In 1952 or 1954 (depending on who’s telling the tale), Bert Grimm bought a business located at 22 Chestnut Place in Long Beach, on the corner of Chestnut and Ocean Boulevard. The small square space on the bottom of an apartment complex built in 1921 stood at the heart of the Pike, the legendary stretch of amusement-park rides, novelty shops, restaurants and seaside frivolity that drew in all of Southern California.
But the Oregon-born Grimm wasn’t there for those niceties. A middle-aged man with dark hair and tattoos up and down his arms, Grimm had just moved to Long Beach from St. Louis, where he had established himself as the best ink slinger in the Midwest. But business had dried up, so Grimm did what generations of Americans passing through the Gateway to the West had done before.
When the Navy docked their ships mere stumbling distance from the Pike, the strip transformed from mainstream fun zone to a tattoo paradise. Its parlors stayed open around the clock to make sure the seamen boisterously waiting in lines that stretched down the block got the pieces they wanted, often sacrificing hygiene and safety as they cranked out as many eagles, anchors, hearts and daggers as possible. Already, the Pike boasted one of the world’s first formal tattoo studios (opening in the back of a photo shop in 1927, the same space Grimm had just bought), and it would occasionally host some of the industry’s first legends, pioneers such as Lee Roy Minugh and Owen Jensen and his wife, “Dainty Dotty,” a 600-pound fat lady at the circus when she wasn’t tattooing.
But then Grimm arrived, carrying with him an encyclopedia’s worth of designs. As much a businessman as a tattooer, Grimm soon owned a handful of other shops on and around the Pike. Many of the country’s top tattooers moved their businesses to Grimm’s kingdom rather than shop-hopping in various cities, creating the first major tattooing scene in the United States. Through here, tattooing made its first forays into the mainstream while maintaining its working-class, countercultural roots. From Sailor Jerry’s disciples to the godfathers of black-and-gray, nearly every tattoo design and style traces its heritage to Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo Studio, created, practiced and perfected by a coaching tree that extends to the stars and youngsters of the present day.
“I think it’s had more impact on the styles of tattooing and where they come from than anything,” says Phil Sims, who worked at Bert Grimm’s from about 1972 until 1980. “You had all of these styles coming together there for the first time, and people would build on it. It was like a factory of tattoos. The saying is ‘What the West Coast originates, the East Coast imitates.’ All of the style and influence came out of California.”
The Pike is no longer there, knocked down and redeveloped over the past 20 years, now home to pricy apartments and trendy retail. Nor is Bert Grimm’s, which closed in 2002. But 22 Chestnut Place is still open for business as the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue of the tattoo world.
It’s now called Outer Limits Tattoo and Museum, run by Kari Barba, who bought the place in 2002 with partners. The rough-and-tumble boys’ club of the past is long gone, and Barba’s shop has moved beyond Grimm’s American traditional designs, the simple, bright, bold style that dominated America for decades. But as the nautical theme and half-empty drum of Vaseline (which hasn’t been used since Barba purchased the space) in the museum attest, Barba understands the importance of the location.
“I try to always remind people of where they are,” she says. “A lot of young tattoo artists don’t know the history and tradition, so I have to teach them about that history and to recognize where they work. They need to keep those traditions going.”
* * * * *
Rick Walters leans back in his black chair. He’s sitting inside his shop—appropriately named Rick Walters’ World Famous Tattoo Parlor—just off Pacific Coast Highway in Sunset Beach. On the walls are ancient flash sheets and designs from some of the biggest names from the Pike era: Bob Shaw, nephew of Grimm and the owner of Bert Grimm’s once Grimm retired in 1970; Dave Gibson, who took his skills from the Pike to help grow San Diego’s tattoo scene; and handfuls of others, including a tattooer known only as Snickers, who was also a major player in the 1970s punk scene. Even more impressive is Walters’ tattoo of Hot Stuff the Little Devil on his left shoulder, done by Owen Jensen himself; most artists are just thrilled to have one of the legendary tattooer’s signature machine models.
