On August 24, 2015, a man by the name of Ryan McDowell tagged me this photo on Facebook. The focus of the photo is the fading sign on the side of 1226 Military Avenue, Baxter Springs, Kansas. I once owned that building and it was home to my Body Art Studio, Skin Art Creations Tattoo Emporium. Ryan attached this caption to the photo: “There isn’t much left of the sign, but it still shows were Baxter started to fall. When the sign was new the town was growing but as it decays so does the town.”
My business was in Baxter Springs from 1990 to 2012. When I first opened on Military Avenue (downtown), the business district was all but dead. Very little retail, a few service businesses and a couple of restaurants. For the most part most business buildings sat empty. At that time the city of Baxter Springs had been operating in the red for several years. Within two years of opening Skin Art Creations Tattoo Emporium every business building along Military Avenue was occupied and the city was operating in the black.
Business for me had been good as I was the only Body Art studio in the region. I gave back to the community by having charity drives and heading the Chamber of Commerce joint Historical and Beautification Committee. I promoted the first ever Tattoo Show in Kansas and donated artwork to raise money for flood victims. I created a moral studio with high standards and integrity. I became a proud member of the community.
The sign on the side of the building had been my billboard along Interstate 44 right before exit one in Missouri, the Baxter Springs exit. When the contract on the sign expired the sign company let me have it and I mounted it on the side of the building. The sign proudly stated; “WORLD FAMOUS, AWARD WINNING, SKIN ART CREATIONS TATTOO EMPORIUM – ON ROUTE 66 BAXTER SPRINGS, KANSAS – (316) 856-5938 – WWW.UBTAT2D.COM”
In 2000 I decided to expand upon my business enterprises. After an expensive remodel I moved the studio to the 2nd floor of my building and opened a small, friendly Beer Bar. SPUNKY’S TAVERN – WHERE YOU CAN HAVE A DOG GONE GOOD TIME. Opened in January of 2001. The tavern, named after a beloved pet, that had passed, was an immediate success. We served light food, beer and music on Saturday nights. Three TV’s supplied sports entertainment on Sunday’s. We had $1 FUBAR (For U Beers Are Reasonable), Monday’s. Dart Tournaments on Tuesdays. Texas Hold ‘Em Poker Tournament on Wednesdays. We had two pool tables with tournaments on Thursday nights. Karaoke on Friday nights finished out the week.
We purchased the building next door, 1228 Military Avenue and began renovations. The apartments upstairs were offered to our employees and the downstairs was converted to an entertainment venue. We had plans for weekly concerts but alas that only happened one time.
We went to great lengths to make sure that Spunky’s was family friendly and We did not tolerate drunks. We would cut people off that had too much and that was the beginning of the end.
One Saturday night a gentleman that had too much to drink and who we had cut off threw a beer bottle at a waitress. When I escorted him out of the building, he tried to force his way back in. We had to call the police. His friend, a local newspaper reporter, begged us not to call the police but we had been left with no choice. The police showed up and told the reporter to take his friend home. The drunk swung at the officer and said F*** You. He was arrested.
Monday’s newspaper contained an article written by the reporter that claimed that the police chief said that the police were called to the tavern every night. When I talked to the chief he was highly upset as he had never said that, just the opposite. He had said that we handled situations well and that they were seldom called. The article also stated that the Presbyterian Minister, whose church parking lot was across the alley from Spunky’s, had to chase drunk people out of her parking lot every night.
I went to the church to talk to the minister, but she was on vacation and not expected back until the next day; she had never talked to the reporter. I went to the newspaper office and demanded a retraction and the Editor refused stating, “My reporter doesn’t have to tell the truth he just needs to tell the story he wants to tell. I don’t care what he says as long as it sells papers.” I went to city hall and requested to be put on Tuesday’s agenda; I was going to demand a public retraction and apology from the newspaper.
Tuesday afternoon I talked to the minister and showed her the newspaper article. She was upset and said she was going to go to the newspaper office and give them a piece of her mind. She also said she would be at the city council meeting that night to set the record straight. That night when I stood before city council the chambers were packed. Word had gotten out.
