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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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Getaways

Want to get away? Southwest making it cheap

614Now

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Southwest Airlines is hoping that enough of you are close to feeling safe to leave the house for more than a trip to the grocery store. In a bid to jumpstart their flagging business, Southwest has announced some pretty steep ticket discounts - as low as $49 each way to a host of cities departing from Columbus.

Flights must be booked at least 14 days in advance and travel must happen between May 26 and August 31. Most expect Ohio's 14-day travel quarantine rule to expire by August but be sure to take that into account if you decide to hop on a plane.

Some of the cities and deals we have imagined for you include:

A long weekend in Atlanta: $118 per person roundtrip from Friday, Aug 14 - Sunday the 16th. Keep in mind, it's about 100 degrees in ATL this time of year so be sure to have access to a body of water if you go.

A patriotic, weekend protest in Washington DC: $98 per person roundtrip, 4th of July weekend. See the sights (if they're open to the public) and stand somewhere with a sign with whatever outrage you have in mind.

A long 4th of July beach weekend in Ft. Lauderdale: $198 per person roundtrip from July 3-6 and you can stay at this cute Airbnb apartment that's just one block from the beach for $88/night.

Vegas baby! You're going to have to forget the weekends if you want the great flight deal. But we found August 5-7 available for $198 a person. Plus you can get into the Bellagio for $139 /night right now as an added bonus. Two nights of debauchery, a little gambling and some of the best restaurants in America. What could go wrong?

Of course, traveling may be risky business for some people and this all assumes the respective cities and attractions re-open and are relatively safe. But if you just need to get away, it's probably never been cheaper.

See other flight options here.

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Food & Drink

¡Ándale, check out these 12 Cinco de Mayo fiestas!

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It's hard to imagine a Cinco de Mayo without the traditional tequila-induced hangover. Even though you may not be able to sip those margaritas on a sunny patio or at the bar, local restaurants have figured out a way to help you celebrate at home - margaritas included. Here's the not-so-skinny on living out your tequila and enchilada-fueled dreams.

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In order to bring a bit of normalcy back, we've teamed up with @hornitostequila and @daiquiri_daze_popup to open our doors back up for the day and serve a limited offering of some of the faves for Cinco de Mayo. Offerings include but are not limited to our basic-cable famous salsas and Columbus' most missed margs. A party pack for four will include a Spotify playlist and that good Cosecha pebble ice that MIGHT JUST help to make you feel like you're celebrating on our patio. Online pre-orders will start sometime tomorrow at www.toasttab.com/cosecha-cocina/v3 and go to the day of. Walk-in’s are also welcome! Stay safe Columbus. We miss you dearly. Thank you so, so much for your continued support and we'll see you on the other side. Offerings: • Margaritas - Single (Comes with Salt, Lime, and Pebble Ice) - Traditional - Hornitos Reposado, Dry Curacao, Fresh Lime, Agave $8 - Next Episode - Hornitos SIlver, Dry Curacao, Hibiscus, Habanero, Lime $8 • Chips and Salsas $4 Koki's Chips, Roasted Tomato and Mint and Tomatillo-Avocado salsas Single/Extra Salsa $2 • Sage Margarita Jell-O Shot $2 • Cinco De Mayo Pack for 4 $40 (4) Margaritas of your choice, (2) Orders Chips and Salsas, (4) Jello-O Shots, Spotify Playlist, Ice, Limes, Salt, Super Cool Cactus Decanter • Chicken Tinga Taco Kit for 2 $20 (Pre-Order Only) Chicken Braised in Mild Red Chillies, Corn Tortillas, Avocado Salsa, Pickled Red Onion

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Are you ready to celebrate Cinco de Mayo? This year our Fiesta is at your house with our 5 de Mayo Fiesta Combo 🇲🇽 You can get a combo for 2 or 4 Amigos! Each Amigo gets: • One Queso or Guacamole with fresh chips and Salsa 🧀 🥑 • Three Tacos of your choice (Shredded chicken, ground beef, or Al Pastor)🌮 • Two Lime or Flavored Margaritas We will be also dropping some 5 de Mayo T-Shirts inside some orders as a gift! But you can support our team by purchasing one for $10! *Promo available on 5/5/20 all day. Pick up only • • #eat614 #columbusfoodie #columbusfoodscene #topcolumbusrestaurants #614magazine #614eats #buckeyes #happyhour #mexicanfood #margarita #girlsnightout #tacos #guac #collegegirls #collegelife #restaurant #margarita #asseenincolumbus #college #campus #columbusfoodscene #columbusohio #osugrad #ohiostate #socialdistancing #quarantine #quarantinelife #cincodemayo #togetherasbuckeyes #osugrad

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Things To Do

Flanagan’s has your Saturday night covered with unique drive-in concert

Mike Thomas

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With the usual slate of summer festivals and events cancelled due to the pandemic, we're going to have to get creative if we want to have any fun at all in the weeks to come. In that spirit, the team at Flanagan's Pub in Blacklick is hosting a special drive-in concert this Saturday, May 2, that offers a good time from the relative safety of your own vehicle.

Described as "Sonic, meets drive in movie, meets live concert" on the Flanagan's Facebook page, this special event running from 6PM-9PM on Flanagan's north lawn will feature live music from artist Brad Moore, with full service carry-out food from the pub also available.

Upon arrival, drivers will directed to the field north of Flanagan's parking lot. Attendants will be on hand aid with parking, and to ensure that a proper space is left between vehicles to promote social distancing. From there, servers wearing gloves and masks will deliver a single use menus to each vehicle and handle all carryout orders. Then, it's just a matter of kicking back to enjoy the show (but please take note: Flanagan's requests that all guests at this event remain in their vehicle at all times).

To aid in parking when you arrive, Flanagan's has produced this handy map:

Flanagan's is located at 3001 Reynoldsburg-New Albany Rd in Blacklick. For more information, visit Flanagan's on Facebook, or reach them by phone at (614) 855-7472.

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