RISE AND FALL
THE LAST GIANT By: J.A. George AKA; The GYPSY
His name was Matthew Dillon Ceratotherium Simum. We just called him Matt and he was just 15 years old when he died. Matt was also the last of his kind. Matt was the last wild caught Southern White Rhino and he was my friend.
Matt stood 6’ at the shoulder and weighed in at around 5,000 pounds. Captured in southern Africa when he was just a year-old. Matt was shipped to the United States to the San Diego Zoo in California as part of a conservation of species program. After his capture international restrictions were implemented that kept any more Southern White Rhinos to be exported from Africa.
Matt eventually was loaned out to El Paso Zoological Park in El Paso, Texas. The hope was that Matt, whose bloodline was unique and not found in any other Southern White Rhinoceros in North America, would breed with the two female Southern White Rhinos also on loan from San Diego. The Two Females were Miss Kitty, a 17-year-old female who stood 5’ 6” at her shoulder and weighed in at around 3,500 pounds and Daisy May. Daisy was a young and vibrant 10 years old and weighed in at a trim 3,000 pounds and was a petite 5’ at her shoulder. Of the 3 loaned Rhinos Daisy was the most social. But Matt was King.
I received my introduction to my 3 charges when I became lead Keeper of the Hoof stock area in June of 1983. I was used to dealing with small and large species alike. Having come from Abilene Zoological Gardens in Abilene, Texas I had helped birth a Giraffe that was born breach. I had assisted the Herpetologist in getting the 10’ Alligator Humpy back into his enclosure numerous times. Humpy had a Gypsy Soul and liked to wander. My life had been saved by an Asian Elephant 9a story for another day), and I had assisted walking 3-year-old African Elephants around the Zoo Grounds. There are numerous more examples I could give of my work with large species, but you get the idea.
Yet when I was first introduced to these 3 giants, Matt, Miss Kitty and Daisy, I do not think that I was prepared for the welcome I received. The Zoo’s Vet Tech, Claudia Newman, did the introductions. As we walked up the long drive to the central Hoof Stock barn, I could see the 3 Rhinos watching us from their enclosure to our left. This enclosure was large. It swooped down from the central barn towards a lower gutter that sat at the base of a 10’ concrete retaining wall. At the top of this wall and protected from the edge by a short fence and planter that surrounded the hoof stock exhibits the public could look down into the Rhinos curved 100’ x 50’ x 30’ exhibit.
The exhibits substrate was caliche dirt, commonly called desert concrete. This dirt was ideal for Rhino’s with one exception. Miss Kitty was allergic to the dust from this dirt.
As we entered the hoof stock barn the 3 Rhinos rushed up to the stockade fence. This fence was made from concrete anchored wooden utility poles. The poles showed wear from the Rhinos need, like overgrown cats, to rub against them. In this stockade barrier there was a cutaway that was 4’ high and just wide enough for two Rhino heads and that is what greeted us as we walked up to the opening, two Rhino heads belonging to Miss Kitty and Daisy.
Looking at Rhinos from a distance is not like being a foot away from them. It is a little disconcerting at first being nose to nose with a head that is almost as large as your entire body. Claudia made the introductions; This is Miss Kitty, and this is Daisy. Both animals snorted at the sound of their names. That, she indicated the large male Rhino standing back away from the females is Matt. I laughed, “Matt Dillon, Miss Kitty and Daisy?” Claudia nodded, “Yep, the saloon girl.” We laughed and it seemed as if the Rhino’s laughed with us.
Claudia showed me how to apply the Hydrocortisone cream around Miss Kitty’s eyes to help with her allergies. Miss Kitty was used to this routine and stood still as the cream was applied. Daisy nudged her big square upper lip against my forearm. “She wants you to scratch her nose.” I scratched her nose and she purred. I gave Claudia a look. “They are as intelligent as dogs but have many mannerisms like a cat.” She pointed at their wallow, a pit containing their urine and feces in the middle of the exhibit. “They always do their business in the same spot. They rub on things to scratch and leave a scent. They purr and…” Claudia scratched Miss Kitty behind the ear. “They love to be scratched behind the ear.” Miss Kitty half closed her eyes and purred.
