Rosie Camanga

Everybody has heard of Sailor Jerry and Ed Hardy, but how about Rosie Camanga? While those two ended up on almost every shirt in New Jersey, Rosie Camanga could be selling hot-dogs for all we know. Even Ed Hardy, who was so inspired by Rosie’s art that he singlehandedly got it into museums, hasn’t been able to reach him. That’s why there is [1910-?] written in Rosie’s biography.

In the late 60’s, Sailor Jerry and Rosie had tattoo shops a block apart. While Rosie’s drawings started off crudely, they evolved and got so great that Sailor Jerry had a schoolboy admiration. So why are those two making millions while their favorite artist is broke? Perhaps Rosie’s art wasn’t “artistic” enough to be featured on a sparkling purple t-shirt. His work was crude but at the same time very complex, and wasn’t the typical commercialized flash, which sets it apart but also kept him from achieving mainstream success.

He is the underground artist of the tattoo world who mysteriously fell off the map. Actually, his whole career is filled with mystery. None of his flash-art is actually signed or dated (well that might not have helped his marketability), and is written in poor English. This is also seen in the actual art, with pictures of a reaper playing a guitar or a woman clutching an eagle with no explanation. When he does include text, it makes the images even stranger, like the dragon tattoo that says next to it “you are in the dark, but I can get you”.

So even if you can’t find his art at the mall, it is very complex and beautiful, and definitely worth checking out.

His real name was Tino Camanga and he was born in the Philippines in 1910, though it’s unknown where the nickname “Rosie” came from. A self-taught tattoo artist, Camanga lived in Honolulu and worked as a tattooist from the early 1930’s-1991. There is an interesting legend about how Rosie began tattooing. According to the legend, he walked into a tattoo parlor and said he wanted to learn to tattoo. The shop owner gave him the tattoo machine and said if he could tattoo himself, he’d get the job. Camanga sat down and gave himself his first and only tattoo. He still resides in Hawaii.

Anecdote: Rosie lived under a stairway in Chinatown, down the street from Sailor Jerry’s place in Hawaii. He was routinely beaten like a red-headed stepchild. He often pestered Jerry about how he got his brilliant red colors. Jerry finally broke down and told him to put sugar in the ink. Rosie did. The next morning all his work was destroyed as Jerry knew too well that water bugs, cockroaches, and all the other monstrous insects roaming around Hawaii love sugar and summarily chomped said drawings to bits. Trade secrets don’t come easy.

Now his work looks gifted and brilliant but back in the day this kind of drawing probably just looked awful to other tattooists. He is considered a gifted outsider artist with one man shows at places like Ricco Maresca, the well respected folk art gallery in NYC. Take that Sailor Jerry!