Photo by Chuck Sundquist/ Courtesy of Long Beach Press-TelegramIt was small, dingy and built at the bottom of a hillside—making it impossible to find. In its final months, condos blocked out every possible view from its horizontal, slitlike windows. That didn't seem to matter much, of course, just as no one seemed to care that the manager chain-smoked so many cheap cigarettes that his long fingernails had yellowed like old Scotch tape.
But what are yellow fingernails in the face of history? Bert Grimm's World Famous Tattoo was historic. It was the oldest continuously operated tattoo parlor in the continental U.S., where generations of sailors got inked up before shipping out, and one of the key places on the mainland where traditional-style tattooing—a blend of Japanese, South Seas and American icons—was perfected. The kind of place to which devotees make pilgrimage, the kind of place that figures to run forever until, last summer, it didn't.
Grimm's opened in the late 1920s, under a name that's now lost to the ages, in the basement of the then-new Sovereign Apartments. By the 1950s, it was one of a half-dozen tattoo parlors in Long Beach's Nu-Pike amusement park, sharing space with the Seven Seas, Lee Roy's, the Rose Tattoo, Steve's Tatts and the Gallery. Grimm's proper got its start in 1954 when tattoo artist Bert Grimm arrived from the Midwest and bought the old parlor, his keen eye and Midwestern thrift helping it to outlive every other vestige of the Pike.
Tattoo styles changed, from the boldly colored pin-ups, flags, anchors and ships favored by swabbies, to hippie emblems like the yin-yang and sun-moon symbols to thin-line, single-needle portrait styles, but Grimm's never did. The outlaw thrill of getting tattooed survived mass consumption here. Grimm inkslingers still copied tattoo flash on an ancient mimeograph machine before transferring it to your bod with a grubby squirt bottle. Heart pounding, you still did the deed in the shop's ancient metal tattoo chair—heavy so you couldn't squirm and ruin your tattoo as the needle made you bleed. Only the tattoo artist's latex gloves told the year.
Eventually, Grimm sold the shop to fellow tattooist Bob Shaw; last year, it passed to Shaw's sons. But Larry Shaw was too busy running his own tattoo stand in Houston to bother with Grimm's, so it went up for sale and Larry Shaw sent younger sibling Bobby to manage it.
When it didn't sell, Larry decided to close it and evict his brother, a gentleman with supremely bad dental work and a surly attitude. Bobby declined to speak with me at the time, but offered to sell what he said was Bert Grimm's original coonskin cap, for $20. I passed.
With a grimace, Bobby Shaw disappeared from sight, and the shop closed June 27. Last we heard, a woman who worked in the downtown Long Beach offices of the IRS was buying it. She planned to open a place where people could get their taxes done.