Suddenly Matt moved forward and shoved the two females out of the way. His mass made Miss Kitty and Daisy look small. He laid his head on the fence and snorted stamping a rear foot once. “He let’s the females get attention first but when it comes to who eats first the Marshall of Dodge City is first up to the table.’ I laughed and said, “Being from Kansas and being a fan of Gunsmoke I can totally understand the Marshall exercising his rights.” Matt seemed to like the statement as he turned his head towards me and snorted.
Claudia handed me a bucket of sweet horse and mule feed and I held it for Matt as he happily chowed down. When he had enough, I repeated the scenario with Miss Kitty and then Daisy. The hierarchy was obvious, and it would be a scenario that was repeated twice a day in the upcoming months. We took a bale of alfalfa hay from the large stack in the center of the barn, broke it apart and threw it into the exhibit. Claudia said, “Time for the shit cart.”
We rolled the large metal cart into the exhibit and down to the wallow. Using pitch forks we began cleaning out the feces and throwing it into the cart. (I bet you thought a Zookeepers life was all glamour and playing with animals.) At one-point Matt approached us snorting and stomping. Claudia picked up a dirt clod and chucked it at Matt hitting his thick hide on the shoulder. The dirt clod exploded in a rain of dust and Matt ran back up to where Miss Kitty and Daisy were enjoying their breakfast. “Sometimes he likes to show his dominance, but dirt clods shake him up and put him back in his place. He is really a gentle giant” Claudia explained. “Let’s hope I never run out of dirt clods.” I said.
We dumped the Shit Cart in the Zoo’s large dumpster, hosed it out, put up our tools and moved on to care for the next animals; White Tail Deer, North American Bison, Dromedary Camel, Nilgai Antelope and Ostrich. This was my morning routine everyday but twice a day I got to spend quality time with the Rhino’s, and we became close.
June turned to July. July turned to August and August turned to September. Matt and I became close. He started liking the type of attention Miss Kitty and Daisy craved. I no longer had to use dirt clods to spook him; I had learned his language. When he challenged me, I challenged back. I stomped my foot and snorted. I commanded him, “Matt, Get Back!” He would turn and retreat. I had exercised my dominance. Matt was King when I wasn’t around, but I was King when present. But it was more than that. I had developed a deep respect for Matt and the females. I believe with all my heart that respect was returned in kind. In short, we liked each other.
Now do not misunderstand what I am saying. Rhinos are wild animals, and it should never be assumed that they are domesticated in any way. There is an old Zookeeper saying, “Never Turn Your Spine On A Bovine.” In other words, never let your guard down and I never did. One day Matt became agitated because of some unruly children in the public viewing area. His agitation was beyond my control to spook him back. I had to run up the 10’ retaining wall, a trick I had learned as a way to save my life long before parkour was a part of the English language. This skill would again come in handy at a critical time in the relationship between me and Matt.
It was shortly after Labor Day of 1983 that Robert Fulton, the Zoo’s Director, called me to his office. I had been at the Zoo for 3 months and was enjoying every day. I prayed that I was not in trouble. When I entered his office David Benavidez, the Zoo’s Foreman and Claudia were already seated. Mr. Fulton invited me to have a seat and I inquired as to what was happening.
“San Diego wants the Rhinos back.” I was stunned. “What? Why?” Mr. Fulton sighed. “As you know Matts bloodline is unique. We have been unsuccessful in our breeding program. San Diego is upping their program and they want them back. We must send them; they belong to San Diego.” I was stunned. The thought that I would ever lose my friends had never crossed my mind. Rhinos have a lifespan of up to 50 years in captivity and at the time I thought we would all grow old together.
Mr. Fulton informed me that 3 Rhino sized crates were being delivered the next day from Grand Prairie Animal Park. They would be lowered into the exhibit by crane and it would be my job between then and October 10th to get them accustomed to the crates.
So, the daily routine changed. They no longer got their sweet horse and mule feed at the stockade cutaway. Instead, I would pour the feed on the floor right inside the crate. Miss Kitty and Daisy would follow me and had no problem eating their feed in a new way. Matt was more wary. He would snort and stomp and wanted no part of these new arrangements. He missed eating from the bucket in my hand. But even with the trust that had developed between us I could not risk getting up close and personal with him without a barrier. So, I came up with a plan.
