The Great Omi was one of the most popular tattooed men of all time. He was primitively tattooed over much of his body including his head and face, which was tattooed in bold black zebra-like stripes. Sometimes referred to as the ‘The Zebra Man’, Horace Ridler – the man who would become The Great Omi – was born in Surrey, England around 1892 to a wealthy family. He served twice in the British Army as a commissioned officer but left the military after the First World War with the rank of major.
Ridler may have gotten some tattoos during his many years in the British Army, but in 1922, in some financial trouble, Ridler decided that show business was the key to fame and fortune. He approached an unnamed tattooist who claimed to be Chinese and started turning himself into a tattoo attraction. This early tattooing was extremely rather crude, but Ridler was able to make a modest living at music hall and fairgrounds
But Horace Ridler had bigger plans and in1927 he began to visit London’s famed tattooist – George Burchett – with a plan that would transform him into the greatest modern tattoo attraction in the world. After much discussion and written approval from both Horace and his wife Gladys, Burchett began to work on Ridler.
The design of the wide black stripes would cover his old work and, by Burchett’s account, 150 hours later Horace Ridler became The Great Omi. As soon as the tattoo work was completed the job offers rolled in from Bertram Mills Circus, Robert Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not”, Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus and the Bellevue Circus. Gladys Ridler worked with her husband and became the Omette, introducing the Great Omi to the audiences of the world.
In homage to the tattooed workers who came before him, Omi concocted an elaborate back story to explain his appearance and claimed he had been forcibly tattooed by New Guinea savages. The story really boosted his popularity and he soon became one of the highest paid circus performers of hi time.
As the years wore on the Omi’s appearance became more and more outrageous as did his personality. He took to wearing lipstick and nail polish and signed his pitch cards, ‘the Barbaric Beauty’. Despite his appearance, “underneath it all, I’m just an ordinary man,” he insisted shortly before his death in 1969.