One of the few still-tattooing shop owners older than 70, Walters himself is a part of the art form’s history. He already had 13 years of professional experience before heading to Bert Grimm’s around 1977, where he’d spend the next 25 years, right up until that shop finally closed.
“I was tattooing at a shop out in Gardena, but I’d go down to the Pike in my time off just to learn shit,” Walters says. “I’d been tattooing for a while, but I knew that was the place. I’d just go and hang out and get tattooed so I could learn from it. That’s when I got tattooed by Bob Shaw, Owen Jensen, Hong Kong Tom—all those guys.”
By then, Grimm had already retired and moved back to his hometown just outside of Portland. But his legacy was secure. Born Feb. 8, 1900, Grimm’s tattooing skills or vision weren’t quite as influential as those of Jensen or Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins, but his impact was just as big. Long before he had relocated to the Pike, Grimm was known for introducing himself as “the world-famous Bert Grimm” or “the greatest tattoo artist in the world.” It was that kind of business savvy and self-promotion that helped the World War I veteran make tattooing a respected profession, as well as pave the way for today’s celebrity inksters.
Trying to separate fact from fiction in Grimm’s biography is difficult. He’d tell people he began tattooing when he was 12, learning from his dad and uncle, before relocating from Portland to the Midwest sometime in the following 15 years for reasons known only to him. He married Julia Lechlin in 1931, who took photos of Grimm practicing his craft when she wasn’t tattooing gals in the backrooms herself. Just three years later, Grimm hit the mainstream, with a lengthy profile in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that said he “gives his customers anything they ask for, but maintains that his drawings are art with a capital A.”
Grimm drifted across the Midwest and the West Coast, with stints in Hawaii and even China, attracting reporters everywhere he went and repeating his stories. In 1961, for instance, the Post-Dispatch reported that Grimm had tattooed “the names of 90 burlesque queens” on the forearm of a war plant worker, putting another lady on “every time [the worker] met a new one.” And wherever he set up shop, Grimm never tired of embellishing his self-created myth.
“About three-quarters into the tattoo, Bert would pause, stick a toothpick in his mouth, pull on his suspenders, and announce, ‘And now for my famous 10-minute speech,'” wrote Don Deaton, himself a famous Pike artist. “He would then tell of how he had started tattooing professionally in Chicago early in 1916. During his long career, he told his mesmerized customers, he had tattooed Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, and numerous others of the underworld nobility who passed through St. Louis, the city where Bert worked the longest. All through his little monologue, he kept repeating, ‘I am the greatest. I am the greatest. I am the greatest tattoo artist in the world.’ Bert continued to present himself and weave his spell until people were coming hundreds of miles to Long Beach to get their work from the greatest.”
When Grimm retired, he sold the business to his nephew and protégé. Born in 1926, Shaw had both of his arms sleeved by Grimm at 16. He began tattooing the year before that at Grimm’s St. Louis shop, eventually getting a job in San Antonio and perfecting his work.
Shaw came to Long Beach in the early 1960s and went on take over many of Grimm’s shops with his also-famous tattoo-business partner, known as Colonel Todd. Grimm and Shaw lorded over a different era. No health codes or governing boards existed to tell artists or shop managers what they should and shouldn’t do. Tattooers used the same equipment to illustrate one sailor after the next. The same water buckets and sponges were used to wipe off each raw patch until the bucket contained more blood than water. Gloves and sterilization weren’t even considered yet, and the only breaks in a tattooer’s day were when a needle became too sharp after too many uses and began ripping the flesh off a client.
“On Navy paydays, you’d be tattooing all day,” Walters says. “It was busier than shit. You were tattooing one guy after another, and nobody was worried about it because everyone tattooing there was making enough money to drive Corvettes and Harleys.”
But it wasn’t just a lack of health and safety concerns that made things different. The process itself took more effort. Using acetate stencils to transfer a drawing from paper to skin meant having to carefully sketch everything by hand rather than using Photoshop, scanners, copy machines and Thermofax machines. Bump a stencil mid-tattoo, and you’d find yourself with a black smudge where the design used to be.