The crates had a double layer of bars at the back. There was enough room between these bars for a man to stand. Also, a man could get in between the bars but a Rhino could not. The reason for the spaced bars was to give a animal handler a means of escape or to give a vet safe access to the animal once they were crated. I started standing at the backside of the crate in between the bars and feeding Matt from that side. After a tedious week of on again, off again trust in these new arrangements Matt trusted me and easily came to the bars for his feed.
Since Matt was now use to the crate, I began introducing the feed into the crate. I started at the process at the open end of the crate and day by day moved the feed in deeper. I did this for all 3 animals, and it worked. Soon they were stepping into the crates to get their horse and mule feed.
October 10th came sooner than I wanted it to. The day broke bright and sunny. Fall in the high desert brings a mix of warm and cool breezes intermixed with each other and this morning was no different. The Zoo was closed until all 3 animals could be captured and loaded. Only 3 people were allowed in that end of the Zoo that morning; me, the transport driver and the Veterinarian sent from Grand Prairie Animal Park. The vet’s job would be to administer a tranquilizer if needed and to be with the Rhinos on the long trip to San Diego.
Zoo Staff mingled, anxious outside the zoo’s commissary. They could see down the driveway where the flat bed truck and crane that would load the crates sat. The transport driver had positioned himself on top of one of the crates. He was laying flat, out of sight of the Rhino’s, ready to drop the bar in place after a Rhino entered the crate. The Vet sat on the wall with a dart gun ready to tranquilize if needed. I stood in the driveway, a bucket of Horse and Mule in hand, ready to betray my friends. A mix of feelings filled me, nervousness, anxiety and fear. But mostly my heart was filled with sadness. I steeled myself and entered the exhibit.
Miss Kitty was first. I had treated her eye earlier and I had felt bad that I had not been able to feed her or the other two. They had been fasted since the night before so that they would be hungry and hopefully move into the crates quickly to be fed. I walked backward into the crate with Miss Kitty following me in her big square mouth trying to get the bucket of feed. I stepped between the bars, dumped the feed and as Miss Kitty lowered her head and started to eat the transport driver dropped the bar in place, I exited out the back and tossed a bale of alfalfa into the crate as the transport driver secured the crate.
Daisy and Matt watched with curiosity. Who were these strange people in their home? Why was Miss Kitty sealed in that box? Daisy was a little more wary when it came to her turn, but she entered the crate and was secured. I cannot tell you the feeling of being in a confined space with an animal that could stomp you like a bug or crush your internal organs with the hairy horn on their snout. The saving grace is that within the crate they cannot charge and if spooked they are more likely to back out than lunge forward. So it was with Matt.
As Matt entered the crate, he became anxious. He looked at me, he snorted his anger at being betrayed and backed out as the transport driver tried to drop the bar. Matt ran out into the exhibit and stood snorting and stomping. As I exited the crate Matt charged and I ran, right up the 10’ foot wall. I yelled at the transport driver to stay put and he gave me a thumbs up.
Mr. Fulton came down to see what had happened. We conferred with the Vet and decided we would wait a half hour and try again. We took a break to give Matt a chance to calm down. However, the second attempt to lure him into the crate was just as unsuccessful as the first.
The decision was made to tranquilize him. The idea was to give Matt just enough sedative to make him groggy then the Vet and I would use cattle prods to guide him into the crate. I exited the exhibit as the vet took aim and fired. Twenty minutes later Matt was still not showing any effects from the tranquilizer. He was stomping around the exhibit and letting me know that he was incredibly angry with me and the current situation. The decision was made to administer a second dose. The sound of the air rifle echoed off the steel beams of the barn as the dart entered Matts gray right shoulder just above the first dart.
The effect was almost immediate, and Matt started staggering around the exhibit. The Veterinarian and I entered the exhibit with our cattle prods. The Vet on one side and me on the other we goaded Matt into the crate. All the while I talked to Matt telling him how sorry I was that it had gone this way. The bar was dropped into place and Matt was crated. The Vet entered the backside of the crate where the double bars were located and administered an antidote. I threw a bale of alfalfa into the crate then I kneeled in front of the collapsed Matt.
I was crying and I asked Matt to forgive me for being his Judas. Now before you say that I was being too hard on myself please consider this; I had just broken the trust and respect I had built up with these animals. They had no way of knowing that we were not harming them. They did not know that they were being transported to the home they had once been at with others of their kind. They had no idea that they were going to live their lives under the best care any animal could ask for. They did not even care that they were possibly one of the pieces of the puzzle for the survival of their species. All they knew was that their trusted human had betrayed them. I had turned Judas for the 64 coins I earned daily for my pay.
