Honoring Pride and our Lineage
June is Pride Month across much of North America. A time when LGBTQ+ people of all stripes can gather and celebrate their lifestyle, continue the fight for equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and take a positive stance against violence and discrimination. Great Lakes Tattoo is proud to be a part of the thriving gay community in Chicago. Much of Great Lakes Tattoo and Chicago’s tattoo history is informed by its strong ties to Pride and Chicago gay culture. In fact, it could be argued that the modern tattooing community in Chicago grew out of the gay BDSM community, thanks to three men who participated heavily in both: Phil Sparrow, Chuck Renslow and Cliff Raven.
In the 1960s, most of the tattooers in Chicago had left for outlying areas, due to the newly enacted law requiring individuals getting a tattoo to be 21 years old. Just one shop in Chicago was able to stay open; Cliff Raven Studios.
Cliff Raven was a Chicago tattoo artist who (along with Sailor Jerry Collins, Don Nolan, and Don "Ed" Hardy) pioneered the adoption of the Japanese tattoo aesthetic in the United States.
Raven was taught to tattoo by Phil Sparrow, a college professor, artist, and tattooer, as well as a gay man in Chicago. Sparrow and Raven were heavily involved with the gay BDSM community, leading to a longtime friendship between the two men and with the gay community pioneer Chuck Renslow.
Chuck Renslow was an aspiring tattooer and businessperson with a passion for leather and physique photography. Sparrow had attempted to teach Renslow how to tattoo, but Chuck never really took to it. After a brief tattooing career, Renslow changed gears and established many landmarks of late-20th-century gay male culture in the Chicago area. This included the founding of the Gold Coast bar, Man's Country, the International Mr. Leather competition and the magazines Triumph, Rawhide, and Mars.
Renslow had begun teaching Raven how to tattoo, and Sparrow also encouraged Raven to pursue tattooing as a career. Renslow drifted away from tattooing himself but stayed involved with his store Eagle Leather on Clark Street, offering tattoo and piercing services for many years.
Renslow also enjoyed taking photos of his friends Raven and Sparrow tattooing. Some of these photos can be seen today as part of the Great Lakes Tattoo collection. The collection also includes childhood photos of Raven, several paintings and flash sheets, and Cliff’s personal tattoo machines that he used daily.
The first Cliff Raven Studios, the only tattoo shop in Chicago at the time, was run out of a Belmont Street building that was owned by Chuck Renslow’s mother. In the mid-1960s, Raven tattooed out of Renslow’s Kris Studios photography studio.
Like Sparrow and Renslow, Cliff Raven was a gay man but chose to keep that aspect of his life largely separate from his tattooing career. Raven felt that his sexuality was on a “need to know” basis and it was rarely discussed. Raven felt that it could affect his business if clients learned of his sexuality, as well as put him and his partner in danger, so he preferred to keep that aspect of his life private to those outside the community. In fact, Raven’s partner of 27 years, Pierre Mitchell, was often known as Bob Raven, his “brother.”
Another interesting thread that ties these men together is a colorful Chicago character known as “Blubak.” Real name Larry Rogers, Blubak (pronounced "Blue-Back") was a gay man, merchant marine and tattoo collector who spent a lot of time on State Street. Upon meeting Phil Sparrow and getting tattooed by him, Blubak offered to introduce Sparrow to the legendary Amund Dietzel, who gave Sparrow some pointers on his tattooing. Sparrow returned the favor by practicing his new skills on Blubak. Later, Cliff Raven would also tattoo Blubak, along with many other Chicago tattooers and eventually, Blubak was tattooed by Great Lakes Tattoo’s own Nick Colella.
Phil Sparrow, Chuck Renslow and Cliff Raven, were prominent Chicago tattooers, businessmen and artists and played a large part in the proliferation of tattooing and of gay culture in Chicago. All three were not only fascinating historical figures but unusual in that they were gay men in a profession that, at the time, was strongly homophobic.
The three remained in touch through the 1960s and 70s, as the Chicago tattoo and gay communities both flourished into what we know today. Renslow stayed in Chicago for the rest of his life while Sparrow and Raven chose to make the west coast their home in their later years.
Many artifacts from these three influential men including Phil Sparrow’s flash, paintings, Cliff Raven’s machines, and Chuck Renslow’s photos (plus a rare business card referring to him as “Sailor Chuck”), can be seen as part of the ongoing Chicago Tattoo history exhibit at Great Lakes Tattoo.
Great Lakes Tattoo’s extensive collection of Chicago Tattoo History artifacts, art and photos can be seen anytime during business hours. Follow the shop’s social media channels for all the info on the ongoing Cliff Raven Show as well as other art shows and events presented by Great Lakes Tattoo!