FORT BRAGG – So my first heinous breach of tattoo etiquette may have gone unnoticed, or politely ignored. I believe I mistakenly called Madame Chinchilla, grand dame of the Triangle Tattoo Studio and Museum along with loyal partner Mr. G., Madame Chowchilla.
Let the record hereby show that Madame C. is not named after the grungy Central Valley town, rather after a crepuscular rodent with velvety fur. Not that she's at all hirsute, I'm quick to add, as evidenced by the technicolor body art up and down Madame C.'s arms and torso that was obscured by nary a smidgen of unsightly body hair.
But it was my second tattoo faux pas that drew a sharp, frosty rebuke from Madame C.
In an effort to express how wowed I was at the joint's vast collection of tattoo memorabilia spanning centuries and many cultures, I gushed about the array of tattoo guns lining one wall.
"Actually, they are not guns," she said. "They are called tattoo machines. Only in prison are they called guns."
Chastened, I tried to make light of my insensitive remark, but only added to the awkwardness.
"Sorry," I said, smiling. "I swear I've never been in prison."
"I can tell by your arms," she said, giving me the once-over. "Or, at least, you weren't in prison very long."
True, my middle-aged body is inkless, virginally inkless. Even in these days when every suburban mom flaunts a tasteful butterfly on the shoulder and bank CEOs sport barbed-wire tats on biceps, I do not have a single tattoo piercing my epidermis. No tramp stamp for me, not even a heart tattoo inscribed to dear old mom.
Who am I, then, to be assessing perhaps the most elaborate shrine to an ancient artform, one in which the body is the canvas and one's means of expression?
"It's OK," Madame Chinchilla demurred. "It's very mainstream now. We're open to all people. We fill up our guest books really fast. We love having people look around. Tattoos tell a story."
Stories abound at this funky, well-preserved two-story Victorian in the heart of this former lumber town. And Madame Chinchilla, veteran tattoo artist and author, was nice enough even to stop work on a floral design on a woman's right shoulder to show me around.
There is something, really, for people of all interests.
Are you a patriotic American?
There's an entire wall devoted to flag-waving U.S. of A. depictions, dating from World War I to the present Afghanistan conflict.
Are you an amateur cultural anthropologist?
There's a multimedia display – video, pictorial, text – about the ancient Maori culture in New Zealand and its body marking.
Are you curious about tattoo culture's permanent mark on circus life?
There's an impressive display of circus art, including a shrine to sideshow legend Captain Don Leslie. (Madame C., by the way, is the late Leslie's biographer; purchase her book at the museum). The highlight of the Captain Don wing is a "Sword Swallowing Anatomy Guide," spanning the sublingual gland down to the small intestines. This blown-up text could serve as Captain Don's epitaph: "Q: How do you swallow a sword? A: Very carefully. – Cpt. Don."
And lest you think the tattoo arts remain a macho, misogynistic culture, check out the "Women's Wall" in Madame C.'s studio in the back.
"These are tattooed women from all over the world, different eras and contemporary," she said. "I've designed it so the contemporary is next to the historical, because history repeats itself, you know."
It seems that tattoo artists don't like to repeat themselves. At least that's the impression one gets from looking at all the different designs. Under an exhibit dubbed "Classics," originals by lauded artist Norman "Sailor Jerry" Collins (pictured champing on a cigar) include the iconic eagle and talons, anchor, skull-rose-and-heart combo.
Another curiosity is the enduring popularity of a "Twin Screw Propellers" design, worn by superstitious mariners who believed the props would prevent drowning by "propelling them back to shore." One provocative photo shows "proud wearer" Monty Montgomery with propellers inked on each cheek (uh, the lower ones). On the left cheek, it reads, "Twin Screws;" on the right, "Stay Clear."
Mr. G. says many of their museum's pieces had been donated by the tattoo community, but he and Madame C. have also bought a lot in the past 27 years. He said some artifacts came from legendary San Francisco tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle, whose museum was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Many of Madame C. and Mr. G.'s maritime pieces have been shown all over the country in a touring exhibition, "Skin & Bones – Tattoos in the Life of the American Sailor," which debuted at the Philadelphia Independence Seaport Museum in 2009.
Madame C. and Mr. G., however, are humble curators.
"Ours is one of the older (museums)," Mr. G. said. "But it's the people with the most money who have the most stuff in their tattoo museums. There's always somebody bigger and better."
Five rooms, plus a long staircase of memorabilia certainly proved impressive enough to museum visitors Kate, of Prescott, Ariz., and Clyde, of Spokane, Wash.
"Isn't this crazy?" Kate exclaimed.
"This is something else," Clyde added, "all the old guns and stuff."
Uh, oh. Did he call them guns?