When I saw my college art instructor Seth Eisen at the Homo File Salon, his greeting was warm and sincere in his thanks for my support. Nevertheless his genuine warmth couldn’t hide some genuine curiosity as to my presence. He asked me to come up with a few words as to what Sam Steward’s significance was to me as a straight- identified male, and how I saw Sam as bridging our cultures. This is the most concise answer I can compose:
Prior to learning of Sam Steward, Phil Sparrow was not totally foreign to me; he’d tattooed the Red and White in the 60’s and 70’s, and his name came up sometimes in the same context as names like Horst and Stanley Maus. At one point I’m pretty sure I had been aware that “that guy who used to tattoo the Oakland Angels” had also been the guy to tattoo “LUCIFER” across Kenneth Anger’s chest, but it had been filed away as a curiosity, no more than a novel footnote in SF culture. Neither was the name Phil Andros completely unknown to me; the person who gave me my very first tattoo machine was a queer biker, and she had some of his novels. Nevertheless, I had no idea that those Phils were one and the same, or that both were Sam Steward, Ph.D -who I had came to know and love earlier this year.
I met Sam on a day I had shown up early to an appointment across the street from the public library, I decided to kill some time looking for obsolete books on american folk art that might inform my tattooing. Cross stitching, rosemaling and tattoos all live on the same shelf there, and I’ve perused most of the books 20 times, but on that day one jumped out at me: “Bad Boys and Tough Tattoos: A Social History of the Tattoo With Gangs, Sailors, and Street-Corner Punks 1950-1965.” It wasn’t a flashy looking book, in fact, it looked like some 1960s naval radar manual, but I couldn’t resist the title. I thought “This could be novel…” and started reading. Half an hour later I was still riveted where I stood. I devoured that book over the next two nights.
Steward was a man who would have been significant had he only been notable for crossing the bridge from man of letters to man of colors, but he did much more. Sam Steward bridged worlds at every turn. A pre-Stonewall homosexual, he made discretion an art in and of itself as he moved like a partisan through layers of hostile hetero-normative cultures, while never ceasing to chronicle his citizenship in their sexual shadows. I found correlation with this in the experience of my ethnic identity as a Jew, both culturally as an American and personally as a caucasian biker.
I also found direct parallels in my own sexuality. His contributions to the Kinsey reports directly shaped the worlds cultural vocabulary for kink as well as queer life. I’m using the two terms separately, but they overlap. At one time, however, such a nuanced understanding of gender and sexuality was not available to many; Words like “Dom,” “Sub,” etc. were not seen by the mainstream as discreet. In fact anything outside of the norm of nuclear family, and reproductive sex was for the most part fallaciously associated with homosexuality and reconciled to “queer” in a pejorative sense.
I felt that I Immediately recognized a kindred spirit in Steward, regardless of our sexual identification, He provided me a surprising mirror, one that I needed at that juncture of my life. Whether I like it or not, I am both intellectual and academic. So was Steward. However, I’m also an ex-hoodlum and an artist, as such my participation in the “normative” social contract frequently feels both contextual and subjective. Sam navigated the subjectivity of that contract expertly. My current art project is tattooing myself, and my primary interest in that act is as a ritual, symbolic and therapeutic practice. Sam’s writings have a great deal to say about these ideas. In fact, my lifelong obsession with motorcycles has placed me firmly into a culture that many of Sam’s symbols helped to define.
My love of symbol has led my spiritual views to be influenced by occultism, including the mystical system of Thelema. This influence has frequently intersected with my eight years of recovery in twelve step programs – sometimes harmoniously, and sometimes causing me a great deal of pain as I’ve struggled with themes of authenticity versus ego, and the appropriate application of self-will in my own life. At the time I found “Bad Boys” I was contemplating leaving Cal to seek apprenticeship for my tattoo practice, or if I should hold out for higher education and believe that more would be revealed. That day it was, in the form of Sam.
Early into his book I noticed what I perceived to be a similar writing tone to that of Bill Wilson, the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. You can imagine my surprise when, in the process of reading, I discovered that this funny, driven and diverse man – for whom my admiration grew by the page, not only quit drinking through the program of AA, but also gave the Thelemite film-maker Kenneth Anger his controversial chest tattoo… My mind was blown.
I have come to think of Sam Steward like my cool funny uncle but that doesn’t feel quite respectful enough for a man with his gravitas. He’s more like my spirit guide. Whatever his title, there is no question in my mind that Sam is my family. Everywhere on my personal path, he’s there. With the Beats, with the Intellectuals, with Oakland, with the bike clubs and the hobos and the stars. I stumble into him around the hallways of my cultural experience, as he emerges from some closet with a sneaky smile and tucking a little black book into his trouser pocket, reminding me that there are areas unexplored by the owners of every house. He represents something special to me, in that he was a strikingly self-actualized man who transcended many social roles, and in doing so helped to define them. To me, Sam carries the message that otherness and authenticity frequently go hand in hand.
While a secret historian of Gay Culture, in fulfilling that role Sam Steward became also a secret historian of human culture. The sparks from his tattoo machine light up certain shadowed areas of male sexuality, and his exhaustive stud files do not in my mind reinforce a binary of Gay culture versus Heterosexual culture, but instead serve to remind of the fact that all human sexuality and all human experience is spectral in nature, with poles on each end and myriad colors and shades between. I don’t see being a straight identified man with a gay hero as provocative. LGBTQ culture is world culture; Stonewall is an historic event. It’s time for the secret histories to be unearthed from the collective closets. I’m a native San Franciscan, and I’ve been blessed to grow up immersed in the gender/sexual political discourse. This upbringing has afforded me a unique set of tools for living an examined life: a sensitivity to certain cultural milestones that I might not have received if I’d grown up heterosexually identified during Sam’s time. As such, it has afforded me an increased level of sensitivity toward myself and my fellow humans. This in turn informs my ethical and intellectual inquiry, as well as enriching my artistic and social practices.
Sam is with me as I both receive and make my marks.
Aaron N. AKA Slick