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History & Happenings, the Great Lakes Tattoo Blog. Sharing news, events and fascinating tidbits on Chicago Tattoo History.  

Chicago History State St


Chicago Tattoo History - State St.


The history of tattooing in Chicago is rife with incredible people and unbelievable stories right  down to the finest detail. With vintage flash on the walls, curated historical artifacts and antique equipment spread throughout the shop, Great Lakes Tattoo not only embraces that history, but digs deep into those details to preserve and share the stories that make it up.   

Tattooing found a foothold in Chicago around the turn of the century on State Street in the South Loop area. Where the Harold Washington Library now sits was once a seedy district that featured penny arcades, dime museums, burlesque houses, pawn shops, strip clubs and tattoo shops. Tattoo Shops were typically located inside a penny arcade or adult books store. 


Unfortunately, there are not many historical pictures of this area. There are those who would have preferred to pretend that this disreputable part of the city didn’t exist. But, by combing local archives and private collections, Nick Colella of Great Lakes Tattoo has amassed a record that gives a glimpse of Chicago’s State Street area through the years. 


These images, show State Street in the 1920’s. It’s easy to see that this was a seedy area, but a busy one. Frequented by visitors from the Great Lakes Naval Base, it was an entertainment destination. Not family-friendly, but definitely fun. At one point, the Navy even opened a recruiting centre, figuring the people frequenting the area are a good fit. 


The address is easy to see in this picture of 414 State Street. This is where the legendary Tatts Thomas worked in the 1950’s and 1960’s. During that time he worked with the likes of Ned Resinol and later, after Resinol left, Ralph Johnstone. 

The Tattoo Shops of this time weren’t stand alone. Mostly located in the arcades, adult books stores and burlesque houses, which were typically owned by organized crime syndicates in Chicago. At one time, there was said to be hundreds of tattooers on State Street. This is a typical ad placed in popular mechanics or Billboard magazine. 


The landscape of State Street stayed largely the same from the turn of the century through the early 1960’s. Then in 1963, the city changed it’s laws, making it illegal for anyone under 21 to get a tattoo. City legislators hoped that by raising the age from the previously held 18 years old, it would help clean up the area. While a few shops lingered until the mid to late 1960’s, the festive feel of the area began to decline. Slowly, visitors to the area sought their fun elsewhere  and all that was left were a few pawn shops, payday loan storefronts and transient hotels. 

Many tattooers of this time packed up and moved to Milwaukee which was equal distance from Great Lakes Naval Base. Tattooing was on the decline in Chicago until Cliff Raven opened up on Belmont in 1968 (Cliff Raven Studios, the only shop in Chicago at one point), and later became Chicago Tattoo Company that is still in existence to this day. 

State Street also housed one of the biggest tattoo suppliers in the 1930s. Chicago Tattoo Supply Company,  was owned by Bill Moore until he passed away. Called “Moore’s Electrograver Co.” to the public, Moore was unable to advertise as the Chicago Tattoo Supply House. 

While these days tattoo shops may be snugly nestled in between Pottery Barns and Best Buys, Great Lakes Tattoo remembers the days when penny arcades, burlesque houses and adult books stores were the haven for those looking to get tattooed or just have a good time.