I said goodbye to Matt, Daisy and Miss Kitty in turn. And as I cried my friends were craned onto the flat bed, secured and made ready for the trip to San Diego. Mr. Fulton stood next to me as we watched this final ceremony in the time that these magnificent creatures had spent at the El Paso Zoo. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Why don’t you take the rest of the day off and go home.” I did not argue. I walked up to the commissary, clocked out and mounted my motorcycle but I did not go home.
I followed the transport and its 3 crates of precious cargo to the New Mexico border 20 miles away. At the sign that stated, “Welcome To New Mexico Land of Enchantment” I pulled over and watch my 3 friends disappear towards the horizon on Interstate 10 that would carry them to California. When I could see them no longer, I said, “our time together was enchanting, and I will miss you. I then turned my motorcycle towards the upper Rio Grande Valley and spent the rest of the day riding the sadness away.
I arrived at work early on October 13, 1983 to a gray day. A rare desert storm was threatening to hit, and I wanted to get my outside duties done quickly before it rained. It had been 3 days since I had said goodbye to Matt, Miss Kitty and Daisy. I thought about them often and knew I had to finish the clean up of their former exhibit and get it ready for whoever the next occupant would be. I had been putting it off because it pained me to look at it. I could see the indentations of the crates and though the wallow was cleaned out and dry it would need to be filled with dirt. Looking at these things brought an overwhelming sadness to me, but I knew it must be done.
I had finished my morning duties and had just hauled the first wheelbarrow full of dirt down to the wallow when Mr. Fulton appeared at the gate. The usually jovial Director was sober and serious as he asked me to step out and talk with him.
“I just received a call from San Diego. Miss Kitty and Daisy arrived safely and are being acclimated.” I suddenly felt my chest tighten. “What about Matt?” Mr. Fulton lowered his head looking at the asphalt floor of the barn. “Matt died in route, right outside San Diego.” I sat down hard on a hay bale and started to cry. “No! What? How?” Mr. Fulton ignoring the crisp freshness of his three-piece suit sat down beside me. “The Vet only administered enough antidote for one tranquilizer. Matt never recovered from the second dose.” I jumped up and looked at Mr. Fulton, “So they killed him?” The Zoo Director stood up brushing off his slacks. “It was an accident.” I was furious. “An accident? How do you accidently forget to give enough antidote? Bull Shit!”
Mr. Fulton acknowledged that it would seem to be neglect. He told me that San Diego was not happy and launching an investigation. “They are not happy?” I shot back. “I am not happy but what good does that do poor Matt?” I started crying again. There was silence in the barn. After a few moments Mr. Fulton cleared his throat and said, “For whatever this is worth San Diego sent a team of Vets out to the transport which was stopped at a rest area alongside the interstate. They harvested Matts testicles while they were still viable. Matt may be gone but his legacy will live on through his offspring.” I looked up at Mr. Fulton and said, “But they are not Matt.”
Mr. Fulton said that he understood how I was feeling and suggested I take the rest of the day off. I said, “I have work to do.” I grabbed the wheelbarrow and went for another load of dirt. Mr. Fulton left leaving me to my work, thoughts and sorrow. As the rain started to fall and I wiped away all traces of my friend it was hard to tell whether my face was wet from the storm or the memory of my lost friend.
You have just read the story of one of the hardest moments of my life. It has been over 37 years since those events took place. Now here we are in 2020. A horrendous year where so many have died so needlessly just like Matt died needlessly. Human or Animal a needless death is still a needless death. It causes us to reflect on mortality, that of ourselves and others.
As 2020 was ending and the last week approached, I was trying to decide on a final painting for this year; a painting that would sum up what this year has meant for me and others. I was coming up short for a subject matter and so likewise was my time coming up short to do a painting before 2021 arrived. With only 4 days to go I saw a photograph by National Geographic photographer and filmmaker Ami Vitale. She has traveled the world over to show us not only violence and conflict but also the beauty and humanity of the natural world.
The photograph that I saw that Vitale took on March 19, of 2018 was of Sudan the last male Northern White Rhino left on earth. The photo was taken at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Northern Kenya, the emotional photograph shows Joseph Wachira, Sudan’s friend and keeper comforting The Last Giant moments before he passed away. It is not hard to imagine the impact this photograph had on me. Grabbing my canvas, paint and brushes I set to work.