“The problem now is that there are a lot of tattooers, but not tattoo artists,” Sims says. “It’s not that they don’t have artistic skills; it’s that they’re blowing things up off Google rather than drawing it three or four times. If you go into some places now and want a custom tattoo, they won’t do it without a reference photo.”
Walters arrived as the Pike’s scene was declining. Violence, drugs and prostitution had replaced much of the sparkle of the first half of the 20th century. Jensen was stabbed to death in his own shop on July 5, 1976, for $30. As Sims—who now lives in Tucson and tattoos “usually once or twice a year,” when he feels like it—recalls, Bert Grimm’s had become a great shop in a terrible location.
“I loved working at Bert Grimm’s so much I wish I’d never gone,” Sims says. “There was plenty of work, plenty of money, plenty of art, plenty of pussy—who wouldn’t want to work there? But the Pike, it was really shitty. It was just a mess of drugs and people trying to steal from you. I wasn’t into drugs, so I left.”
Following Shaw’s death in 1993, Bert Grimm’s was left to his wife, Wanda. When she passed away in 2002, Grimm’s fell to their three sons, two of them tattooers. Unfortunately, the Shaw boys had already moved to Texas to open their own shops, so they decided to close their inheritance and sell Bert Grimm’s to the highest bidder. The city of Long Beach had long closed the Pike, bulldozing the other tattoo shops and amusement-park rides. By the time Bert Grimm’s closed for the final time in 2002, it was the last original piece standing.
Many tattooers dreamt of buying Bert Grimm’s, but none had the hundreds of thousands of dollars necessary to buy and rehabilitate the place. Rumors began to circulate that it would be turned into a legal office, sold to an accountant, or even become a dentistry.
That’s when Barba stepped up. The Minnesota native and one of tattooing’s female pioneers first visited Bert Grimm’s in 1980. It was the kind of gritty place that inspired Barba to move to Southern California and start her own business in Anaheim in 1983. By the time Bert Grimm’s shut down, Barba had expanded her Outer Limits empire to include locations in Costa Mesa and Orange, but she lived in Long Beach, not too far from the Pike.
“A lot of people don’t know that Rick Walters asked me to take it over,” Barba says. A brief negotiation and nearly half-a-million dollars later, 22 Chestnut Place was hers. “I got a lot of shit, and people were all pissed off because it was a boys’ town over here. It was a bunch of guys doing what guys do when there are no girls around, and then I took it over.”
The city forced her to update the plumbing, flooring and other problematic areas to meet code. Even after Barba refurbished everything, she still had to battle with the city for years before they finally allowed her to open in 2006.
“No matter what I tried with the city, they would turn it down,” Barba recalls. “Anything I had for my future is right here on this floor. I sold my house and everything I had to get the shop done, and every time we did something, something else would break.”
Once Outer Limits opened, Barba was finally able to focus on the art form she has loved since she began her career in 1979. Even back then, her style wasn’t much like what went on in Grimm’s shop and most parlors around the country. While others were focused on repeating the traditional tattoos of yesteryear, Barba couldn’t understand why so few artists were putting any level of detail into their work. She developed an artistic style of realism that has won her several awards over the decades and is still easily identifiable today. And she openly admits part of her success goes back to Grimm.
“Bert Grimm, Rick Walters and all of those who came before us in this world-famous location on 22 Chestnut Place left us a fabulous legacy and a grand foundation and background to work from and learn from,” Barba says. “They are the forefathers, and we are the students who hope to stand up to everything they have taught us.”
* * * * *
Nearly every tattoo artist in Southern California with more than a decade’s worth of experience has a story about Bert Grimm’s.
