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From 1961 up until 1997, there were no “legal” tattoo shops in New York City. The Health Department banned tattooing due to an alleged series of blood-borne Hepatitis-B cases linked to Coney Island tattoo parlors in the late 1950s. Alleged.

The first tattoo shops in New York City initially catered to seafarers who grabbed a haircut and some permanent ink in what is now the Financial District. By the late 19th century, tattoo mecca had moved to the Bowery. Tattooists catered to all kinds, but the Bowery was soldiers’ and sailors’ depraved heaven (and haven).

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During this era, the tattoo and barbershop often shared a storefront, leading to the appearance of barber poles. These storefront ornaments reflected the common belief that hair cutters were “doctors” of the days (blue – veins, red – blood, white – bandages).

As far back as the medieval times, “barbers were more akin to surgeons than hairdressers, and provided much more than a simple shave and a haircut…they lanced abscesses, set bone fractures, picked lice from hair and even pulled rotten teeth.” By the 19th century, tattooists “fixed” your black eye while barbers continued their role as surgeons (not for too much longer). This entailed placing a hot towel on the injured eye to reduce the swelling, then adding leeches.

Mildred Hull shop front-Lower East Side-East Village-NYCMildred Hull Shop Front. Image via Tattoo Archive

Why was it so widely advertised that black eyes could be painted? Simple – men looking for day work would most likely be passed over for a job if they had black eyes.Tattooists have moved on from fixing black eyes though permanent makeup (like eyeliner) is an option. Needles and eyeballs? No, thanks.

Here’s a quick look at the founding fathers and mother (as it were) of the LES/Bowery tattoo mecca:

Samuel O’Reilly was the first notable rockstar tattoo artist.  It was he who secured the first patent for a tattooing machine in 1891 (patent #464,801). He essentially re-designed Thomas Edison’s electric pen to create this device that would change tattooing forever.

Samuel O'Reilly-Tattoo Fad-NYCImage via Tattoo Archive

Millie Hull was born in 1897, and later began her career in the circus as an exotic dancer. However, she was tattooed by Charles Wagner so often she eventually became known as the “tattooed lady.” By 1939 she owned her own shop called the Tattoo Emporium, which she shared with a barber and fellow tattoo artist.

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Charlie Wagner was New York’s most skilled and revolutionary tattoo artist of his day, plying his ink trade behind the partition of a “five-chair barber shop” on the Bowery, according to a 1943 New York Times article. Men and women in New York City sought his talented hand from the 1890s up until his death in 1953. During this six-decade career, he even revamped O’Reilly’s groundbreaking tattoo machine and received his own patent in 1904 (#768,413).

Charlie Wagner-Tattoo-Lower East Side-East Vilage-NYCImage via Tattoo Archive

In the 1920s, William Moskowitz, a Russian immigrant, opened a barbershop on the Bowery.  By the late ‘30s, he learned to tattoo with help from his friend Charlie Wagner. In pursuing both trades, he quickly realized that tattooing was way more lucrative than hair-cutting. Willie taught his son-in-law to tattoo and then his sons, Stanley and Walter. The brothers proceeded to create a line of ink called Bowery Ink.

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Stay tuned tomorrow for a look at Fineline Tattoo in the East Village, considered the longest continually running tattoo shop in Manhattan

Get in touch with the author @RebelKnow or contact her at BoweryBoogie.com. For an in depth take on their contribution to the history of tattooing please visit Bowery Boogie’s 3 part series: A Haven of Ink is Born, Charlie Wagner and Millie Hull and Fineline and the Moskowitz Clan.

Image as noted courtesy of:

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2 Comments

  1. charles westover says:

    I had my first tattoo atage 15 years .My good friend Harry and I heard about Charlie Wagner when we were in the city . We were told make sure we get there before 11 a.m.before he starts drinking.My first tattoo was $.25 cents by Charlie Wagner. year,. 1945.The next year I joined the Merchant Marine.Today I’m 85 and remember my first tattoo by Charlie Wagner

  2. Bowboy says:

    Didn’t Charlie do his best work at 208 Bowery? love it!

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