Some of you have seen the photographs of my dog Kato Kite watching me work on this painting that is not only a statement on 2020 but also a tribute to Sudan and my friend Matt. It seemed fitting that I have a current animal friend with me as I remembered another animal friend from long ago.
I am an interpretive artist. I do not do photo realism. Though I can see the realistic aspects in a photograph that may serve as my inspiration I paint from the heart. I may overemphasize certain aspects of reality to bring forth the emotion I am feeling or trying to convey. Though my paintings have a base in reality, emotion is the base of my paintings. I could bore you by relating the creation process, but I won’t. What I will tell you is this; as the clock counted down to midnight on New Years Eve and the 1963 Classic Comedy Movie “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” played on the television I signed the finished painting.
I generally will allow the viewer of my work to interpret the painting in their own way. But in this case, I want to explain its motivation. This past year, 2020 caused a lot of pain and sorrow for so many. Such as the pain and sorrow me and Joseph Wachira experienced at the passing of our friends. Both animals were the last of their kind; one the last wild caught the other the last on earth. Both passing’s were traumatic and an immeasurable loss. Yet just as Matts testicles were harvested so that new generations of Southern White Rhinoceros may once again populate the earth so too was Sudan’s testicles harvested so that the great Northern White Rhinoceros may, hopefully, once more roam the earth.
The story of these two Last Giants so far apart yet so intricately linked together can serve as a lesson for mankind. From the travesty and traumatic crisis, the year 2020 has been we can harvest from it hope for a new beginning for future generations. All we must do is harvest the lessons we have learned and push forward into the future. From our pain joy can take root and grow.
I envy Joseph Wachira. He was able to be there in Sudan’s last moments and say goodbye. I could not be there in Matt’s last moments to say goodbye. I have however given Matt a proper send off by sharing with you his story. May this tribute to The Last Giant serve as my goodbye to 2020 and the hope for a brighter better future for us all.
Every Year During The Holiday Season I Giveaway A Painting; This Year I Put A Twist On It.
Finding new, fun and different ways to giveaway a painting can be a challenge and this year was no different. What was different was the amount of work that went into it.
I decided that I would give away the painting to one of the people I work with at Hobby Lobby. How to choose the recipient? With a game of course.
I spent numerous nights at my craft desk creating 2.5″ x 3.5″ Festive Boxes; 48 in all. I then filled 30 of those boxes with candy. Once the boxes were loaded I left the room and had my Lovely Lady Raychel place a “W” inside one of the lids.
I did not want to know which box had the “W” because part of my fun was to see how many boxes were opened before it was found. Whoever received the box with the “W” would win the special watercolor painting I had created just for this giveaway; “Stone Retreat”.
I then made a special sign to be displayed next to the gift wrapped painting and displayed boxes:
“I Handmade A Box Just For You
Someone Will Win My Painting Too
You Don’t Have To Buy, Barter or Bid
Just Look For The “W” Inside The Lid
But One Box Only For Everyone
You Don’t Want To Ruin All The Fun
Even If The Painting You Don’t Win
In Each Box A Prize Within
Lot’s of Candy For You To Enjoy
Yummy Sweets For Each Girl and Boy
So I Say Merry Christmas To You
And Happy New Year Too
-Yours Truly J.A. George AKA; The GYPSY”
I arranged everything on a table in the Break Room on December 17th which was a freight day and would guarantee that almost every employee would be to work that day…. Let the fun begin!
All through the day people were coming to me and saying, “I didn’t win.” There was one employee however that was telling everyone, “I want to win, I want that painting.” With 20 boxes gone and just 10 left that employee picked the right box and revealed the lid with the “W”.
The irony in this particular employee winning my painting is just the day before the giveaway I had tattooed a memorial tattoo on her thigh. So now she owns two pieces of my original art.
Congratulations and Merry Christmas Shauna Staten I hope you enjoy “Stone Retreat”.
I sat in the chair in front of the enormous desk holding the contract in my hands. Across from me, hands folded in front of him, sat the man in the suit and the tie with the Windsor knot that had handed me the contract.