The police chief spoke first and verified that what the paper had reported was not true. He told the council what he had actually said. It was then my turn to speak. I told what had actually happened which was verified by the arresting officer. I then demanded the retraction and apology from the Editor and he refused. It was then the Presbyterian Minister’s turn. She cleared her throat and said, “People like the George’s are responsible for teenage pregnancy, unwed mothers, the assassination of JFK and the crucifixion of Christ.” With that one sentence she destroyed all I had worked for in my business wiped out all the community involvement and good I had done. She continued to rant and rave about how our establishment was the devils playground and how it should be destroyed immediately.
Now I could tell you about all that happened over the next year after that city council meeting. I could tell you about how the minister filed charges of verbal abuse against one of her parishioners because he said, “If you think you accomplished something you are crazy.” I could tell you about how the minister got the local council of churches in an uproar and how they were preaching sermons against me on Sundays. I could relate stories of people that left those sermons disgusted or of the teenage girl that lost the right to babysit children at her churches nursery because she waxed our floors once a week. I could tell you how the city turned against us and tried to pull our business license and the state of Kansas had to send a representative down, twice to tell the city to cease and desist. Or maybe I could tell you about the city attorney with the conflict of interest because he was also the local ACLU attorney. He was the one who tried to pull our licenses. I guess I could relate how the attack on our small quiet tavern made national news, but you get the picture.
By the end of 2002 I had enough. I had fought hard, but I was tired and I had become a pariah. It all rested in the lap of a lying reporter, an unethical newspaper editor, a city council run by good ol’ boys and a mentally unstable and hypocritical Presbyterian Minister. The reporter lost his job when the editor sold the newspaper. The city council was re-elected and showed no signs of changing. The minister had been dis-ordained by the Presbyterian Council for “actions adverse against the George family and actions affecting the integrity of the church and the congregation within the community.’ A small victory but one that came to late. I was done!
On a November Tuesday night in 2002 I appeared for the next to the last time before the Baxter Springs, Kansas City Council. I stood at the podium and attempted eye contact with the council. Not one of them connected with me. “I will be closing my businesses here, selling my tavern equipment and listing my properties for sale” I began. “I will be moving my tattoo studio to Independence, Kansas. The powers that be there have indicated that we will be a welcome addition to their community.” I paused. “You think that my little tattoo studio makes no difference to the economy of this community; you are wrong! When I opened here 12 years ago military avenue was dead. You were operating in the red. Two years later you are operating in the black. Did you ever stop to ask yourselves why? Well, I can tell you.” I looked at the council then turned and looked at the filled to capacity city council chambers.
“It was because of my little tattoo studio. Shortly after I opened people started coming to me wanting to know how my business was doing. They talked to me about businesses they wanted to open and asked my opinion. I urged them to take the leap and they did. Some succeeded, some failed but Military Avenue filled up and you started collecting taxes off of those businesses.” I stopped to let that sink in.
“I tattoo over 1,200 people per year. Over half of those are return clientele. From that half two thirds of them come from all across the United Sates and other countries. They rent motel rooms when they are here, they eat in the restaurants they shop in the stores. Four hundred plus people that would never come to this community otherwise come here to see me, spend their money in the community and increase the tax base. That is not even to mention the other 800 people that come to see me that shop and eat here. You don’t think my studio makes that big a difference to the economy of this community? That only goes to show how little you know.” I let that sink in for a moment.
I cleared my throat and looked around the room one last time. “I have a prediction for you. One year from now Military Avenue will be just as empty as it was when I came here in 1990 and the City of Baxter Springs will be operating in the red.” I turned and walked out.
I opened the studio in Independence, Kansas and business was good. Almost a year to the day I received a phone call from my former next-door neighbor. He informed me that a newspaper article had come out the day before stating that for the first time in twelve years Baxter Springs was operating in the red. He went on to tell me that the business district was all but empty, even losing it’s two restaurants. I hung up the phone and called Baxter Springs City Hall and requested to get on the agenda.
I stood, for the last time before the Baxter Springs City Council. Just like when I had been there a year previous the chambers were packed with people wanting to see what I had to say. The council members looked down and did not make eye contact with me. I let the silence hang in the air for a moment then said, “I told you so!” Without another word I turned and left the building never looking back.
In 2004 I received a phone call from the new mayor of Baxter Springs. She told me that the good ol’ boy network of the city council had been totally replaced by all women. She asked if I would consider bringing my business back to Baxter Springs. I said, “No! Once bitten, twice learned. Baxter has a bad habit of cutting off it’s nose to spite its face. I wish you luck but you will have to find your way without me.” She said she understood and thanked me for all I had done when I had been a resident there. I wished her luck.
