The Anniston Star

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December 22, 2014
Tattoo who?

TATTOO WHO?

Meet Percy Waters, the most famous tattoo artist from Anniston you’ve never heard of

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Posted: Sunday, August 10, 2014 1:12 pm | Updated: 1:37 pm, Sun Aug 10, 2014.

Edgemont Cemetery is the final resting place of several noteworthy Alabamians — among them a Confederate general and a University of Alabama football player.

One famous Anniston man lies therein with no decoration. His name is known in tattoo studios from Georgia to Maryland, but his headstone is a small, simple slab, set flush with the dry, faded grass. Pioneering tattoo artist Percy Waters received no special recognition upon his 1952 burial in the city he was born in.

Waters, whose business cards billed him as “just a good tattooist,” became one of America’s first well-known tattoo artists at a time when, according to local tattoo artist Lee Caston, “the only people who got tattoos were sailors and carnies.”

But Waters’ contributions to the art and industry of tattooing can’t be discounted. Between 1920 and 1930, he built one of the largest tattoo supply companies in the world out of Detroit. In 1929, the federal government awarded Waters a patent on one of the first electric tattoo machines.

According to Caston, the modern machines used at his shop, Artistic Addictions Ink on Quintard Avenue, still feature Waters’ design.

Waters did none of this from his city of birth. Rumor is that his luck in Anniston ran out in 1917, when he was chased out of town for inking the wrong person. Some who tell this yarn claim it was Samuel Noble’s daughter, but that’s a story that can’t be proven.

What can be proven about Waters, according to records at the Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County:

He was born in Anniston in 1884 to John Waters and Margaret Smith.

As a young man, Waters made his living as a molder in Anniston’s Union Foundry. He worked there from 1908 until about 1917, when he left the city and eventually settled in Detroit.

It’s possible he picked up the tattooing skills that made him famous while living in the Model City, from artists who traveled with sideshow performers. Those shows often stopped at the fairgrounds near Noble Street in 19th-century Anniston.

He also got into more than his share of trouble during those years in Anniston. Sheriff Seab Eason arrested Waters and another man on a Sunday afternoon in 1909 for selling bootleg liquor at Oxford Lake Park. Waters’ first marriage, to Ella Douglas in 1910, lasted little more than a year — she divorced him for cheating in 1911.

Waters returned to Anniston in the 1930s, and opened a penny arcade and shooting gallery, called Pops, on 11th Street. He tattooed there until his eyesight began to fail him.

THE INK SYSTEM

Lee Caston, who worked as a foreman on a construction crew before he became a full-time tattoo artist, has been tattooing since 1980. He considers Waters “one of the godfathers” of modern American tattooing.

Artistic Addictions, which Caston opened in March 2004, features a memorial wall of faded, grainy photos that depict Waters at work on sailors and sideshow performers.  

The Weaver man also has a mail-order form from Modern Tattooing, Waters’ supply business in Detroit. Waters billed himself as “Prof. Percy Waters,” a professional with 25 years in the business of marking skin.

Caston got these souvenirs from James Sloan, one of Waters last direct descendants. Sloan was born in Anniston on Dec. 26, 1943, to Waters’ daughter, Margaret. Almost nine years later, in November 1952, Waters died.

Sloan doesn’t remember much about his grandfather. “He was sort of hard to get along with, more from what I’ve heard than from being around him,” he said.

Although he grew up across the street from Waters, Sloan said “it wasn’t like dropping in on grandparents like some people have.”

Caston met Sloan four years ago through Tom Mullins, who works in the Alabama Room of the public library. Mullins is himself related to Waters, albeit indirectly. His mother’s sister was Waters’ second wife, Molly Ashley.

The tattoo artist told Sloan he wanted to set up a memorial to Waters in his shop. Within a few days, Sloan brought Caston two cardboard boxes. One box contained old photographs and postcards of Waters’ work, many with his signature etched by his own hand.

The other box held something priceless. When Sloan slid it across to Caston, the tattoo artist had to steady himself against the shop counter as he opened it.

Inside were Percy Waters’ personal electric tattoo machines, in mint condition. “Percy made every machine himself,” Caston said. “He put them together by hand, winding the coils and springs and grinding the needles.”

Caston had to rebuild the electromagnetic coils that move the tube and needle on one of the machines, but he got it working.

Clients who know about the 80-year-old machine often ask him to use it to do their tattoos. “It’s a nostalgic thing for people who are passionate about tattoos,” he said.

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