Chicago Dime Museum Tattooer: Sailor Gus by Carmen Nyssen
Among Chicago’s turn of the century tattooers making their mark behind the façade of the city’s grand dime museums was Swedish-born Carl Augustus Fransen (1871-1919). Sailor Gus Franso, as he was also known, settled in the Windy City around May of 1902, first taking a spot in the popular Congress Museum and Penny Amusement Parlor at 344 State Street. In this setting—plying his needle alongside a menagerie of “freak show” performers—he earned a fair living and built-up a solid reputation locally. As the New York Clipper reported, in June, the museum was experiencing an upswing in business, and their resident tattooer Sailor Gus was making “quite an impression” on patrons with his handiwork.
Like most museum attractions, Gus made the rounds on the show and dime museum circuit, though he stayed nearby. By July of 1903, after a short stint with Frank’s Big Fair Show in Valapraiso, Indiana and probably other venues, he had set-up in one of Chicago’s most illustrious and longstanding establishments, George Middleton’s Clark Street Museum, at 150 South Clark Street. Originally opened in 1883 by Middleton and his partner Charles E. Kohl, the museum was a sought-out locale for attractions, and provided a lucrative platform for tattooer and tattooed attraction alike.
Having been covered from torso-to-toe in tattoo designs himself, Ol’ Gus was no stranger to displaying his body for curious audiences. In fact, in Chicago, he had made such a name in town the Inter-Ocean Sun published a feature on him, in 1906, and described not only his prowess with an electric tattoo machine, but also his personal “pictorial gallery” of “full rigged vessels, mountain scenery,” and so forth. According to the article, the “West Side” tattooer had made a decent living for a number of years both exhibiting his tattoo covered hide and tattooing people from all walks of life, and he had left a respectable legacy in the city. In Gus’ four, or so, years there, he had etched a good deal of tattoo work upon Chicagoans. As he told the newspaper interviewer, “There’s more men carrying around designs I’ve tattooed on ‘em in Chicago than you’d have any idea of…”
Although Sailor Gus became a recognizable figure in Chicago tattooing during his brief stay, his itinerant nature inevitably took over and he moved on in search of the next enticing tattoo center. After leaving, in 1907, he spent ample time in Portland, Oregon; then Salt Lake City, Utah; and finally made his way down the coast to San Pedro and San Diego, California, where he lived out his last days.