Ohio, 1940-1950

Lady Head Tattoo Designs by Karl Bumpus

Hand-painted tattoo flash by Karl Bumpus (1905-1982), aka Karl Lark, Garrettsville, Ohio, 1940-1950, ink and watercolor on illustration board.

Privately held for nearly fifty years, the original contents of tattoo artist Karl Bumpus's Ohio shop conjure up an iconic mid-20th century tattoo business. This extraordinary survival, presented here for the first time, features vintage cabinets, shop signs ("B 21 or B Gone"), hand-cut stencils, an engraved Spaulding & Rogers powerpack, bundles of needles, jars of pigments and other supplies. The heart of the collection is a group of superb tattoo flash painted by Bumpus in the 1940s and 50s. In his distinctive manner, he carefully varnished each design, achieving a richness and depth rarely found in flash of the period.

Karl Martin Bumpus (1905-1982) was a big man with a crew cut, thick, black-rimmed glasses and a friendly Midwestern smile. Born in Howland, Ohio, he worked as a brakeman for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad until the trains fell idle during the Great Depression. Bumpus drifted, eventually—and fortuitously—washing up on the doorstep of tattoo luminary Bert Grimm's shop in St. Louis, Missouri. This encounter led to a life-changing mentorship and an enduring friendship. Grimm inked Bumpus's body suit at his St. Louis shop, incorporating many of his classic designs, including a Winged Liberty chest piece (Lot 50). Grimm also taught Bumpus the needle trade. Like any eager student, he dutifully copied the flash that hung in his mentor's shop, learning traditions of line and design, and developing his own unique style.

For several years Bumpus toured with small carnivals throughout the Southwest as a tattooed attraction and tattoo artist, billing himself as "Karl Lark." Times were hard; a promising gig with the Tom Mix Circus never materialized when the show folded mid-season in 1939. Road weary and discouraged, he soon retired from the show circuit, settling with his wife Flora in Garrettsville, OH. Here Bumpus transformed a small shed beside their house into a tattoo sanctuary, furnished with the very equipment, supplies and captivating artwork highlighted in this sale.

Bumpus counted many prominent tattooers among his close comrades, including Joe Darpel and Chet Cain, both of whom contributed to his body suit. Sandusky's Al Schiefley was a good friend too, supplying Bumpus with much of the framed commercial flash that hung in his shop (Lots 55-87). Bumpus was also generous with information, passing his knowledge on to Akron's Paul Thompson, who worked alongside him early in his career. Later, in the 1970s, Bumpus traded designs, photos and business cards with British tattoo artist Dave Heap, who remembers their correspondence fondly.

Karl Bumpus continued to work for the railroad by day, but at night the buzz of his machine could be heard long after the sun went down. His reputation as a skilled tattooer grew quickly. Clients came to him from all over the region—including the thrill-seeking amateur drivers and motorcyclists who frequented the nearby Nelson Ledges racetrack. In 1969, a local reporter observed that when Bumpus wasn't decorating soldiers and sailors, he was "busy with his electric needle, stitching crossed pistons with skulls and daggers on the arms and chests of auto hotrodders and motorcyclists."

15 x 20 in. (38.1 x 50.8 cm.) Provenance: Originally from the tattoo shop of Karl Bumpus (1905-1982), Garrettsville, Ohio 15 x 20 in. (38.1 x 50.8 cm.)
15 x 20 in. (38.1 x 50.8 cm.)

  • Condition: Overall very good condition with minor wear appropriate for its age and use.

    Condition reports are available upon request. The absence of a condition report does not imply an object is free of imperfections. Bidders are encouraged to inspect items in person or through a knowledgeable representative. If you have questions about condition, please contact Bray & Co. before placing your bid.

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Items can be picked up in person by appointment only at our gallery at 55 Green Street in Portsmouth, NH. Please contact us at least 24 hours in advance of pickup. *All first-time buyers that wish to pick items up in person must pay with cash.

September 24, 2023 12:00 PM EDT
Portsmouth, NH, US

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