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The Great Omi

Horace Leonard Ridler (1882-1965) also known as The Great Omi was a resident of Ripe from the early 1950s until his death in 1965. He settled in the village with his wife Gladys aka Omette on retirement from a long and colourful life performing as the worlds most tattooed man.

The life of Omi

Horrace Ridler was Born on the 26th March 1882 in Surrey. There are many written versions of his early life and background, most likely due to his persona as a showman with rich tales to accompany his spectacular visual style it is difficult to know what is fact and what is fiction, but it is clear that he spent some time in the army as a young man and during this time he also travelled extensively. It also seems his lifestyle was marked by partying and gambling and this lead to him to quickly loose a substantial inheritance and to leave his army post. After several years of financial instability, various further military service and many different jobs and business ventures he had by 1922 firmly set his sights on an adventure into a sideshow career. It is likely that Ridler already had several tattoos collected during his travels and time in the military, but he needed something radical in order to become a big sideshow star so he approached one of the best and most reputable tattoo artists of the time, George ‘Professor’ Burchett (1872-1953) and asked him to completely cover his entire body with ink work.

 Burchett spent the next seven years covering Ridler’s entire body, while also covering all traces of earlier work in order to turn him into the greatest tattoo attraction ever seen.

Over the next few year Horrace, now using his stage name of THE GREAT OMI frequently updated his appearance with more body modifications in order to remain a great human spectacle and command good payment for his public appearances. He had his teeth filed to points, had body piercin, subjected himself to early forms of facial plastic surgery modifying his nose and ears, he wore elaborate costumes, painted his nails, wore lipstick and later introduced his new wife Gladys the Omette as a double act.

Elaborate fictitious tales were told, relying on the audience’s lack of knowledge and awareness of other cultures and remote lands, to explain his outrageous  appearance.  A favourite tale was the claim that Omi had been captured by savages in New Guinea and tortured by tattooing. This story telling was common amongst tattoo acts and really boosted Omi’s popularity, turning him into one of the highest paid sideshow performers of his time.

After a visit to New York Omi was hired by Robert Ripley to appear on his famous ‘Believe it or Not’ show as the star attraction. Omi stayed with the show for six months, the longest time Ripley ever showcased a single performer. During that period, he appeared more than 1,600 times, often doing up to ten shows a day.

During the Second World War Omi performed in many shows for British war charities and war camps, boosting morale.

On his return to England Omi continued to donate his services to the war effort, giving free performances to troops and charity organizations and further supported the allied effort by promoting the sales of war bonds. 
He continued to perform until the early 1950s and after nearly 30 years as a showman he retired to the drastically contrasting tiny and quiet village of Ripe with his wife. They lived in a caravan in the woods and lead a simple life.  Omi was sometimes a visitor to the village pub where he claimed to be a member of an elephant worshipping cult. 

Omi died at the age of 83, he had been one of the best paid and most famous sideshow performers of his time.

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