I had just read article 15, which stated to wit; any and all work that I did over the next 15 years belonged to the greeting card company that was wanting to hire me as an artist. I looked at the man and thought how ridiculous his blue and red striped tie looked against the dark green of his suit. His eye glasses reflected the light, he looked like a Christmas tree with a sparkling tree topper.
The date was January 5th 1976 and I had just graduated midterm from my high school. I was taking college art classes and was not really sure what direction I wanted to go in life. The one thing I was sure of and the one thing I had always been sure of ever since I was a young child was that I would be an artist. Nothing else in the world interested me more than art. To spend my life creating art was my idea of a life well spent.
I laid the contract on the man’s desk and set back in my chair. He studied me and I studied him. “Well, what do you think?” he asked. What I thought was, “How did you get my portfolio?” I suspected that I knew how he had got my portfolio. My well-meaning mother, whose dream it was for me go to work for this well-known and well-respected greeting card company had probably sent it to them. That is what I wanted to ask the living Christmas decoration sitting across from me but what I said was, “Let me get this straight, any and all work I do over the next 15 years belongs exclusively to your company. So does that mean that if I paint a mural and hang it over my fireplace that you can come into my home and take that painting?”
He stammered, “Well technically…” I cut him off, “This is a simple yes or no question yes you can, no you can’t.” The human Christmas tree shook off some loose needles, cleared its throat and said, “Well theoretically…” I cut him off with a wave of my hand as I stood up, “Well theoretically”, I said turning towards the door, “I’m going to have to think about it.” Mr. Xmas jumped to his feet. “We are really interested in signing you; the contract will be here when you are ready to sign.” He pointed at his desk indicating the stack of neatly typed papers that lay upon it.
Over the years I have thought about that contract laying on his desk and I have wondered to myself; I wonder how dusty that contract is? Because I knew when I stepped out that door and it closed behind me that I would never be back.
I was 19 years old at the time and as I rode down in the glass enshrouded elevator all I could think to myself was if I had signed that contract I would be an old man of 34 years old by the time it expired. Now there are some people that would say I was crazy for not signing on with the greeting card company, I mean after all with the progressive salary raises that the contract offered by the time it expired in 1989 I would be pulling down $50,000 a year, not to mention accumulated bonus’, benefits and a fat pension package. At that time that was a chunk of cash, even in this day and age it is nothing to sneeze at, yet to me it wasn’t enough to sign my soul away. There is never enough money for that.
As I walked out of the large center that held the offices that I would never be returning to the chill wind sent a shiver up my spine. I stood and let the sunshine try to warm my face as I wondered; is it the wind that makes me cold or is it the thought of what I just turned down that leaves me chilled. There was one thing I knew for sure I wasn’t in a big hurry to return home. My mother’s dream for me had always been for me to go to work for that particular card company but it wasn’t my dream. No I would have to return home and tell my mother that her hopes, plans and aspirations for me were not the hopes, plans and aspirations I had for myself.
As I drove down Main Street in Kansas City, Missouri I looked to my right and my left for some distraction, for something that would allow me to kill some time so that I could delay the inevitable scene that would occur when I told my mother what I had decided. That is when I saw it, the tattoo parlor, I turned the corner and pulled into the parking lot behind the building.
I had never been inside a tattoo parlor, the thought of going into a tattoo parlor had never even crossed my mind let alone the thought of getting a tattoo. On this day my only thought was; let’s go in and check this out and see if it’s just like it is on TV and in the movies. Besides I was looking for a way to kill time and this was as good a way as any.
As I walked into the building the smell of alcohol, soap and cigarette smoke assailed my nostrils. The walls were filled with a mirade of cartoonish looking designs on large cardboard sheets; I would later learn that these were called “Flash”. The only sound inside the building was the music playing from an old radio up on a shelf and ithe nsisted buzzing of the tattoo gun.
In this time and place the terms “parlor” and “gun” were appropriate; that would not be the case in the future when those terms would become archaic and be replaced with studio and machine. But the tattooist who sat behind the counter in this “parlor” tattooing the arm of a man with his “gun” was not only appropriate but descriptive of the atmosphere of this place and the individual whose imposing presence ruled this domain.
I swallowed hard, cleared my throat and then in a voice meeker than I had intended said, “Excuse me sir, do you mind if I watch you work?” Without looking up from the bicep that he was tattooing a peacock onto the tattooist barked out, “Yeah, but don’t talk to me.”
