Originally published February 22, 2012
I have two tattoos, both of which I got as a teenager in the ’60s. The night of my first tattoo was also a night of other weird and memorable ‘firsts.’ However, some historical background information for the evening is required.
I was fifteen years old (1965) at the time and hanging out with several friends, who were a few years older. We hung out at a small plaza in front of the Hortop Variety Store. We weren’t a gang, but we did refer to ourselves as the Hortop Boys. We rarely broke the law – the only exception was “drinking underage” – which was 21 at the time. We broke this law almost every weekend – and seldom got caught by either the police or our parents.
The leader of our group was a guy named Ron – but we called him Boss. He was the only one of us that wasn’t in high school – which is a good thing because he was 21 years old. Boss had a full-time job and drove a 1957 Chev Bel Air.
Most of our drinking was done in the ‘country,’ north of the city limits. We would all chip in money for both the liquor and gas for Boss’s car. In those days, gas was about 35 cents a gallon – so $2.00 worth of gas was usually good enough for the whole night.
We seldom drank beer – it took too long to get drunk on beer. We would typically share a 26er bottle (or two) of rye – and get plastered within an hour. We would then head back into the city – 6 or 7 of us jammed into Boss’s car and do a tour of the downtown area and then again to the north end of town to the A&W Drive-In.
I don’t recall what led to the decision for us to head to Toronto for the weekend – but I know that it was my first trip there without my parents. I remember telling my Mom that I was going to a friend’s cottage for Saturday night and would be back on Sunday afternoon.
Our destination in Toronto was the Warwick Hotel – on the corner of Dundas & Jarvis Streets. It was a seedy hotel – known as a hangout for the many prostitutes that worked the area. I remember the marquis sign over the hotel entrance – it read “$3.50 single or $5.00 double room – Free Coloured TV!”
We hung around the outside of the hotel while Boss checked into the hotel – he got a double room. However, he didn’t tell the desk clerk that there would be 6 of us staying in the room.
Boss came back out to the street and told us to go into the hotel – one at a time – and gave us the room number. He then took the alcohol from the car and headed back into the hotel.
While I was waiting, I noticed that there was a tattoo shop in the basement of the hotel – the sign read “Sailor Pete’s Tattoo Shop.”
“So this is where you get a tattoo!”, I remember thinking. It was quite a revelation because my home town certainly didn’t have a tattoo shop. And here I was – standing in front of a tattoo shop. How cool is that?
As we sat in the hotel room drinking, I had a flash of brilliance: I would get a tattoo as a souvenir, commemorating my first trip to Toronto. Up to that moment, I didn’t know anyone that had a tattoo – none of the Hortop Boys – and certainly none of my fellow students at OCVI. The only people that had tattoos in those days were sailors or bikers – and I was neither. But the thought of having a tattoo was pretty damn exciting for a 15-year-old.
When I told the guys that I was going out of the hotel to get a tattoo, they all laughed and said to me that I would never go through with it. I was doomed – I would have to go through with it – or be branded a “wussy” – forever.
As I staggered down the outside steps and into Sailor Pete’s Tattoo Shop, I noticed a 40ish looking lady seated at the counter – and a guy on the other side of the table, holding her left boob in his hand – yes, her bare boob in his hand! WOW!
The lady was a “hooker,” and when she saw me staring at her boob – she asked me if I liked the bluebird that she was having tattooed. I nodded my head, but I was more interested in seeing a naked boob for the first time. She then bared her other boob and showed me her other tattoos. God, Toronto was a great city!
It turned out that the guy behind the counter was ‘Sailor Pete’ himself. He showed me a binder containing all kinds of tattoos and asked me how much I wanted to spend.
I told him that I had $5.00 but didn’t want anything too large. As drunk as I was at the time, I was sober enough to know that I would have to conceal the tattoo from my parents’ eyes.
I awoke on the hotel bed the next morning with burning pain on my right arm. It all came back to me – I now had a tattoo.
The tattoo was a red heart with two banners running through it – one read MOM and the other banner read DAD. The 2” x 1” tattoo is between my elbow and shoulder – so it isn’t visible – even when I wear a short-sleeve shirt.
Thank you, Sailor Pete, for your discretion! I also started thinking about the hooker with the bluebird tattoo – was she still working the street?
Not that it mattered – because I was now tattooed and broke!
A couple of years after getting the tattoo, my Mom saw it on my arm and told me to go to the washroom and wash it off. When I tried to explain that it was a permanent tattoo, she started wailing like a banshee!
I got a second tattoo when I was 17 years old. Eleanor, my girlfriend at the time, went with me to Sailor Pete’s and helped me choose the tattoo – which was a red rose with a banner under it.
She wanted me to put her name in the blank space on the banner, but Sailor Pete told her that she should wait until I got married, and then she could have her name put on the tattoo. Boy, I owed him big time because I had several girlfriends after Eleanor and two wives.
They demolished the Warwick Hotel in 1980. I’m not sure what happened to Sailor Pete’s Tattoo Shop – maybe he relocated or retired.
Dedicated to Glenn Hand, an old friend