Where Two Tattoo Artists and a Sword Swallower Came Together… Triangle Tattoo and Museum in Fort Bragg CA

 

I was met at the top of the stairs by the charming Madam Chinchilla who was tattooed from neck to feet.

I was met at the top of the stairs by the charming Madam Chinchilla of Triangle Tattoo and Museum who was tattooed from neck to feet.

I have always been a wanderer, happy to be on the road, excited to see new things. I still am. But blogging has changed my perspective. I think more about what will make a good story, and what photos I should take to illustrate the story. I do more research. Sometimes I think, “Damn! This resembles work.” Posts have to be written, photos processed, deadlines met. The thought passes quickly, however. Blogging has made my travels more meaningful and interesting. On occasion, it has even led me down paths I might never have taken. Today’s blog is a good example.

I was taking advantage of Starbucks’ free Wi-Fi in Fort Bragg, California to check in on my WordPress blog when a promotion came up listing “things to do in Fort Bragg.” I expected options like ‘visit Mendocino,’ or ‘go for a walk on the coast,’ etc. Much to my surprise and bemusement, number one on the list was a tour of the Triangle Tattoo and Museum at 356 N Main Street. It caught my attention. I had never been in a tattoo parlor, much less a tattoo museum. The thought of someone scratching an animal, flower, skull, naked woman, snake, dragon, Mother, or even Popeye the Sailor Man on me sends my skin scooting away in hasty retreat. I am a wimp when it comes to such things. Even a trip to the dentist seems like more fun.

If ever there was a symbol of sailors and tattoos it was the spinach eating Popeye the Sailor Man, who yam what he yam.

If ever there was a symbol of sailors and tattoos it was the spinach eating Popeye the Sailor Man, who yam what he yam. (Photo from Triangle Tattoo Museum.)

The walls of Triangle Tattoo in Fort Brag are covered with traditional tattoo art. I would have to be drunk, knocked out, and tied down to have a tattoo of a skull or Mother scratched on my body.

The walls of Triangle Tattoo in Fort Bragg are covered with traditional tattoo art. I would have to be drunk, knocked out, and tied down to have a tattoo of a snake, skull or Mother scratched on my body…

Or even a dragon with a scantily clad woman.

Or even a dragon with a scantily clad woman.

But I was hooked. I had to go. I packed away my laptop, pulled out my camera, and headed downtown. I didn’t have a clue what I was getting myself into, which often makes for the very best adventures. I was greeted by a wonderfully garish stairway and begin my climb upward, nervously.

The entrance to Triangle Tattoo pulls you in and up the stairs. I was fascinated about what I might see next.

The entrance to Triangle Tattoo pulls you in and up the stairs. I was fascinated about what I might see next.

Side show poster art at Triangle Tattoo in Fort Brag.

One thing I found was circus side-show poster art. Tattooed men and women were once prime circus attractions. (I believe this was done by Captain Don Leslie, the sword swallower.)

Madam Chinchilla was waiting for me at the top.

Whatever I was expecting, she wasn’t it— she is an absolutely delightful, attractive, and charming woman in her late 60s, tattooed from head to toe. Over the next hour she served as my tour guide. We started out at the business end of the parlor where Mr. G., her partner in the business since 1986, was busily tattooing his pharmacist. Next she took me into her studio and told me to take all of the pictures I wanted. The walls were covered with photos of her life and interests. There was even a picture of her mom, proudly displaying some fish she had caught.

Madam Chinchilla in her studio. A large elephant tusk, which she was quick to point out was not made of ivory, stood behind her.

Madam Chinchilla in her studio. A large elephant tusk, which she was quick to point out was not made of ivory, stood behind her. A strong Oriental theme is found throughout the room.

A close up of the tusk with an appropriate dragon.

A close up of the tusk with an appropriate fire-breathing dragon.

Madam Chinchilla's exotic studio.

Madam Chinchilla’s exotic studio.

One of many photos I found of Mr. G. and Madam Chinchilla in her studio room.

One of many photos I found of Mr. G. and Madam Chinchilla in her studio room.

Madam C's mom proudly displays fish she caught as a young woman.

