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TBT: Columbus’ sword-swallowing tattoo legend

Danny Hamen

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In honor of the return of Hell City Tattoo Fest this weekend (April 26-28 at the Hyatt Regency Columbus) we’re throwing it back to a classic 614now post about Columbus’ connection to a tattoo legend.

In the ’70s, one of the most famous tattoo artists in the country was a former sword swallower named “Stoney.” And he lived in Columbus. Yes, that’s right.

Disabled by rheumatoid arthritis since the age of 4, Leonard “Stoney” St. Clair’s diminutive body was confined to a wheelchair. In 1927, a traveling carney heard his story and shoved a stone poker down Stoney’s throat, granting him the talent that a 15-year-old handicapped boy needed in order to run away with the circus.

St. Clair in his studio (photos courtesy of Ohio Tattoo Museum)

After a year of circus adventures, the troupe made a stop in Virginia, where Stoney saw a sailor getting a tattoo of an eagle on his back and thought that he could do better. So he befriended the artist who then taught him how to tattoo. When the circus left town, Stoney put his new skills to use in the form of an illegitimate stand behind an elephant tent.

After the circus withered, Stoney spent the next 40 years of his life traveling across the United States. He became a gregarious underground icon of American tattooing. He even had a short documentary made about his life, which bore the same name as his tattoo shop in Columbus, Stoney Knows How. He set up shops in Tampa, New Orleans, LA, and then finally Columbus, where he died in 1980. After Stoney’s death, there were only two tattoo shops in Columbus left—now there are 172.

“Tattoo history is the history time forgot.”

That’s Richard Thomas’s favorite quote, though like the history it alludes to, the source has been forgotten. The man known as “Rich T,” has dedicated much of the last two decades to preserving and promoting the legacy of Stoney and the rest of Ohio tattoo culture. As curator of the Ohio Tattoo Museum, he’s determined to make sure that this history isn’t lost.

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“I thought tattoos were cool since I was a little kid, and I am in [my] fifties,” he said. “Like right out of the gate. My dad was in the Navy in WWII, on an oil tanker in the Atlantic, and he had a couple tattoos, which he found to be embarrassing later. I thought they were cool.”

Since the turn of the century, the culture of tattooing has changed significantly, he said. “There are more art school guys getting into tattooing—you used to have to be the kind of guy to get along in a rough and tumble world, and a lot of that is kind of gone.”

Examples of St. Clair’s flash work

The type of tattooing that Stoney St. Clair and other Ohio greats of his time—like Marty Holkcomb and Al Schiefley—did was essentially folk art, the type of ink you might expect on an old-school biker or a cartoon pirate. 

“These guys were shakers and movers,” Rich T said. “A lot of shops would have the same type of military designs, done over and over again, so every image would be the same, but in a different style. The different takes and interpretations of the same design is what makes it folk art.”

Rich T is the type of dude who is brimming with tattoo knowledge. His museum, which has existed in some iteration since 1999, is in the process of fundraising a colossal overhaul. As of a few months ago, Rich and his wife decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to help facilitate the move into a space double the museum’s original size, and to have it available to the public full-time (it was previously by appointment only).

[Editor’s note: since the original publication of this piece in 2015, the Ohio Tattoo museum reached its Kickstarter goal. It is open to the public at 1928 Jackson Pike in Bidwell, Ohio.]

“We have always dreamed of having a real museum with real hours that is staffed, and we are in the process of all of that dream coming true,” he said.

The museum has plans to put on three shows a year—the first serving as a loving dedication to the colorful St. Clair. “Stoney was the underbelly of the underbelly. He deserves to be remembered,” Rich said.

In the past, tattooing was a marginalized and ignored practice, and it is currently undergoing a cultural awakening. We are living in the tattooing Renaissance—the golden age of ink on flesh. This is why it is so imperative to remember the vibrant cast of Ohio legends that contributed significantly to the folklore of tattooing; like Schiefley, who sold and supplied all over the world in the ’50s, including to the infamous Bristol Tattoo Club in England; or ReRun, who owned a shop in the late-’70s in Springfield that was a school bus buried into the side of hill. This kind of stuff almost doesn’t happen anymore—the kind of wacky, irreverent social deviance that was being snubbed even while it was happening—and Rich T is the crypt keeper of the Ohio tattoo saga.

Ohio’s impression on the modern world goes far beyond mere aviation—a state that has innovated and revolutionized the folk canvass of tattoo culture stitch-by-stitch, needle by needle, stick by poke.

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The Muffins vintage “base ball” team pays homage to a traditional pastime

J.R. McMillan

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When Aaron Seddon first stepped up to the plate nearly a decade ago for the Ohio Village Muffins, he was actually stepping back in time. It wasn’t the same game he’d played in his youth. The rules and uniforms were unfamiliar, and pushing 30 as a walk-on wasn’t out of the ordinary. Even the spelling was different. This was 1860 vintage “base ball.”

No that’s not a typo—and no, the whole team didn’t forget their gloves either.

“When we’re talking to spectators about the differences in the game, they’re immediately concerned that we aren’t wearing gloves. That kind of protective gear didn’t enter the game until the 1870s,” explained Seddon. “We get a lot of our recruits from people who come to matches, who are intrigued by what we’re doing. We’re a close-knit group, even o the field. We’re a team, but we’re also a family.”

Photos: Brian Kaiser

Long before the days of hot dogs and dugouts, what we now know as baseball was played in fields and empty lots from Cooperstown to Hoboken. Historians still dispute the exact origin story of the sport, but generally agree that it was the inevitable intermingling of Union and Confederate troops that transformed the game into a national pastime.