Baxter Springs, Kansas has a long history of hurting itself economically. From turning back cattle herds from the railheads because of a unfounded fear of hoof and mouth disease. Being too overconfident and allowing Columbus to get to Topeka first to file for county seat. Turning away Sooners and sending them west. Not embracing Route 66 and creating stops. Allowing its Mayor to give permission for US 400 to bypass the community because “It won’t hurt my business.” To what they did to me and my business.
I do not wish Baxter Springs ill; Just the opposite. I sincerely hope that the new generation that is there will continue to revitalize the community, learn from the mistakes of the past and move towards a brighter future. Only time will tell.
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Inked Mummies, Linking Tattoo Artists With Their Ancestors
Great Article about bringing the Ancient Art into Modern Relevance. Hits close to home since my wife Raychel, who is also an owner of Artist Alley Studio, is Inuit. -The GYPSY-
In the 1970s, hunters stumbled upon eight 500-year-old bodies preserved by the Arctic climate near Qilakitsoq, an abandoned Inuit settlement in northwest Greenland. Later, when scientists photographed the mummies with infrared film, they made an intriguing discovery: Five of the six females had delicate lines, dots and arches tattooed on their faces.
For thousands of years, tattoos were more than just body decoration for Inuit and other Indigenous cultures. They served as symbols of belonging, signified coming-of-age rituals, channeled spiritual beliefs or conferred powers that could be called upon while giving birth or hunting. Yet starting around the 17th century, missionaries and colonists intent on “civilizing” Indigenous people put a stop to tattooing in all but the most remote communities.
The practice so thoroughly disappeared in Greenland that Maya Sialuk Jacobsen, who spent her childhood there, worked for a decade as a Western-style tattooist before realizing that her Inuit ancestors had also been tattooists, albeit of a very different nature.
Today, Sialuk Jacobsen uses historical documents, artifacts and the Qilakitsoq mummies — several of which are now on display at the Greenland National Museum — to research traditional Inuit tattoo designs. Then she hand pokes or stitches the patterns onto the faces and bodies of Inuit women, and occasionally men, helping them connect with their ancestors and reclaim a part of their culture.
“I take great pride in tattooing a woman,” she said. “When she meets her foremothers in the next world, it will be like looking in a mirror.”
Without the physical record left by ancient tattooing, modern practitioners like Sialuk Jacobsen would have little evidence to guide their work. Fortunately, as more Indigenous tattooists around the world resurrect lost traditions, a small group of archaeologists is tracing tattooing through time and space, uncovering new examples of its role in historic and prehistoric societies. Together, the scientists and artists are showing that the urge to ink our bodies is deeply rooted in the human psyche, spanning the globe and speaking across centuries.
Put the Needle on the Record
Until recently, Western archaeologists largely ignored tattooing. Because of these scientists’ disinterest, tools made for tapping, poking, stitching or cutting human skin were cataloged as sewing needles or awls, while tattooed mummies “were regarded more as objects of fascination than scientific specimens,” said Aaron Deter-Wolf, a prehistoric archaeologist at the Tennessee Division of Archaeology and a leading researcher in the archaeology of tattooing.
Even when the 5,300-year-old body of Ötzi the Iceman was recovered from the Italian Alps in 1991 bearing visible tattoos, some news reports at the time suggested the markings were evidence that Ötzi was “probably a criminal,” Deter-Wolf said. “It was very biased.”
But as tattooing has become more mainstream in Western culture, Deter-Wolf and other scientists have begun to examine preserved tattoos and artifacts for insights into how past people lived and what they believed.
A 2019 investigation into Ötzi’s 61 tattoos, for example, paints a picture of life in Copper Age Europe. The dots and dashes on the mummy’s skin correspond with common acupuncture points, suggesting that people had a sophisticated understanding of the human body and may have used tattooings to ease physical ailments like joint pain. In Egypt, Anne Austin, an archaeologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, has found dozens of tattoos on female mummies, including hieroglyphics suggesting the tattoos were associated with goddess worship and healing. This interpretation challenges 20th-century male scholars’ theories that female tattoos were simply erotic decorations or were reserved for prostitutes.