Madam C’s mom proudly displays fish she caught as a young woman.

The museum reflected tattooing down through the ages and within various cultures. Masks reminded me of my time in West Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I thought of Sam, the young man who worked for me, and the scarification/tattoos on his chest that represented marks made by the Bush Devil’s teeth, an experience reflected in my book title about my Peace Corps experience: The Bush Devil Ate Sam. Modern tattoo machines are much more sophisticated than whatever tool was used to carve Sam’s skin. The control of depth, speed, and force of the needle allowed by tattoo machines has turned tattooing into an art form.

The doorway to the Triangle Tattoo Museum. You are welcomed by native masks.

The doorway to the Triangle Tattoo Museum. You are welcomed by traditional native masks.

A close up of the masks.

A close up of the masks.

12 African mask from Ivory Coast owned by Curtis Mekemson

I brought this African Medicine mask home with me when I returned from being a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa. Note the tattoo marks above and below the eyes.

The tattoo machines on the right are capable of producing sophisticated body art.

The tattoo machines on the right are capable of producing sophisticated body art. Feathers are extra.

There is more to the museum than tattooing, however. Numerous photos and artifacts, such as boots and a sword, serve as a memorial to Captain Don Leslie, a world-renowned sword swallower and circus sideshow attraction. Madame Chinchilla and Mr. G had befriended Captain Don in 1986 when they had first started their tattoo business. It was a friendship that had grown and lasted up until the Captain passed away in 2007. His presence is still very much felt at Triangle Tattoo. In 2010, Madam Chinchilla published a biography on Leslie that she had co-written with Jan Hinson. I bought a copy, which I read that night and was immediately transported back in time to when the circus came to town.

Captain Don Leslie, sword swallower

Captain Don Leslie, sword swallower. Captain Don began his career by running away and joining a circus as a teenager. Both his sword swallowing and tattoos served as draws to circus side shows.(From a photo at Triangle Tattoo and museum.)

Captain Don's first sword he ever swallowed and his boots hang on display at the Triangle Tattoo and Museum.

Captain Don’s first sword he ever swallowed and his boots hang on display at the Triangle Tattoo and Museum. Madam Chinchilla described how Captain Don would join Mr. G. and her for each Fourth of July Parade in Fort Bragg. Madam C. and Mr. G would drive their pink Cadillac. Captain Don would walk in front, with sword in hand and breathing fire. What a show it must have been.

Diagram of sword swallowing by Captain Don Leslie

Don’t do this at home. A graphic made by Captain Don displays the anatomy of a sword swallower. How do you swallow a sword? “Very carefully,” he notes. But the question remains…

Captain Don Leslie, sword swallower extraordinaire

How do you swallow several swords? Captain Don also mastered breathing flames, laying on a nail bed, and walking on glass. (Taken from a photo in Madam Chinchilla’s biography of Captain Don.)

Madam Chinchilla holds the book she wrote on Captain Don.

Madam Chinchilla holds the book she wrote on Captain Don.

Inscription in the biography of Captain Don Leslie

Madam Chinchilla’s inscription to me in Captain Don’s book. I truly enjoyed the museum. If you get to Fort Bragg, it is definitely worth a stop. And the hospitality is great! Thanks Madam C.

As I was leaving the museum, Madam Chinchilla left me with two thoughts. One was that “the human body is a historical site for the inscription of culture and its history/herstory.” The other was about how popular tattooing has become— it is now mainstream. Judging from all of the tattoos I see around me, I have to agree, but I am still not going to offer my body up as a tattoo artist’s canvass.

NEXT BLOG: This blog completes my North Coast series but provides an excellent introduction to my Burning Man series. I am running it now to coincide with the time that Burners prepare to buy their 2016 tickets. The 2015 theme was Carnival and is the subject of my first blog. Captain Don would have loved it. In fact he would have quickly become a main attraction. Join me.

