Edward Liberty’s Boston location gave him fresh proximity to his maturing sons and influence upon them
The history of tattooing in Boston is inextricably intertwined with the long, colorful life and abrupt demise of the city’s iconic Scollay Square. Wedged between the Boston Port, Beacon Hill, and downtown, Scollay Square was a major transportation hub—first for stagecoaches, later for trolleys, buses, and trains—and a magnet for the denizens of surrounding neighborhoods. Here bankers and businessmen rubbed shoulders with store clerks, stevedores, sailors on shore leave, shoppers, stage performers, Harvard boys, daytrippers, and families out for an afternoon. A welter of rackety, hard-selling businesses vied to satisfy the crowd’s diverse appetites; by the 1890s Scollay Square was a carnivalesque neighborhood of flophouses, restaurants, bars, arcades, shoeshine joints, novelty shops, hot dog stands, movie and burlesque theaters, clothing and jewelry stores, banks and —in cramped, smoky, low-rent spaces over and under the square’s storefronts—tattoo shops, their proprietors hunched in shirtsleeves over buzzing machines.
From the 1870s to the 1920s, as America’s industrial cities filled with immigrant and native factory workers eager for amusement, enterprising men and women found that a living could be made from exhibiting their tattooed bodies—and from the spectacle of tattooing itself. Frank Howard and his wife Annie, who performed regularly at Austin & Stone’s Dime Museum in Scollay Square, were Boston’s premier early tattooed showfolks. Two tours with Barnum & Bailey’s Greatest Show on Earth established the couple as world-class entertainers; Frank, a consummate self-promoter and a savvy businessman, spun that fame into several highly profitable ventures as a tattoo artist, shop proprietor, and dealer in mail-order tattoo supplies.
It’s fitting that the man who moved into Frank Howard’s landmark tattoo shop after his death in 1925 was every bit as ambitious as his predecessor, and ultimately an even greater influence on the Boston tattoo trade. Edward “Dad” Liberty had been splitting his time between Lowell and Boston, even tattooing on the West Coast for a stretch, before he took over Howard’s old spot on Court Street. The advantages of this coup were considerable. It was the largest tattoo shop in the city and, with its riot of signage, undoubtedly the most recognizable. Edward surely acquired an established clientele as well as plenty of off-the-street thrill seekers in his new space. He also seems to have acquired a quantity of Howard’s personal and professional effects—perhaps items abandoned at the shop.
Edward’s Boston location also gave him fresh proximity to his maturing sons and influence upon them. Frank, his eldest, was a burly, cigar-chomping ex-wrestler who favored silk shirts. He had been working as a clerk —probably at the family grocery store in Lowell— when he apparently ran afoul of a tattoo needle sometime prior to June 1921, when examiners at his enlistment into the National Guard noted needle fragments embedded in his left leg. By 1930 he had launched his own successful tattooing venture, the Boston Tattoo Studio, at 16 Cambridge Street, just footsteps from his father’s shop.
Soon after Frank established himself in Scollay Square, Edward’s youngest son Ted, then 20, moved from his paternal grandparents’ home in Lowell to Boston to advance his own tattooing career in Frank’s small basement shop. But Ted soon made himself an unwelcome presence, engaging in a pattern of petty criminality and feuding with his father and brothers. He remained a drifter for decades, often leaving town ahead of the law or out of a conviction that better takings could be had elsewhere.
The end of WWII brought a gradual quietude to Scollay Square and its bustling tattoo shops. Nevertheless, after a quick education, Edward’s middle son, Harold, entered the family business. Harold took over Frank’s shop at 49 Scollay Square, located over The Tasty, a popular burger joint. He named his place the Scollay Tattoo Shop, and adopted the needle name “Lefty”—marketing himself as the only left-handed tattooer in the country.
By the fall of 1948, all four Libertys were witnessing a Square that even the local beat cop described, with some satisfaction, as “quiet as a mill pond.” As Harold conceded to a local newsman, “We have all the tattoo business in Boston, but there isn’t much anymore.” The wartime crowds of “free-spending seamen” were sorely missed, the reporter noted; while a few repeat customers dropped in now and then, their primary concern was not design or color but the cost of a new “heart, eagle, anchor or rose added to their private picture gallery.”
Dad Liberty and his sons hung on in Scollay Square into the 1950s as the demand for tattoos continued to decline. Massachusetts passed a law in 1957 that raised the legal age for getting a tattoo from 18 to 21—an indication of the regulating legislation and adversarial municipal actions to come. By spring 1958, rumors of Scollay Square’s razing to make way for a new government center were already circulating in the Libertys’ shops, and Harold, doubly cautious after a court appearance and fine for mistakenly tattooing an underage teen, was checking customers’ draft cards and comparing signatures.
Misfortune and ill health had begun taking their toll on the Liberty men as well. A fire swept the top floors of the Rialto Theater building in February 1950, causing smoke and water damage to Ted Liberty’s shop. Later that year Ted moved to Baltimore, setting up a tattooing and photo shop over an arcade in a notorious stretch of real estate known as “The Block.” In the meantime, back in Boston, Frank and Edward were in failing health. Frank died in 1956 at the age of 52; Edward died less than a year later.
Of the Liberty family tattooing dynasty, only Harold remained in Boston, but his days were numbered too. In October 1961, he received a letter from the Boston Redevelopment Authority, informing him that his shop had been acquired by the city as part of the Government Center redevelopment project. The Authority was now Harold’s landlord, and evidently an impatient one—forced relocation was imminent. On the heels of this blow, just days later, Boston’s Health Commissioner requested legislation banning tattoo parlors “strictly as a health measure,” citing, in particular, the spread of hepatitis by infected needles. The Massachusetts Legislature promptly obliged, passing a bill in February 1962 to restrict tattooing to qualified physicians.
Harold’s struggle to make a living as the neighborhood emptied of life is powerfully captured in a few terse, journal-like notes he recorded in his account book for spring 1962. He worked six days during the week of April 16, tattooing a total of only seventeen clients—no one at all on Wednesday. “Business is bad during Holy Week,” he reminded himself. And then, in sprawling, heavy script down the center of the page, he writes, “Closed up. Moved out. Out of business. 1962.” Scollay Square’s death knell had sounded.
For nearly forty years Harold Liberty was Boston’s last professional tattoo artist. That changed on October 23, 2000, when a Massachusetts judge overturned the ban that had once forced his relocation to New Hampshire. A few months later a new generation of tattoo artists —some of them sporting original designs by Harold— were welcomed back into the city, ushering in a new era of tattooing in Boston and beyond.
Loud, Naked, & in Three Colors: The Liberty Boys & The History of Tattooing in Boston can be purchased at rakehouse.com. Also check out Luke O’Neil’s Welcome to Hell World, which is where we first learned about the book.