I will not bore you with the details of my long time standing there watching this man tattoo. To go into detail about what he tattooed that day who he tattoo that day and where those tattoos were placed on the numerous bodies that walked in and out of his shop would do nothing but put you to sleep and cause you to stop reading this narrative. What is important to note was that 14 hours after I had first asked Gene if I could watch him and he locked those doors to his parlor for the day I was still there.
“So”, he asked as he locked the door, “when are you going to start learning how to tattoo?” I laughed, “What makes you think I want to learn how to tattoo?” Gene eyed me up and down and shook his head. “Boy let me tell you something I have been tattooing for twenty eight years, I am third generation, my daddy tattooed before me and his daddy before him. Nobody, and I mean nobody stands for 14 hours straight with their mouth closed watching me work that doesn’t want to learn.”
I was a 19 year old kid who thought he had all the answers, who believed that no one knew what was going on in this whole wide world any better than he did. I looked at Gene smirked and said, “I’ll have to think about it.”
“Yeah right”, he said, “I’ll see you in the morning.”
The drive home between Kansas City and St Joe that morning seem to take longer than usual. My mind was working overtime weighing, balancing, determining, and desperately trying to see into my murky, crowded and unknown future.
Around 4 a.m. I walked in the door of the apartment that I shared with my mother and sister. My mother sat on the couch waiting for me a stack of magazines and newspapers next to her. She jumped up as I entered the apartment and almost, no doubt in her excitement, screamed, “Where have you been? Where have you been? What did they say? When do you start work for them?”
I took off my coat and dropped it over the back of the chair by my mom’s priced piano. I turned around and faced her; you could not miss the look of excited anticipation on her face. I cleared my throat and said, “I’m not going to work for them.” The look of excitement left my mother’s face and was instantly replaced by a look of confusion. “What do you mean you’re not going to work for them? If you don’t go to work for the greeting card company what on earth are you going to do?” Mustering up as much of my manly nineteen-year-old fortitude as I possibly could I looked my mother dead in the eye and said, “I’m going to be a tattoo artist.” She promptly screamed and fainted.
My grandmother took it a little better then my mother did. When I phoned her to give her the news and I told her what I had decided. There was a slight pause on the other end of the line, I heard her exhale and then she asked, “Will it make you happy?” I said, “Yes ma’am it will.” My grandmother said, “Well then that is all that matters.”
In my 40 year career I have had many milestones, many accomplishments and many let downs. I have always chosen to not dwell up on the downside of my career but rather on the upside and what I have been able to give back to a profession that has given so much to me.
I have three associates degrees; forestry / wildlife management, technical illustration / mechanical drafting and psychiatric technician.
I have had the first tattoo studios in St Joseph Missouri, Abilene Texas, Midland Texas, San Angelo Texas, Baxter Springs, Kansas, Iola Kansas and Independence, Kansas. I also had the first legally registered tattoo studio in the state of Oklahoma and from 1995 – 2010 I was the officially recognized tattoo authority for the Osage Nation.
I was the first person in the state of Kansas to actually go to school to learn how to pierce and learn how to do microdermal implantation, what is commonly referred to as cosmetic tattooing.
At one time it was believed that you couldn’t tattoo over scars. In 1977 I was allowed the opportunity to practice scar cover up on a gentleman that had been burnt over three quarters of his body. I spent a year working on his arm and taking notes. I developed a procedure that worked for covering up his heavy scar tissue with tattoos and I wrote a paper on it in 1978. Tattoo artists that cover up scar tissue today may not know where the technique came from that they have learned to do but that’s okay. Because it gives me satisfaction to know how many people have been helped because of work I did in 1977 and 1978. Recently I heard of a tattoo artist in Ohio who is donating their time to cover the scars of victims of severe trauma. I cannot tell you how happy it makes me to hear of other people in my profession giving back with something that I helped develop.
I promoted, organized and sponsored the very first ever tattoo convention in Kansas which ran from 1993 – 1997.
I have been a senior zookeeper, a soldier, a photographer, a truck driver, a bar owner and a school bus driver. I have driven ice cream vans, been an art teacher, actor and common laborer.
Together with my wife I founded Artist Alley and American Ghost Riders (a paranormal research group). I am an artist, an author, an illustrator, and a psychic.
I ran for the Kansas State House of Representatives in 2006 and I am the creator and executive director of Topcon Geek Expo.
