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“What about Stonewall?” the accuser asks.

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“What about it?” Cliff Raven says.

“Did that accept any aftereffect on you aback it happened in 1969?” Reading the transcript, you can about apprehend Raven demography a annoyance on a cigarette as he smirks at the question.

“When I absolutely got into tattooing,” he says, “when I became, you adeptness say, acknowledged at it—it was actual arresting of my time. So I wasn’t acquainted of all the ins and outs and intrigues [of gay politics].”

The chat is allotment of an articulate history calm for the Accoutrement Archives & Museum by acclaimed accoutrement biographer and drillmaster Jack Rinella. It’s amidst him and one of the best affecting tattooers in American history whose success is owed, in ample part, to captivation with gay Chicago. If Chuck Renslow was the affection of Chicago’s accoutrement community, Raven was the valve. He shuttled the community’s annual and access into a career that animated the adeptness and assurance of tattooing; but affable and modest, a man of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” generation, Raven minimized this. By his own account, he was aloof a actual active tattooer.

Before acceptable Cliff Raven, who the Star Tribune already alleged the “Elvis of Tattooing,” he was Cliff Ingram, a Catholic kid built-in in 1932 by a animate comminute in East Chicago. Aboriginal on, he had a apperception for details. Some of his admired adolescence memories were abrogation Lincoln Park Zoo to airing about with his mother, consistently a airship in hand, savoring the appearance of gilded lamp posts and Victorian two-flats. “Gorgeous,” he’d afterwards address in his diary.

His mother was balmy and would allure adjacency kids over alike afore Raven was old abundant to play, while his ancestor was astringent and abroad in a way archetypal of men of that generation. Once, he dead their ancestors dog, Shep, for “showing fear.” That meant Shep was a coward, his ancestor explained, and a alarmist can’t assure his family. Aback Raven ran from his aboriginal schoolyard fight, his ancestor was quick to characterization him a coward, too. This would abode him until the end of his days. Is addition base of adulation if they’re a coward? Should you aloof get rid of them?

Perhaps this is some of what collection Raven abroad from home. There’s not abundant accepted about his adolescence and 20s except that he was agrarian and wanting. By 15, he had accustomed himself a stick-and-poke of a active wheel, and at 16, he artificial his abstract agenda to get into bathhouses. He started college, again alone out and fled to New York. But he was acerb affiliated to his mother, brother, and connected family. In 1957, his mom beckoned him aback to the midwest to accomplishment art academy at Indiana University, and aloft graduation, he acclimatized into a Chicago activity in advertising. Over drinks one night, addition mentioned there were confined in New York with “strange” people. Had he heard of these? Men absolved about absolutely decked in leather.

“I perked up,” he explains to Rinella. By this point, Raven was consistently canoeing Bughouse Square attractive to be best up by men on motorcycles because he admired boxy guys and boxy things. “I wasn’t acquainted of [such bars] aback I lived there. I’m not abiding if they absolutely were there. I basically said, ‘Oh gee, acquaint me area they are, so I won’t accomplish the aberration of walking into one!'” Again he planned a New York break to acquisition them.

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Shortly afterward, he met Renslow and his accomplice Dom Orejudos, conceivably bigger accepted beneath his art monicker “Etienne” as a avant-garde of the ample gay adumbration frequently attributed to Tom of Finland. It was 1959. Renslow and Orejudos were already active Kris Studios, a accepted anatomy photography spot, and a gym that kept them abundantly supplied with sculpted models. Raven brought Renslow some of his amative drawings, acquisitive Kris adeptness accept a use for them. Instead, he got arrive to an orgy. Quickly, article blossomed amidst Renslow and Raven, and Renslow asked Orejudos if he could accompany Raven into their home as a additional lover. Not a thruple, he explained, but allotment of their family. Orejudos acquiescently accommodated, and “The Family” was born.

Renslow was into BDSM, and Raven became one of his submissives. As Renslow explained to Reader administrator Tracy Baim and Owen Keehnen in The Leatherman: “Our personalities formed able-bodied together. He was actual passive; that was important. My adage is ‘Boys and dogs should be obedient.'”

Emboldened by his captivation in an erotically answerable tough-guy world, Raven acquainted atrocious for a tattoo. Word on the artery was this guy Phil Sparrow, again advised Chicago’s best able tattooer, would barter draft jobs for tattoos, so Raven hoped he adeptness barter amative assets for ink, too. Sparrow, bigger accepted as Samuel Steward, accountable of The Secret Historian, gave him a two-inch butterfly on his forearm, and it afflicted added than his physique.

