tattoo history.

One of the few tattoo museums in the world, it is recommended in tourist guides alongside attractions such as Glass Beach and the Guest House Museum. In 2011, the museum was included in the New York Times “36 Hours on the Mendocino Coast”. The couple’s labor of love has won numerous accolades over the years, including the National Tattoo Association’s “Nicest Studio Award.”

Madame Chinchilla and Mr. G liken their museum to a “weird reference library”. The collection is organized into exhibits, tracing tattoo culture through groups like Maori, Native American tribes, sailors and military, circus performers, motorcycle clubs and prisoners. The museum even has a section on forced tattoos, or those given without consent, with examples of tattooed prisoners, soldiers, and slaves dating back to ancient Persia and the Roman Empire.

“Our goal is to enrich people’s insight and spark their curiosity,” said Madame Chinchilla, an artist and documentary filmmaker who has written seven books on tattooing.

Trace their history

Both Mr. G and Mrs. Chinchilla said they have long been fascinated by the tattoo artists who trained them and the early artists who trained their teachers.

“I keep track of my lineage,” MG said “I know my teacher learned from this teacher and he learned from this teacher, and so on.”

Madame Chinchilla first met Mr. G through mutual friends in 1986. Soon the couple were inseparable and Mr. G moved from Seattle, where he worked as a carpenter. With a thick mustache and visible tattoos, Mr G said he had drawn suspicion from local law enforcement.

“When we started, everyone thought I was a criminal,” he said. “The first year, I was arrested a thousand times. Every branch of the police was trying to get me through the computer because I had all these tattoos.

Mr. G landed an apprenticeship with Bert Rodriguez, a Mexican-American tattoo artist who had opened a studio in Santa Rosa in 1978. While Mr. G was learning the ropes with Rodriguez, Mrs. Chinchilla was busy “documenting everything” with a VHS video camera. . Soon after, she also started training to become a tattoo artist.

Holding a chihuahua with pink-streaked fur, Madame Chinchilla flipped through several books she produced with Mr. G, including a biography of their friend and mentor, Captain Don Leslie. Tattooed circus performer, sword-swallower, and gossip, Leslie was a colorful character whose connection to tattoos began in 1955.

“He was a talker for the show,” MG said “So when there was a delay or he needed to fill in time, he would tell all kinds of stories about the tattoos on his body , was just making things up. He was a good storyteller. »

A colorful blur

At first, Triangle Tattoo was one of the few tattoo shops operating north of San Francisco. Mr. G said many Humboldt State students found the studio to be college-friendly and began making the three-hour drive from Arcata to get to appointments.

“We were the only store between Santa Rosa and Portland, Oregon,” he said. “There were two stores in Sacramento. But on this corridor 101, there was nobody until Portland.

The tattoos were not yet accepted by the general public, but the studio was booming in the early 90s. Mr G said the couple used an influx of money to buy the antique tattoo machines , rare flash art and other relics that now line the walls of the museum.

Mrs. Chinchilla and Mr. G have met thousands of people throughout their careers. In 1992, the couple traveled to Japan to visit two respected tattoo artists and friends. Artists treated them to extravagant dinners and hand tattoos with special wooden tools. These tools are now enclosed in an exhibit on Japanese tattoo culture.

One memory stands out for Madame Chinchilla. She recalls a day in the early 90s when she got her mother, then 76, her first tattoo. The moment was captured by a Discovery Channel crew filming a documentary about tattoo culture.

Madame Chinchilla said: “It was the first tattoo ever televised.”

The here and now

Mr. G still works by appointment in his private studio, but artist Niki Needles does most of the studio’s walk-in work these days.

Madame Chinchilla, who is in remission from breast cancer, no longer does tattoos.

On a sunny January afternoon near the end of a guided tour, she stopped to reflect on the evolution of the studio and tattooing over the past 33 years. She said clients often find a design they like online and bring it to the studio.

“The majority of people come with their phones and show us exactly what they want,” she said. “A lot of [the designs] are the same. I like it, because it marks a moment in history… They totally live here and now. This is what we have always strived for, since the 1960s. The here and now.”

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