By: Marisa Sloan
Walking into Tattoo Archive is like walking into a three-ring circus. With photographs and posters covering every surface, there’s always something to catch your eye, and yet, you leave feeling as though you missed more than you saw.
Now located in Winston-Salem, the historical museum that doubles as a working tattoo parlor, was initially founded in 1980 by C.W. “Chuck” Eldridge.
“My whole childhood, all the men in my life were tattooed,” Eldridge said. “They had service-related tattoos: my father, my brother, my uncles. So I grew up seeing those tattoos pretty much my whole life. And by the time I was 8, I wanted to get tattooed. Fortunately, there was nobody tattooing in my little home town. Not even out of their kitchen.”
It wasn’t until he joined the Navy in 1965 that he got his first tattoo — and then three more. Eldridge said that when he found himself with $200 in his pocket and 12 hours of liberty in the sailor-filled streets of San Diego, he ended up leaving with four new tattoos.
It was that childlike fascination with tattoos, the same compulsion that led Eldridge to a tattoo shop that day in San Diego, that later inspired him to found Tattoo Archive. With an impressive collection of tattoo history and collectibles to boast of, the shop aims to promote the history of tattooing by offering a wealth of information “to the casual visitor and academic alike.”
“My task in this is to keep all these peoples’ names alive,” Eldridge said. “Because what’s happening is, and I guess this happens in any industry or art form, people come into it, and they don’t really care about the history of that art form. They want to reinvent the wheel.’”
In addition to tattoo collectibles, the Tattoo Archive is also home to the Paul Rogers Tattoo Research Center (PRTRC). The PRTRC was established in 1993 as a nonprofit corporation to preserve tattoo history by working with other organizations and individuals worldwide. Eldridge himself coordinates with places such as bookstores, museums, and other tattoo shops that are interested in hosting exhibits and lectures.
If you’d like to see one of the lectures for yourself, stop by the High Point Museum on Aug. 26. From 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., Eldridge will present photographs, flash, and business cards from past North Carolina tattoo artists.
Eldridge said he’s been giving history lectures at tattoo conventions for 40 years. When he was just starting out, there would only be one per year. Now there’s as many as four in a single weekend. To Eldridge, these conventions have become sensationalized — an entertainment venue with hot dog stands and wet T-shirt contests rather than a place where people can share stories and history. He said he was extremely confused to see people dressed as zombies at one convention he attended.
That’s why Eldridge is proud to announce the first annual gathering of the Tattoo Historical Society on Oct. 12.
“We’re bringing all the tattoo museums and collectors into one room for a day of lectures and seminars — and to buy, sell, and trade,” Eldridge said. “It’s a bit of a cultural experiment inside the tattoo world because nothing like this has ever actually been done. And there’s not going to be any tattooing.”
There probably won’t be any zombies either.
While he has loved being a tattoo artist for the better part of his life, Eldridge doesn’t expect his portrait to be added to a museum wall of great tattoo artists. Instead, the work he’s most proud of is the nonprofit work that makes it possible for a museum such as that to exist.
“If I’m going to be remembered for anything, that’s what I’ll be remembered for,” Eldridge said.