Stoney Knows How: The Stoney St. Clair Story

Born of a November 9, Little Person/ tattoo artist Leonard “Stoney” St. Clair (1912-1980).

Tattoos are celebrated, and sometimes regretted, for their “permanence”, but even those are temporary: the youngest person old enough to sport a St. Clair tattoo would be 60 now, and nobody lives forever. Luckily, many of his designs will outlive those wore them, there are hundreds available to look at across the Internet. And you can see him in two documentary films, Stoney Knows How (1980) and Tattoo Uprising (2019).

Born in rural West Virginia, St. Clair contracted rheumatic arthritis at age four. Confined to a wheelchair thereafter, he spent a lot of his childhood learning to draw. He joined a circus as a sword swallower at age 15 but only traveled with the show for about a year. In the great navy town of Norfolk, he encountered his first tattoo parlor, and realized that body art was an area where he could earn a living with his artistic talent. He learned the trade, and hung out his shingle in 1928. Stoney initially was based in Tampa, where the circus had its winter quarters. Later he made his home in New Orleans, and finally in Columbus, OH, where the interviews in those were conducted. St. Clair proved a voluble raconteur; there’s lots of useful and entertaining folk culture to be derived from his stories.

The title Stoney Knows How is a reference to the sign outside St. Claire’s shop, which advertised the fact that he also taught the art. And that is yet another way that his life left a permanent imprint, for many whom he taught are practitioners to this day. More on tattoos, and the tattooed, here.