18¾”H X 16”W X 12½”D • 81 LBS
Recently, the great, great nephew of Clarence Decker, the model of the sailor, said that he never had a tattoo in real life. And that Betty was actually supposed to be Bell, his wife. But Bell vowed to never speak to Rockwell again if her name appeared as a tattoo, so he crossed the l’s and added a y to turn “Bell” into “Betty”.
A sailor on shore leave must visit the tattoo shop in the Bowery to have the tattoo of his lady love’s name to carry with him on his long tour of duty in the Navy. “Betty” joins the long list of names of his previous lady loves which have been all been crossed off. Sadie, Rosietta, Ming Fu, Mimi, Olga, and Sing Lee are not just his old flames, but also the permanent reminders of his adventures and experiences with the Navy.
Norman Rockwell’s 219th cover for the Saturday Evening Post was published on March 4th, 1944 with a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of one of the brave service men as he visits the tattoo parlor to fill in what little space he has left on his arm with a new name. This service man has been around the world, he has loved, he has lost, and he has survived to tell his tale. But his heart lies back home as he adds Betty’s name just about the tattoo of the American Seal. Betty is the one, the girl next door, the one who he is fighting the war for. Rockwell’s mastery of subtle meanings within his works are what distinguishes him as more than just an artist drawing caricatures. He shows us heart, determination, and always intends a much broader meaning in all his work.
The undertone of love of country and patriotism are at the heart of the Tattoo Artist. The sailor sits steadily, keeping an eye on the tattooist, almost to make sure he does his job correctly. This tattoo means something more to him than the rest did. It’s interesting to note that when Rockwell took photographs of models for this work, the one photo that comes up is of the model he used, his neighbor Clarence Decker, as he sits with a wide grin on his face. But Rockwell didn’t use that facial expression. He decided to add a bit more of a serious tone on the sailor as he sits with the tattooist, steady and sober. Betty is not a laughing matter, she is not a drunken late-night decision. She is the one.
Mead Schaeffer was the other model used for Rockwell’s studies. A good friend and an artist in his own right, Mead Schaeffer posed as the disheveled tattoo artist with his back to the audience. Professionally holding a pose that Rockwell set him in, Schaeffer adds levity with his frazzled hair, colorful socks, and paint stained pants. Rockwell wanted to capture authenticity as much as possible. He even borrowed a tattoo machine from one of the Bowery tattooists, Al Neville, and consulted him as to the accuracy of the portrayal. Authenticity was very important to Rockwell and he even included the most popular tattoo designs of the day in the background.
The Tattoo Artist by Norman Rockwell, Brooklyn Museum
Norman Rockwell, Tattoo Archive
Rockwell's Silly Side, The Saturday Evening Post
Love & Tattoos: The Tattoo Archive on Rockwell's "The Tattoo Artist", Reynolda House Museum of American Art
Tattoo Artist by Norman Rockwell, Best Norman Rockwell Art