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Go inside one of Canada's first tattoo parlours

On this day in 1964, CBC explored tattoo culture in Canada with Victoria's Doc Forbes, meeting his eclectic local clients: sailors, housewives and senior citizens.

From sailors and housewives to 'lords and ladies,' Victoria's Doc Forbes tattooed them all

On this day in 1964, CBC explored tattoo culture in Canada with Victoria's Doc Forbes, meeting his eclectic local clients: sailors, housewives and senior citizens. (CBC Archives)

The newest exhibition at Toronto's Royal Ontario Museum is all about tattoos, and to explore the 5,000+ years body art, the show looks at how this inky phenomenon has developed all over the world, collecting stories and artifacts from Japan, Polynesia, Europe. So here's one more, and it comes straight from the CBC Archives.

In 1964, CBC's 20/20 wanted to learn more about tattoo culture in Canada, even though at the time, there were hardly any tattoo artists working in the country. As of 1958, just three were in business, and one of them was Victoria's Doc Forbes.

Forbes welcomed CBC into his parlour 52 years ago today.

As the veteran artist tells host Harry Mannis, he learned his trade in the '20s when he was just a kid who'd run away with the circus. After his carney days, he kept travelling, setting up shop in Mexico, Cuba, Vancouver and Boston. (He inked "lords and ladies" in that last place, he said — English aristocrats who hired him for some indelible holiday souvenirs.)

As for the clientele in Victoria, we're introduced to a few of Forbes's typical customers as Mannis tries to understand why "civilized people today" are coming in for permanent hearts and flowers, eagles and daggers.

First, there are the usual suspects. Plenty of sailors visit Forbes thanks to the nearby naval base in Esquimalt.

But we also meet Doc's assistant (and girlfriend) Helen, who's emblazoned her torso with feminine flash. While explaining his technique to CBC, Forbes colours in a giant blossom on her belly, a rose flanked with kewpie dolls and a hummingbird.

Helen's tattoos, they explain, are strategically placed so that they're always hidden by her clothes, even her swimsuit. "We take in quite a lot of dances and we don't like the criticism," Forbes says.

Joan, a mother of four, gets her latest tattoo on national television — a new lovebird to match the one already tattooed on her chest. "It's something no one can take away from you and it's really a beautiful piece of art when it's finished," she tells CBC.

This guy would probably agree. At 82, he's Forbes's oldest customer.

CBC pans over his full-body canvas which Forbes is re-touching, singling out a piece on his back that was done in 1906.

When CBC News recently visited the ROM's tattoo exhibition, the museum's Director and CEO Josh Basseches said the show "looks at the question of the relationship between art and culture and really expanding the definition of what art is," and it's the same subject CBC was pondering in 1964.

Watch the full, classic doc below:

For more throwbacks like this one, visit the CBC Digital Archives.

Tattoos: Ritual. Identity. Obsession. Art. To Sept 5 at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto. www.rom.on.ca.

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