Joe Prokopowicz

Joe Prokopowicz

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 Tattooed in the Cambridge Ontario area from 1954 to 1991

I searched for a couple of years to find Joe, it wasn’t until I went to interview Paul Vicary up in Guelph Ontario that I found any information as to where he lived. After my interview with Paul I drove to Norfolk Ave in Cambridge and started knocking on doors until I found his home. The following article is information I received from him directly.

Joe recalls being an artist since he was four years old. His lifelong artistic endeavor progressed through his entire life. In 1951 he joined the Navy, during his basic training he would draw pictures on people’s kit bags in the evenings to earn extra money. After basic training he went to the west coast to go on course. Everyone knew he was drawing on kit bags when he arrived out west and it wasn’t long before the guys were asking him to do tattoos on them. The thought had never crossed his mind until that point.

Joe received his first tattoo in 1963 during a trip to Halifax by Charlie Snow. He went in on a Wednesday but Charlie wasn’t open so he went back on a Saturday and got the work. At the time Joe thought “gee there is nothing to it, It hurts ya but you get over that”. After getting his tattoo by Charlie he ended up getting sent to Korea to serve as a cook on HCMS Iroquois 217 in 1953.

When he arrived home from Korea he got drafted to S.T.A.R (Selective training and reenlistment). He had the choice of where he wanted to go so he served in the navy for another three years on the great lakes. During his service on the great lakes he met up with his brother and mentioned that he wanted to do tattooing. His brother said he saw an advertisement in a Popular Mechanics magazine for tattoo equipment so he found it for him.

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[i](Popular Mechanics advertisement from May, 1952)

After receiving the advertisement Joe mailed a request for a catalogue and price list from Milton Zeise. When He received the price list he thought it was a lot of money for the equipment however he decided to take the risk and order the equipment anyways.

When he arrived to S.T.A.R. there were always new  guys coming in for training every two weeks . At the time there were no tattooist working in the area that he knew of so he thought this was his chance to give tattooing a go. 

The day the equipment arrived he had the day off so he went home to his mother’s house. When he arrived home his mom said he had a parcel  in the mail that day. Joe knew what it was right away and he couldn’t wait to open it up. After carefully unpacking his tattoo equipment he hooked it all up and plugged it in, the machine started smoking like crazy. It didn’t take long for him to figure out what the problem was. The machine was dc (direct current) power and the power in his house was ac (Alternating Current). He quickly unplugged it and found a battery to run his machine.

He started out using 6 volt batteries but they didn’t last long enough. At the time he was onboard a ship in Hamilton, so he went next door to the electricians shack and got batteries from them. He said they had all kinds of spare batteries from the ships so he used them.

Within a month of tattooing Joe was able to make his initial investment back. He continued to tattoo the navy guys for about a year and a half then he got his discharge notice so he packed up and moved home. He wasn’t home two days and people had heard of him tattooing and they started coming around.

Joe worked in his dad’s garage after he moved home. He said “it worked out alright, things snowballed for me”. Eventually he got married and moved to Kitchener with his new wife (Doris Prokopowicz). When someone called for work he would drive to his mother’s house and do the tattoo. He continued to do this for about a year then he decided to move closer so he ended up buying a house on the same street that his mother lived on (159 Norfolk Ave, Cambridge Ontario).

He lived there for about six years doing tattoos in his cellar. Later he bought a house up the street that had a garage and he tore out the back and added another six feet onto it. He tattooed in that location (161 Norfolk Ave. Cambridge Ontario) until 1991.

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Over Joe’s career as a tattoo artist he not only did tattoos but he also built and sold equipment. He built and designed a tattoo machine over the course of 4-7 years. His first model wasn’t successful and he put it down for about two years then he got another idea, the second model he made worked out for him but the bushings didn’t last because they were made from brass so he switched to bronze and that worked better.

When Joe first started selling machines he sold them for 75$ he eventually raised his price to 160$ plus tax. He said he only had one customer that didn’t like his machines so he sent his money back. During one of my visits with Joe he gave me his leger and the sales recorded in it were from all over the world along with a note on one sale stating “dissatisfied, returned money”.

I asked Joe what he most enjoyed about his career he said “all the experiences he had tattooing his clients”. The oldest person he ever tattooed was an 80 year old woman and she had her ear tattooed by him. He noted to me that he went to school with Carol “Smokey” Nightingale. (which I found to be interesting as Smokey is another tattooist from the same time period as Joe)

Near the end of the interview Joe said to me “When you stop tattooing everything seems to stop, you lose all contact and nobody wants to have anything to do with you anymore. When I was tattooing, people came around all the time but that has come to a close”.

When he said this to me it made my heart heavy. However this is the fuel that will propel the book that I will eventually make. Today, we stand on the shoulders of all the old timers in tattooing. May this writing honor and serve the great tattooist that came before us.

In closing I think it’s safe to say that Joe had a tattooers heart! He perfected his craft over the 37 years he tattooed in Canada and contributed to tattooing on a global level through his supply company. It was an honor to meet Joe. He welcomed me at his door and remained humble the entire time I knew him.

[ii]Joseph Prokopowicz,

1928-2013

Joe Passed away peacefully, at Stirling Heights LTC, Cambridge, on Tuesday May 28, 2013 at the age of 85. Predeceased by his beloved wife, Doris (2008).

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(Joe came to visit my shop in 2009)

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[ii] http://www.corbettfuneralhome.ca/obituaries/79746

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8 thoughts on “Joe Prokopowicz

  1. r.i.p joe you have always been an inspiration to me since i have been a child, playing just down the street from your house watching people come out of your place all tatted up,,wondering what it would be like to get one too, but couldnt till i was eighteen,then i decided to be like you and do them as well ,, well its been 30 years for me now tattooing ,,, hopefully i got a few more years to go ,, i thank you ,,rest in peace old friend

  2. Pingback: Canadian Tattoo History 2 | General Tattoo Discussion | Last Sparrow Tattoo

  3. Joe Prokopowicz was my mother’s youngest brother (#7 of 8). He and my father both had tattoos and I always loved and was fascinated by them. Being female my mother was dead set against me ever getting one. I enjoyed many a conversation with my Uncle and found him very fascinating with what he had to say, help or show you. After my father passed away, he and my aunt were a great help and support system through out my mother’s entire illness with Parkinson’s. I knew I could always count on them for anything and only wish I could have done as much for them as they had done for me. Last year in June of 2014 I did get my first tattoo and chose a poppy within a set of angel wings. It did hurt but was more than worth the wait. It definitely won’t be my last either.

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