Before Ed Hardy and Sailor Jerry, there were a couple of guys who are considered the forefathers of American Tattooing: August “Cap” Coleman and Franklin Paul Rogers. When you trace the history of tattooing, a good chunk of the great flash icons can be linked directly back to these American masters.

August “Capt.” Coleman was born in 1884 near Cincinnati, Ohio. Although Coleman claimed his father was also a tattooist, his name has not surfaced as part of tattoo history (Paul Rogers was always a bit skeptical about that story). It is well known that Coleman settled in Norfolk, Virginia around 1918 and quickly became a living legend in the tattoo business.

August Cap Coleman watercolor by Pepe
August Cap Coleman watercolor by Pepe

It is unclear who did Coleman’s tattooing but some of it was probably done by hand. Many of Coleman’s tattoos, which included the large eagle, the flag chest piece, the ship on the stomach, the sun designs on the kneecaps, and the fancy socks design, could be seen on the small statue that was displayed in his shop window in Norfolk. This statue is now part of the Mariner’s Museum collection in Newport News, Virginia.

When Coleman set up his shop on East Main Street in Norfolk, it was one of the more “colorful” streets in town. Norfolk was a major seaport at this time with ships from around the world arriving and departing daily. The street was lined with tattoo shops with plenty of sailors to fill them. Coleman’s shop was located near the old Majestic Theatre, later known as the Gaiety Theater, a favorite striptease and burlesque house frequented by sailors.

Otto Trager and August Bernard “Cap” Coleman, Norfolk, Virginia, 1937
Otto Trager and August Bernard “Cap” Coleman, Norfolk, Virginia, 1937 – photo by William T. Radcliffe

Coleman’s business card stated that he offered cover work, supplies including needles, designs, colors, stencils, and machines, but his approach to the supply business was very low key. He seemed to be very sure of his position in the tattoo world, as was noted on his elaborate two-sided business card. The card shows two photos of him and mentions all the magazines that had featured articles on him. He didn’t even think it was necessary to mention his address, and simply stated: “Look for Coleman’s place on Main Street“.

When, in June 1950, Norfolk’s City Council ruled tattooing illegal, Coleman and many other tattooists were forced out of the city. Many of the Norfolk tattooists, including Grimshaw and Coleman, moved across the Elizabeth River and set up shops in Portsmouth, Virginia.

Coleman’s body was found in the Elizabeth River near his home on October 25, 1973. Authorities suspected that he slipped and fell into the river. Coleman invested his tattooing money wisely in the stock market. At the time of his death he had accumulated a small fortune, which he generously left to several local charities.

August Cap Coleman's Tattoo parlor in Norfolk, Virginia, 1936
August Cap Coleman’s Tattoo parlor in Norfolk, Virginia, 1936