The scientific study of tattooed mummies also inspires practitioners like Elle Festin, a tattooist of Filipino heritage living in California. As co-founder of Mark of the Four Waves, a global community of nearly 500 members of the Filipino diaspora united through tattooing, Festin has spent more than two decades studying Filipino tribal tattoos and using them to help those living outside the Philippines reconnect with their homeland. One of his sources is the “fire mummies” — people from the Ibaloi and Kankanaey tribes whose heavily tattooed bodies were preserved by slow-burning fire centuries ago.
If clients are descended from a tribe that made fire mummies, Festin will use the mummies’ tattoos as a framework for designing their own tattoos. (He and other tattooists say that only people with ancestral ties to a culture should receive that culture’s tattoos.) So far, 20 people have received fire mummy tattoos.
For other clients, Festin gets more creative, adapting age-old patterns to modern lives. For a pilot, he says, “I would put a mountain below, a frigate bird on top of it and the patterns for lightning and wind around it.”
Yet while mummies offer the most conclusive evidence of how and where past people inked their bodies, they are relatively rare in the archaeological record. More common — and thus more helpful for scientists tracking the footprint of tattooing — are artifacts like tattoo needles made of bone, shell, cactus spines or other materials.
To show that such tools were used for tattooing, rather than stitching leather or clothing, archaeologists such as Deter-Wolf replicate the tools, use them to tattoo either pig skin or their own bodies, then examine the replicas under high-powered microscopes. If the tiny wear patterns made by repeatedly piercing skin match those on the original tools, archaeologists can conclude that the original artifacts were indeed used for tattooing.
Through such painstaking experiments, Deter-Wolf and his colleagues are pushing back the timeline of tattooing in North America. In 2019, Deter-Wolf was an author of a study that showed that the ancestors of modern Puebloan people were tattooing with cactus spines some 2,000 years ago in what is now the American Southwest. This year, he published a finding showing that people were tattooing with needles made of turkey bones in what is now Tennessee about 3,500 years ago.
Dion Kaszas, a Hungarian, Métis, and Nlaka’pamux tattoo practitioner and scholar in Nova Scotia, is learning how to create his own bone tattoo needles from Deter-Wolf and Keone Nunes, a Hawaiian tattooist. His goal, he said, is to “get back to that ancestral technology; to feel what our ancestors felt.” Because few examples remain of Nlaka’pamux tattooing, Kaszas uses designs from baskets, pottery, clothing and rock art. Research from other cultures shows that tattoo designs often mimic the patterns on other artifacts.
For Kaszas and others, tattooing isn’t just a way to revive an Indigenous language nearly silenced by colonialism. It also has the power to heal wounds of the past and strengthen Indigenous communities for the future.
“The work our tattoos are doing to heal us is a different kind of work than our ancestors used them for,” Kaszas said. “That’s a form of medicine, for people to look down at their arm and understand they’re connected to a family, a community, the earth.”
Ink Back From the Brink
Although people from numerous cultures have reclaimed their tattooing heritage in the past two decades, there are many others who have had theirs obscured entirely by colonization and assimilation. As scientists pay more attention to tattooing, though, their work could bring more lost traditions to light.
Deter-Wolf hopes that archaeologists in other parts of the world will begin identifying tattoo artifacts using the methodology he and other North American scientists have pioneered, pushing back its footprint even further. He also oversees an online, open-source database of tattooed mummies, meant to correct popular misinformation and illustrate the geographic spread of such specimens. The list includes mummies from 70 archaeological sites in 15 countries — including Sudan, Peru, Egypt, Russia and China — but Deter-Wolf expects it to grow as infrared imaging and other technology uncover more inked skin on existing mummies.
Back in Greenland, Sialuk Jacobsen hopes that the Qilakitsoq mummies also have more secrets to yield. She is encouraging museum directors to examine other parts of the mummies’ bodies, such as their thighs, with infrared imaging. Inuit women in other parts of the Arctic receive thigh tattoos as part of birthing rituals, but while historical drawings show thigh tattoos on Greenlandic women, there isn’t yet any tangible evidence.
If the Qilakitsoq mummies do have thigh tattoos, Sialuk Jacobsen may one day copy the patterns onto women from the Qilakitsoq region, drawing a line between the generations of the past and those yet to come.
“Our tattoos are very selfless,” she said. They aren’t just for the woman receiving them, but for her grandmothers, her children and her entire community as well.