I have donated of my time, my energies, my talents and my self to numerous civic and charitable causes. I was the Chairman of the Baxter Springs Joint Historic and Beautification Committee. I have sat on the board of Directors of the Baxter Springs Chamber of Commerce, Southeast Kansas Tourism Region and 4 State Tattoo Association. I was an Explorer Scout Adviser and a Children’s Art Teacher. And through all these things I have done and been I continued my Body Art career practicing my love of Tattooing and Piercing.
In 2008 I became one of only 27 people worldwide that had taken and passed the Alliance of Professional Tattooist Tattoo Mastery test.
In 2009 I was appointment to the Kansas Board of Cosmetology, by Governor Mark Brown, as the representative for the body art industry in the state of Kansas.
I have one of the first websites ever on the Internet dedicated to tattooing and piercing I have owned the www.ubtat2d.com domain since 1994. I am a resident expert on body art on www.allexperts.com and I have written numerous articles about tattooing and piercing as well as doing the lecture circuit disgussing body art safety and ethics.
From 1988 through 2010 I owned several different state of the art mobile facilities and worked the show and event circuit during the summer months. Arizona to Kansas to Oklahoma to Missouri to Ohio I traveled, I tattooed, I pierced. South Dakota to Arkansas to New Hampshire to Iowa to Texas I did the miles and I did the art. Pennsylvania to South Carolina to Nebraska to Wyoming to New Mexico I left no road untraveled and no client unmarked.
I have given countless television and radio interviews as well as appearing and starring in movies and television documentaries about tattooing, piercing and the paranormal. I even share top billing in a movie with Peter Fonda, Jim Dandy, Greg Alman, Willie Davidson, Slaughter and Paul Revere.
I have won numerous awards and accolades for the tattoo art I create both nationally and internationally.
I have artwork in the Smithsonian institution as well as in museums in Kansas and elsewhere in the United States. I am even part of an exhibit about American art that is featured in a traveling Museum in Australia.
My art and the career that I chose to follow have put food on my family’s table, clothes on my children’s back and a roof over my family’s head.
I am an old school tattoo artist and proud of that fact; I make no apologies to anyone for the art I create nor the style of that art. I do not compare my work to others and I do not appreciate it when others compare their work to mine.
All artists no matter what medium they work in have their style. You cannot compare Van Gogh to Renoir, you cannot compare Michelangelo to Rodan and you can not compare Sailor Jerry to The Gypsy. All have their styles, all have their niche and all have they’re separate following. The type of art I like is not the type of art that another person may like and vice a versa.
I have been practicing my tattoo art 40 years now and truthfully I am tired. It is not that I am tired of tattooing because I’m not. It’s not that I am tired of creating art because I am NOT. What I am tired of is ignorance; ignorance that comes from rudeness and the rudeness that comes from disrespect.
For 40 years I have dealt with the truly ignorant, the truly Rude, the truly disrespectful and and with the widespread popularity of social networking the trolls have become even more ignorant, rude and disrespectful and I am just tired of it.
It is an unfortunate statement on our society that you cannot educate those who refuse to be educated. I know, I have tried to educate people but while some learn others close their eyes, they close their ears, and they close their minds. Those are barriers that you just cannot pass through and I am done trying.
That is why I have decided to pass on the torch to younger and more enthusiastic members of the body art community.
In the near future I will be retiring from body art. I will go back to where it all started; I will lay down my tattoo machine and pick up a paintbrush and my art will have come full circle. So it is with life everything comes full circle and there is no beginning and there is no end.
In my career I have apprenticed 18 people; out of those 18 people 2 proved their worth. It is to those two that I will leave my legacy my hopes and my dreams to. My final chapter will never be wrote because within all those I have taught, touched and loved in my life and in my career my story will continue.
They will take all that they have learned from me and they will expand it, they will improve upon it and pass it on to those who want ti learn and will further expand on and improve the world of Body Art just like I did with what I learned. I will live on from generation to generation and the ethics and passion I contributed to Tattooing and Piercing will live on also. Because just as I drank from the spring that formed me so too did they drink from the spring that formed them and those who come after them will drink from their spring.
So when that day comes that I do announce my retirement do not mourn for what has ended rather rejoice with me in what has begun. Because baby you ain’t seen nothing yet.
-The GYPSY: Master Tattoo Artist-