Brooklyn Joe Lieber
Sailor Jerry has received much of the well-deserved attention in the last decade. Old Iron Sights or Hori Smoku as he dubbed himself was profoundly American and damn proud of it. Brooklyn Joe Lieber is credited to be the Godfather of The American Traditional style and with good reason. So it is no surprise that his influences would come from his beloved homeland. There were many sources of inspiration that he had mail correspondence with trading their (at the time) well protected secrets of the trade. These men included the legends Owen Jenson, Charlie Wagner and the man we will be focusing on today… the one and only “Brooklyn” Joe Lieber.
To this day it is unknown where he got the name Brooklyn Joe as records show him working nearly exclusively on the west coast. In Albert Parry’s 1933 book Tattoo it is stated, that Lieber who was based in San Francisco was one of the United States best tattoo artists. While it is well documented that he was most active between the 1930s thru the 50s, business cards held in the tattoo archives from the early 40s state that he had 45 years experience. That would place his tattoo career beginnings as early as 1895. When looking at one of his flash paintings or tattoos, it is plain to see why he was such an inspiration to and arguably one of the creators of modern American Traditional. His paintings were lightyears ahead of the folk art developing at the time in the industry. With the bright color schemes, solid black placement and bolder outlines. His pinup paintings were also very indicative of the style Jerry later used in his own tattoos and paintings. He made many designs that are considered the heart of American Traditional such as roses, pinups, eagles, flags, animals, and military themed tattoos the path was paved for future development of the American Traditional style.
One can picture what it was like to be tattooed by him in the 30s, an extremely tough and sometimes violent world that tattoo artists existed. It was very different from the sterile and almost doctor office approach of many modern shops. Tattoo shops were scary, mean and very rough and tumble definitely not a world for pussies. In his day only the brave and crazy would tend to venture in and if you wanted a tattoo the design choices were extremely limited. Virtually every reputable tattooer had a selection of hand painted flash sheets that you could choose your tattoo design from. His were clearly among the best in his time period. Large scale work was extremely rare in the western world. Even so you can easily find old black and white pictures of entire back pieces made by him.
In the 1940s Oakland California was a Mecca for world class tattooing on the west coast, Brooklyn Joe worked at the Fun Center Arcade on Broadway. This must have been a longtime stay for him because Tattoo Archive has multiple cards of his at this address. He worked with many of the greats of his time including C.J. Eddy and J.C. Kidd at one of their famous shops of that day. His later career was also earmarked with having worked alongside another legendary tattoo figure Doc “Davey” Jones. He had a long fruitful life and career from the late 1800s to 1953 where he finally passed away. During his last years he had correspondences with “Sailor” Norman Jerry Collins where he traded art, pictures of tattoos he made, and hand carved acetate stencils along with other safeguarded secrets of the trade that Jerry likely took to the grave. A famous Sailor Jerry quote goes “always hold back your death blow special, in case you need to use it against them”. Brooklyn Joe’s art was definitely a death blow in Jerry’s repertoire.
– Chris Sanchez