Tattoo Portraits: “Doc” Webb

“I have been tattooing over 40 years. Originally, I was a commercial artist working for the Fox West Coast Theaters. I also worked for the arcades doing signs with comic sketches on them. I met Bob Kelton and other tattooists in the arcades and they asked me to draw designs for them.

I got 50¢ or 75¢ a design. One day they asked me to put one on a customer. I did and I liked it so well, I got right into the business. Haven’t done anything else since.” (“Doc” Webb).

Doc Webb, Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum files
Doc Webb, Vallejo Naval and Historical Museum files

Doc Webb said that he got his first tattoo supplies from Charlie Wagner in 1926. He ordered two machines for $5.00, and when they arrived they were in pieces, with no instructions for assembly. Doc wrote to Wagner for help and Wagner replied: “If you do not know how to assemble them, maybe you shouldn’t have them!” Needless to say, the first machines Doc tattooed with were made by Percy Waters. Doc Webb operated shops in Vallejo and in San Diego, California. Infact, he spent his entire tattoo career around the military and the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT).

Doc summed it up well in his book, The Honest Skin Game where he said: “Tattooing has been a great experience, a never-ending joy. I’ve seen life, and more than half of the world. The little tattooer’s buzzer made it possible. Each day, I eagerly look forward to what will come, and I am as thrilled with the job I do today as I was with my first tattoo. I take photos of some of my work, and put it on the wall for all to see. I’m like the little kid bringing home a picture he drew, saying: Look Mom, what I did today”.

Doc Webb, watercolor by Pepe
Doc Webb, watercolor by Pepe

It’s easy to romanticize the “old days” of American tattoo shop culture when you hear guys like Doc Webb talking about it. Before it was a “gallery” it was a parlor and if your tattooer had an art-school background he kept it to himself. Even when he’s talking about the Sailors being drunks and raisin’ hell he’s got a smile on his face.

Doc Webb also appears in a 1984 documentary called “Signatures of the Soul”. It featured a good cross section of tattoo culture, it was directed by Geoff Steven who scored a major coup when he obtained the services of Peter Fonda as his presenter. Shot in NZ, Samoa, Japan and the United States, it traces the history of tattooing from Ancient Egypt through its tribal importance in the Pacific, to a counter culture renaissance that began in the 1960s. Leading tattooers (including superstar Ed Hardy) are interviewed and observed at work, while their clients wince their way towards becoming living canvasses. Doc Webb died in 1986.


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