Tattoo History | Phil Sparrow | Atlanta Tattoo Shop
Tattooing in America, as well as tattooing as a whole, tells a rich and diverse story in that it permeates every facet of human society. From indigenous tribes of the Amazon to street gangs in South LA, tattooing is heavily ingrained in our societal DNA.
In this blog post, we will examine the life and legacy of tattoo icon Professor Phil Sparrow, a pioneer of counterculture and proponent of the nonconformist.
Born Samuel M. Steward in Woodsfield, Ohio in 1909, Steward grew up from rather humble small town beginnings. His mother died young, and his father left him to grow up in a boarding home with his aunts--probably due to the fact that Steward expressed himself as a gay man at a very early age.
Steward documented his life in such a way that pushed a lot of societal boundaries as well as exposed areas of his life and lifestyle that most would consider very intimate and personal, which was rather drastic and out of the ordinary given that, in that time period, it was considered far from a social norm to be out as a gay man.
For about 20 years of his life, Steward spent his days as an English professor teaching at various universities across the West and Midwest. But he had an abrupt end to his career at a small coed Christian school in Chicago. His life had become a mundane cycle of essentially teaching a group of intellectually uninspired individuals, and he began to loathe the underappreciated role of English professor, craving some excitement and debauchery in his life. He eventually broke away from his ties to academia and found himself on South State Street in Chicago getting his first tattoo.
Something about the cryptic mysticism and endearing freedom of tattooing drew Steward in, and he quit his job at the university and assumed the name “Professor Philip Sparrow.” Given that Steward had already seen himself as an outsider most of his life and was intrigued by the seedy underbelly of what was then the lowbrow fringe subculture of sailors, bikers, and those affiliated with sideshows and gangs, he documented the types of people that got tattooed and their motivations for doing so in a scholarly way, breaking the culture of tattooing down into sets and subsets with their corresponding motivations. Indeed, Steward offered thought-provoking insight into tattooing.
In 1966, Don Ed Hardy crossed paths with Steward. In an interview conducted by ITL Media, Hardy discusses some of the first tattoos he did on himself and close friends under the guidance of Professor Sparrow at his shop in Oakland, California early on in his career. Hardy would go on to be one of the most commercially successful tattoo artists in the United States and, undoubtedly, one of the most influential godfathers of modern American tattooing.
The most striking thing one might notice looking into the life of Phil Sparrow is how unapologetically himself he was, unwilling to censor any part of his existence--despite social pressures. With everything he created--be it literature, art, erotica--he was constantly pushing a very radical narrative. He was always pushing boundaries, expressing and manifesting his ideals as a creative in a time period where being a highly educated queer tattoo artist did not reflect any measure of what was considered “normal” for the time period.
Steward’s tattooing legacy is quite the eclectic one. And if it were not for artists like him who prioritized individuality, embracing “weirdos” and oddities, tattooing would not be where it is today. Much respect to Samuel M. Steward ... Ph.D., writer, illustrator, tattoo artist, purveyor of the queer and unusual, and champion of the nonconformist.