For the Record: Sailor Jack Cripe (1918-1992)
Courtesy of Tattoo Archive: Sailor Jack Cripe was born in 1918 but very little of his early history is known. Once in show business he worked as a tattooist, tattoo attraction and banner painter and dabbled with sword swallowing and knife throwing.
Cripe left the show business world for 13 years and sailed as a merchant seaman but those dates are also unknown to us. Jack Cripe had a bodysuit of tattoos, some done by Sailor Katzy and Sailor Barney. He said that he did most of his own tattoos himself because he could not afford work by someone else.
It is unclear when or how Sailor Jack learned banner painting but today he is best known for these banner-painting skills. Through the years Cripe worked with Snap Wyatt and in 1947 he joined Jack Sigler at Sigler Signs, where he was working when we met him in the late 1980s.
The Tattoo Archive commissioned Sailor Jack to paint a banner of Betty Broadbent. The following is from a 1990 letter from him to the Archive discussing the banner project.
“I have finally found some suitable canvas. I am having it blown up 6’x 8’. After all Betty B. deserves to be painted life-size on old-fashioned canvas in the old-fashioned circus style. Not only that – I paint better life-size. Of course, I’m going to try to make her appear sexier than her photos. She was quite a girl. Her son “Elephant Red” gave her many problems. He was a real nut. He used to tell everyone I was his father, (not true). I miss old Betty and a whole bunch of my (freak) friends – they’re mostly all dead.”
As far as we know that banner was never finished. Over the last few years, sideshow banners have moved into a more respected position in the ar t world. Painters like Nieman Eisman, Snap Wyatt, Fred Johnson, Bob Wicks, Jack Sigler, Johnny Meah and of course Jack Cripe. These artists have begun to received the recognition that they deserved with their work being exhibited at major galleries and museums. In 1992 Sailor Jack wrote, “So those so-called fine artists finally decided banner painters have some talent. Our work was pure psychology. Like Snap Wyatt used to say, ‘Give em’ sex and blood, they love it’. Snap told me we’re not artist, we’re illustrators, I told him, I thought we were cartoonist.”
In that 1992 letter Cripe wrote, “We could have painted the old banners much better but we were only getting $64 for a 8’x10’ and furnishing the canvas, which in those days cost $16. It took 8 to 10 hours. to finish one.” Al Stencell, a Canadian showman, visited Sailor Jack in Tampa after his double bypass surgery in 1992. In Al’s landmark book, Circus & Carnival Ballyhoo he said that he found Jack laying on the sofa in his underwear with a long red scar vertically bisecting him. Al said that a case of beer and a fifth of booze were nearby. Al had a great visit with lots of laughs, but Jack knew things weren’t good health-wise. Jack hoped to make it to the Florida Keys to spend his last days with “a mean dog and a bad woman.”
In an August 1992 letter to the Archive, Sailor Jack wrote that he had been in and out of the hospital and that the government paid more than $25,000 dollars in the last year for his health care. In that letter Sailor Jack stated, “I’m falling apart in my old age, I have two more operations to go.” It is unclear if Sailor Jack made it to the Keys before his death in late 1992.
King Studio photo of the Wm. Chalkias banner line, note Jack Cripe tattoo artist banner.
Sailor Jack Cripe, aka Baron Von Kripe, Cash Coventry Collection.
Cartoon by Sailor Jack, 1992.
Sailor Jack showing off his elephant legs, Cash Coventry Collection.
Self-portrait by Sailor Jack 1975, Cash Coventry Collection.
Sailor Jack as a sword swallower, 1960s.
Close up of the Wm. Chalkias banner.
This installment of For the Record was featured in Tattoo Artist Magazine issue #27.