But Columbus has its own history, mixed with a little folklore. Before the war, there were exactly zero baseball teams in the capital city, but shortly after its end, there were six. Players learned the sport from fellow soldiers from New York and New Jersey who brought bats and balls with them to pass the time between battles. Even the hand signals still used today for balls, strikes, “safe” and “out” arguably owe credit to the Ohio School for the Deaf in Clintonville, put into play a decade later to help their hearing-impaired athletes compete as equals.

Which brings us back to the matter of the Muffins. When the Ohio History Connection started their vintage baseball program in 1981, there was no prototype, only a rulebook. Recruiting most of that first team from their employees, they couldn’t help having some self-deprecating fun at their future expense. In the early days of baseball, your best players were referred to as the “first nine” followed by the “second nine.” Everyone left on the bench were called the “muffins.” A “mu ” was period vernacular for an error, back before they were counted. The name was so inside baseball, it was perfect.

“The umpire’s role isn’t really to arbitrate the game. He’s there to settle disputes between the players they can’t adjudicate themselves,” Seddon noted. “And the pitcher’s role is to facilitate hitting. In modern baseball, your pitcher is your best defensive player, to prevent the ball from getting into play. The game we play is before it became professional. Everyone was an amateur back then.”

Fans will also notice a suspicious absence of balls and strikes. Newspapers from the era report some batters taking 50 or more pitches waiting for just the right one, because if a hit was caught on the first bounce, it still counted as an out.

“Probably the biggest difference between modern baseball and the game we play is—if an opponent makes a really good play—everyone cheers,” Seddon revealed. “We’re playing a competitive game, we’re obviously both out there to win the match. But there’s much more camaraderie between the teams.”

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Speaking of the other team, the Ohio History Connection has more than one vintage baseball club. Much as the rise of men’s baseball inspired impromptu games among women well before Vassar College started the first formal women’s program in 1866, the Diamonds played their first match in 1994. Despite their parallel history and popularity, many of the early women’s vintage baseball teams have since consolidated or faded away, making matches more challenging.

Like the Muffins, the Diamonds also represent the game as it was played in 1860, which for women of the era was strictly recreational. The rules were the same, but even playing in back fields among themselves, the ladies often caused quite a social stir with their attire.

“We wear period-accurate dresses made from patterns of actual garments considered either a camp dress or a work dress. Someone who first starts out may play in a long skirt and a white blouse,” explained Jackie Forquer, who has played for the Diamonds for more than two decades. “We don’t play as many games as the men, but the time commitment is also less. We play festivals and exhibitions games. Our players who come from a softball background see this as another way to share their love of the game.”

Both the Muffins and Diamonds are technically historical “interpreters” who interact with spectators much as players would have in 1860, sometimes to exacting detail. Forquer, who plays first base, is sometimes the first ambassador for vintage baseball folks may meet, either through school programs or at the beginning of a game, with Diamonds matches often preceding the Muffins. Never breaking character, she’ll politely ask the umpire to seek the approval of the audience before women roll up or remove their sleeves before beginning play. Showing so much skin used to be scandalous.

Every organization has a historian, but vintage baseball happens to have an actual one. Dr. Jim Tootle came to the original version of the game later in life than most, but has still managed to outlast many of his peers. Having retired as assistant dean of the College of the Arts and Sciences at Ohio State, his passion for preservation is as infectious as his laugh.

“I’ve gotten to play in four major league parks from coast to coast. I thought my playing days were winding down when I stumbled upon this, and I’ve probably played 600 to 700 vintage games,” Tootle recalled. “It’s been a wonderful experience to represent the Ohio History Connection on our home field at The Ohio Village, but also to travel the state and the country.”

Tootle actually has written the book on vintage baseball—two in fact, not counting a third still used by prospective vintage baseball teams across the country trying to get their start.

“It’s like Civil War reenacting in a way because we give great attention to accuracy—interpreting the rules, our uniforms, and our equipment. And yet, the moment the first pitch is thrown, it’s not a reenactment anymore. It’s a real game, and we don’t know who is going to win,” Tootle chided. “I have to laugh watching ESPN anytime there’s a barehanded catch. They go nuts and show it three or four times. I feel like saying, ‘Come out to a vintage baseball game, every catch is a barehanded catch. Gloves weren’t even invented yet.’

For a complete schedule of games, including the 2019 Ohio Cup Vintage Base Ball Festival featuring 30 teams from across the country, visit ohiohistory.org

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(614)-360: Mystifying scenes from within Otherworld

Mike Thomas

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As avid 614NOW readers already know, Otherworld is an incredible immersive art space on Columbus’ east side that allows visitors the opportunity to step outside of the bounds of normal reality.

If you still haven’t checked out Otherworld in person, we hope this sampling of some of the incredible 360 views found within will kickstart your curiosity.

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Needless to say, these images pale in comparison to the real thing. Visit Otherworld for yourself, and discover all of the wonder and mystery that awaits. Until then, view our 360 gallery below to kick-start your curiosity.

Pro-tip: hit the “expand” button on the gallery’s top-right corner for a fullscreen view of the images.

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Brand new festival to bring adventure to your summer

614now

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A brand new festival is running, jumping, and climbing into Columbus later this summer. Scioto Fest will be a four-day adventure celebrating all things Scioto Audubon September 12- 15.

This dog- and kid-friendly event will include a Yappy Hour for big kids and their pups, and outdoor moving screenings for the little kids. Live music, vendors, and giveaways are to be enjoyed by all!

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From climbing, to camping, to slacklining, Scioto Fest is sure to get your adrenaline flowing.

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