“I didn’t know what Bert Grimm’s was when I walked into Bert Grimm’s,” says Classic Tattoo owner Tim Hendricks, nationally known thanks to NY Ink and Miami Ink. “I was friends with [Walters’] daughter, and I was just doing homemade tattoos. She talked to her dad and got him to sell me a machine, and then she just gave me a piece of paper with the address on it. It was one of my first experiences walking into a real tattoo shop, and Rick was standing behind the counter with a hat on saying, ‘Yes, it hurts’ and a huge beard stained yellow from cigarette smoke.
“He said, ‘Are you Tim? Are you that kid my daughter was telling me about?'” Hendricks continues. “I said, ‘Yes, sir’ because I was minding my Ps and Qs. He asked if I knew how to use a professional machine, and when I said, ‘No, sir,’ he grabbed my arm, dipped the machine in water, and wrote my name freehand on my hand.”
Lucky Bastard of Fine Tattoo Work, currently Orange’s top option for Japanese bodysuits and other big pieces, received one of his first tattoo machines from Bert Grimm’s three decades ago. Paper Crane Studio’s Chelsea Jane used to go to barbecues and other social events on the Pike with her dad when she was just a little kid, and now she’s one of Long Beach’s top young tattooers. Another modern icon, Gold Rush Tattoo in Costa Mesa’s Lindsey Carmichael, went to check out the Pike before he began tattooing; would hang out around Bert Grimm’s during his off days when he started in the ’90s.
And then there’s Kari’s son. Jeremiah Barba now primarily tattoos out of his private Conclave Art Studio, located steps away from Walters’ shop, but he spent plenty of time learning from his mom at Outer Limits’ Orange spot. Jeremiah became a part of his mother’s team in the fight to open the Long Beach location and began tattooing at the shop roughly a year after it opened. Walters welcomed Jeremiah to the brotherhood, inking an anchor on Jeremiah’s finger, a tradition for shop workers at 22 Chestnut Place that dates back to Grimm himself; instead of Jeremiah’s actual start date, Walters inked the date Kari bought the shop.
It’s artists like Jeremiah who will have to keep Grimm’s legacy alive. The younger Barba’s dark realism is something Grimm and Jensen never would’ve dreamed possible, but that kind of innovation and progress in tattooing is what keeps the Pike relevant.
“Everybody knows about the Pike because they know it was the start of a huge movement,” Jeremiah says. “It made tattooing way more popular, and it was where different styles of tattoos started to get crazier and crazier—even if a lot of them started with just traditional.”
* * * * *
Kari Barba leans over a small crack between the tiles in the back half of Outer Limits in Long Beach.
“See how this one is newer than the others?” Barba asks. “This is where they had to dig up the sewer line. All the way from here out into the middle of the street. We came in one morning, and there was sewage almost up to the top [of the crevice] the whole way down and all over the shop. It took months to get that smell out.”
Regardless of the name painted on the windows, the shop is still full of stories: a Mexican construction worker who used his skill of communicating with the dead to get a ghost to leave his crew alone. A mysterious locked safe found inside the walls in the corner of a room; Walters swears it’s empty, but Barba has never dared to open it. An eerie memorial mural of a cartoon-like man with an “RIP” above a spot that looks as though it’d been dug up.
But the biggest piece of history in the shop isn’t available to the wandering public. Locked inside Barba’s private office is a 10-foot-long window, one of the original from back when it was Bert Grimm’s World Famous Tattoo Studio. In addition to the old name of the shop, it features a handful of traditional hearts and similar designs.
“Sometimes, I’ll have a client who bumps the stand while I’m tattooing them and sends it flying into the window,” Barba says. “Every time that happens, it scares me. I had a client who’s an actress and into collecting antiques offer me $25,000 for it, but I turned her down. I guess if I ever need the money, I’ll call her up.”
The story of 22 Chestnut Place continues. Money comes and goes, but the historical and sentimental value of the place is damn near priceless.
“There was a magic in that shop, but I think there could be another Bert Grimm’s,” Sims says. “If somebody with the right imagination and the right this and the right that did it, it could happen. It could definitely happen, but I don’t think it will for a long time.”