Sparrow was already affable with Renslow, and with Cliff’s added interest, anniversary man saw article new in him: for Raven, a career to aspire towards; for Renslow, a abeyant goldmine. At the time, tattooing was a alarming band of work, but absolute as allotment of an abyss fabricated it feel like a safe job for a man who capital to be added aboveboard gay. Plus, for Sparrow, additionally a BDSM enthusiast, tattooing acquainted sexual: an barter of fluids and able concrete sensation, one actuality acquisitive affliction and handing ascendancy to another.

This may be some of what absorbed Renslow, who abstruse the basics from Sparrow but bound absent interest. However, Raven saw tattoos’ aesthetic potential. Renslow accomplished what he knew to Raven, and his talents bound eclipsed his daddy’s. Now alive as a freelance bartering artist, Raven took a weekend gig tattooing. It was at a amalgam penny arcade/burger collective two hours south, by Chanute Air Force Base.

Contrary to accepted lore, Raven did not accept his surname as a nod to Sparrow or added tattooers with bird monikers. Tattooing was not advised admirable work, and abounding acclimated pseudonyms to abstracted their claimed and able lives, abnormally to additional families any abashment or embarrassment their assignment adeptness cause. Through a anomalous lens, renaming can be beheld as an act of cocky determination—a break from a activity on other’s agreement vs. a activity on one’s own. Raven has never remarked on this. What he has said is, growing up, his ancestor explained “Ingram” meant “Raven” in Old English. If actuality a tattooer was his best authentic self, he still captivated his bearing ancestors close.

Renslow was an active business person, but anybody in the Family—whose birth grew and confused over the years—became allotment of Renslow Ancestors Enterprises. This helped associates allotment resources, including names for paperwork back homophobic arrests barred some, including Renslow, from accurately bold assertive responsibilities. In turn, this grew everyone’s access and bread-and-butter stability, including Raven’s.

Raven had the abstraction to alpha a accoutrement meetup, and aback the accumulation got kicked out of bar afterwards bar, Renslow absitively to buy the bar the Gold Bank so they’d accept a abiding association site. Ironically, Raven was adjoin this because a banking pale adeptness about-face the priorities of the space, but he was outvoted. (Until his death, Renslow insisted Gold Bank was never carefully or accidentally a moneymaker—always aloof a allowance to his community.) Raven was additionally a copartner in a brief bathhouse and the bearding art administrator of Renslow’s bodybuilding magazines Triumph and Mars.

In 1963, amidst hepatitis outbreaks, apropos about bedraggled conditions, and nuisances purportedly admiring by tattooing, Illinois aloft the tattooing age from 18 to 21. Barely acknowledged aggressive recruits were tattooers’ aliment and butter, so Chicago artists either alone the barter or moved. According to a 1974 copy of Chicago Guide, the burghal went from about 20 alive artists advance beyond six shops forth State Artery to none—except Raven. He admired tattooing too much, and he had a able association absorbed in abiding ink. Plus, he’d be the alone guy in town.

Under Renslow Ancestors Enterprises, he set up his aboriginal alone shop, the Old Boondocks Boom Salon, in a storefront of their accommodation architecture on Larrabee Street. Aback they absent the architecture to gentrification, they relocated to a briefing atom on Belmont and opened what eventually became Chicago Boom Company, which is still in business today. This is aback Raven started to feel removed from, as he would say, the “ins and outs and intrigues” of a beyond gay scene, but his association was consistently his activity force.

Partially from Sparrow’s encouragement, Raven took to Japanese-influenced tattooing. Nick Colella, buyer of Great Lakes Boom and actionable historian of all things Chicago tattoo, believes this was because Japanese tattooing lent itself to intricate, custom, all-embracing work. In the 1970s, Raven, Ed Hardy (apprenticed by Sparrow), and Don Nolan were accepted as “the big three” because they caked over Japanese art and tattooing and alloyed it with old academy Americana to change people’s annual of what the artform could be. For years, they took all the top prizes at boom conventions because of it.

But admitting Hardy was actual austere about acceptable Japanese adumbration and approach, alike spending all-encompassing time belief in Japan, and Nolan skewed added Americana, accumulation the Japanese blended adjustment with a added western beheld lexicon, Raven begin afflatus to advance tattoos’ beauty. Eventually, he alone stencils in favor of cartoon anon on people’s bodies. His absolute alive activity he traded tips and correspondences with Japan’s best cogent tattooers to accompany abyss and complication to his work.

“His adeptness to alloy and backpack so abundant blush in the bark with the accoutrement they had in the 70s was insane,” Colella says.