29 comments on “Where Two Tattoo Artists and a Sword Swallower Came Together… Triangle Tattoo and Museum in Fort Bragg CA

    • Oh come on Gerard. I know you are up for a little risky behavior on occasion. 🙂 I can’t even imagine putting a sword in my mouth, much less down my gullet. Captain Don did note that the sword edges were dulled and the points smoothed off. Hmmm. He also liked to down fire pokers. –Curt

    • Quite something, eh Andrew. A drunk came up on stage and knocked Captain Don over once when he had a sword down his throat. It caused serious damage and I believe ended Don’s sword swallowing career. –Curt

  1. This is wonderful! Thanks Curt! I will never get a tattoo either, but I appreciate the art and I love the insight you have provided here. ( Ya’know, It tells you in the bible not to mark your body – but then it tells you not to eat bacon either, so….) What a wonderful day you had. Loved the pictures, but I froze and my eyes bugged out when I saw what I supposed was a carved elephant trunk — glad to see I was mistaken (I’m such a hypocrite 🙂 )

    • Interesting on the bible, Alice. Didn’t know that, but then no one has ever accused me of being an expert. The trip to the museum was quite a learning experience for me. Afterwards, when I went to Burning Man, I saw tattoos everywhere… but then again, they are Burners. 🙂 As for tusk not trunk, I got your correction first and went dashing back to my blog to see if I had made the mistake. (grin) When I came back from Africa we brought a small carved tusk of a beautiful Mandingo woman. It went off with the first wife, however. And I got the VW Van. Now I am guilt-free. he-he. —Curt

    • Me too, Alison. It reminds me of how many marvelous things we pass by in they world, and what we miss because of it. I had walked by Triangle Tattoo several times in the pass without a thought of checking it out. My loss. –Curt

  2. This was very good for me. Seeing the words Tattoo Artists and Sword Swallower, I was all ready to give this post a rather cursory glance… and it was fascinating. It dealt a blow to my foolish stereotypical prejudices. Fascinating subject, but you are right, you don’t need to undergo tattooing to appreciate it.

    • I am glad you enjoyed the post Hilary. It is a totally different world from any I have known, and I appreciated Chinchilla’s introduction to it. I would have enjoyed meeting Captain Leslie as well. –Curt

  3. Great story! Tattoos were once so frowned upon, I wonder what it is like from Madam Chinchilla’s perspective to see it so mainstream now. She must not feel that unique anymore. That said, in her age range, I doubt too many are sporting all those tattoos.

  4. How we got to January 4 already, I don’t know, but here we are. It’s a little disheartening to be playing catch-up already. But I had to stop by and tell you how much I enjoyed this post. There is no way on earth I ever would get a tattoo, but I find them fascinating, cute (the little ankle bracelets and such) and occasionally repulsive.

    Have you heard of or read about the Yakuza? It’s the Japanese crime syndicate, and one of the marks of membership is full-body tattoos. I learned about them when I picked up the book “Yakuza Moon: Memoirs of a Gangster’s Daughter.” The author is Shoko Tendo. There’s been a little conflict amongst the Yakuza of late. I have a more scholarly book about the Yakuza, too. It’s so interesting to me — the connection between tattoos and criminality. I suppose that’s why they got such an unsavory reputation in the beginning. Well, and sailors. 🙂

    • I am glad you enjoyed the post, Linda. When I walked into the tattoo parlor, I didn’t have a clue what I was going to fine. And I found that the whole experience was fascinating, especially so with Madame Chinchilla’s guidance. I’ve read a little on the Yakuza and was aware of it’s connection to crime and tattoos. I was interested when I was reading about Captain Lesley how tattooed people became important to sideshows in the 50s and 60s, and how he became tattooed because of that.It was part of the “freak show” idea. Things have certainly changed. –Curt

  5. I’ve been gone awhile, but I knew there was a tattoo story in here somewhere, so this is the one I came looking for. Great post Curt! What a discovery. You must be delighted that you had the chance to find this place and spend some time there. I will show this one to Tara when they come home from college next. As a newly tattooed person, I’m sure it will be of interest. Tara said to me over Christmas break, “People always say they would never get a tattoo because then when they got old it would look awful. Well, I’ve never met an older person with a tattoo that I didn’t think was totally cool.” I think Madame Chinchilla fits the bill.

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