The History of Jews & Tattoos
08:46 AM
Moskowitz Bowery Boys.jpg

A little known fact: while I was dunked, screaming, in a huge vat of water by a Greek Orthodox priest as a baby, I have cultural roots to Judaism, having a Jewish grandmother (thereby, making it perfectly fine for all the cute Jewish boys in my old Brooklyn neighborhood to date me). And with that background, I found this article particularly interesting: Jews and Tattoos: A New York Story. As the title notes, the story is also compelling because it takes readers on a trip through NYC tattoo history through the lives of prominent Jewish tattooers.

UPDATE:  There's discussion on our Needles & Sins FB group that Milton Zeis, Charlie Wagner & Fred Grossman were not Jewish, contrary to what is reported in the article (as excerpted below).
Here's a bit from that piece:

A little-known fact: The tattoo business as we know it was largely created by Jews. Lewis "Lew the Jew" AlbertsCharlie Wagner, Brooklyn Joe Lieber, William Moskowitz, Milton Zeis ... these are the founding fathers who created the art of American tattooing and the technology that helped establish an industry.

The most artistically talented of this group, arguably, was Lew the Jew. According to Don Ed Hardy's new art book Lew the Jew Alberts: Early 20th Century Tattoo Designs, Lew was born Albert Morton Kurtzman in 1880. As a teenager, he attended Hebrew Technical Institute, where he studied drawing, then began work as a wallpaper designer. But the Spanish-American War cut his career short; Kurtzman joined the Army and fought in the Philippines, where he began learning about and collecting tattoos. When he returned home, he opened a tattooing business.

Another interesting discussion in this piece is the NYC tattoo ban in the 60s and how Fred Grossman (aka Coney Island Freddie) "sued the city for illegitimately crushing his business."

My favorite stories here, however, center around the wonderful Walter Moskowitz, who shared his own tales of life on The Bowery before he passed in The Last of the Bowery Scab Merchant.You can read more about that oral history (and how to purchase it) here.

As the Tablet writes about Walter and his brother Stanley:

In a memorable piece, published in The Forward over a decade ago about three generations of the Moskowitz tattoo dynasty, Gabrielle Birkner wrote: "By day, Willie's son Walter studied Torah and Talmud at a Brooklyn yeshiva. By night he learned the tattoo trade in his father's shop, located beneath the old Chatham Square elevated train station at No. 4 Bowery." Walter and his brother Stanley inherited the Bowery shop when Willie died in 1961, but like many generations of post-war Jews, they left the city for the bucolic joys of Long Island, where they opened S&W Tattooing in Amityville. Walter, who died in 2007, recorded a funny, foul-mouthed CD called The Last of the Bowery Scab Merchants, about the history of this now-lost community of Lower East Side artists. Walter's son Marvin continues the family business. Now a grandfather, Marvin still tattoos on a freelance basis.

[The photo above is from Marvin's FB page.]

I highly recommend reading the article, and getting a history lesson in the process.

connect with us

Marisa Kakoulas
Miguel Collins
Craig Dershowitz
Brian Grosz
Sean Risley
Patrick Sullivan
Needles and Sins powered by Moveable Type.

Site designed and programmed by Striplab.

NS logo designed by Viktor Koen.