In Colella’s clandestine archive, there are photos that account Raven’s pieces as a accolade to the macho form: in one, a ample Bengal tiger moves forth the ambit of a man’s thigh to accent his buttocks, its appendage coil bottomward the hip, again beneath and about assimilate the penis; in another, a album of flowers are rendered to anatomy the genitals while accentuating the movement of the man’s breath. It’s assignment that demonstrates abilities acid from abysmal assurance and acuteness to men’s bodies.

That affectionate of amenity is what put bloom on the beginning of Raven’s mind. Until the backward 60s, tattooers fabricated their own inks and needles. These were awful adequate barter secrets that acclaimed some artists over others but additionally fabricated tattooing a little capricious and alike dangerous. Allergic reactions and infections from ink were common, as was reusing all-overs and inks because of the time and activity appropriate to accomplish new ones. With the advice of again co-owners Buddy McFall and Dale Grande, Raven started Chicago Boom Supply, one of the aboriginal companies to accomplish inks and needles. While tattooers had alloyed animosity on added accessories distribution, the growing availability of food affected them to accost means they had been declining clients.

This is additionally a acumen Raven was an aboriginal adopter of tattooing with gloves. In 1976, he bought Sunset Strip Tattoos from allegorical tattooer Lyle Tuttle and relocated to Los Angeles—a move he’d been absent of back childhood, aback an aunt on the west bank would accelerate Christmas cards with approach trees. As he explained in his journal, the money and association in Chicago were acutely difficult to accord up, but he longed for brilliant winters and beaches. Already a Californian, he formed carefully with a doctor who provided medical acumen to active the cleanest, safest boutique possible, which included things like accoutrement surfaces with single-use accurate barriers.

When HIV emerged, studios began abnegation homosexual customers, and abounding gay tattooers larboard the field. In a letter to Raven, one artisan explains activity abatement that badge raids bankrupt him down. “I do not adorned alive always with people’s BLOOD on my easily in these affliction canicule of affliction and abhorrent bacilli which they . . . don’t apperceive bits about,” he says. His community’s apparent all-overs bolstered Raven’s charge to accouterment a medical-grade antiseptic environment, and it anchored him as a alarm to gay men who capital ink.

Pat Fish, the aftermost tattooer accomplished by Raven, recalls him adage three things are all-important to be a acceptable boom artist: art, craft, and morals. Allotment of accepting behavior meant prioritizing clients’ health.

“He fabricated me buy an alter afore he let me buy a boom machine,” she laughs. This was in 1985. According to her, gloves weren’t alike industry accepted until a doctor led a branch on it at a boom assemblage in 1986—though Greg James, addition tattooer who formed with Raven, says they were boring acceptable accepted in the aboriginal 80s. Raven began cutting them in the backward 70s, and he was application an autoclave, the apparatus hospitals use to alter reusable equipment, as aboriginal as 1970.

At the time he bought Sunset Strip Tattoos, Tuttle laughed and said Raven would be advantageous to get by on tattooing alone. Briefly, the amplitude additionally functioned as a beard salon for his activity partner, Pierre Mitchell, who dabbled in tattooing as Bob Raven, Raven’s “brother.” But he grew the boutique to abutment assorted artists, eventually affairs it to protege Robert Benedetti in 1985 and backward to run a acclimated bookstore and clandestine flat with Mitchell in the asleep burghal of Twentynine Palms. Thanks to advice from Raven, networking, and actuality in the “right place, appropriate time,” Benedetti and James became the premiere tattooers of the Sunset Strip, appearance the brand of Ozzy Osbourne, Mötley Crüe, and Guns N’ Roses. Axl Rose can alike be apparent cutting the shop’s shirt in the video for “Sweet Child of Mine.”

Being gay and accepting a bequest so able-bodied it’s alike arresting in music videos has led some to bless Raven as an aboveboard anomalous trailblazer. But this is not absolutely accurate. Abundant of his female is accurate because of his adjacency to Renslow—they alike filmed a BDSM arena calm for the Kinsey Institute!—but afterwards abrogation the Family, there is bare accessible advice about that allotment of Raven’s life. By all accounts, those who were meant to apperceive he was gay at the time knew. But anybody abroad didn’t.

This was as abundant for Raven’s claimed and able assurance as it was a admiration for privacy. As Ed Hardy told the Boom Archive, Raven was “always a clandestine man.” So abundant so, abounding didn’t alike apperceive he was acutely spiritual. He alone Catholicism in inferior aerial but connected praying and advertent God till the end of his life. He alike kept all-encompassing religious correspondences with his adherent Catholic cousin. James describes him as addition who could affix to a aerial academy dropout artisan as abundant as an Ivy League-educated lawyer, but Raven was accurate how abundant of himself he appear and to whom.

In 2001, Raven died of hepatitis C with Mitchell, his lover of 27 years, by his side. In the account of boom history, though, he is immortal.   v

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