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" Alberts, Charlie 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.
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.
Last Friday, November 22nd, would have been the 76th birthday of an iconic tattooer and a truly good man, Walter Moskowitz of the legendary "Bowery Boys."
Walter and his brother Stanley (who still tattoos today) learned the craft from their father Willie Moskowitz. Willie emigrated from Russia and opened up a barbershop on The Bowery in NYC, but soon learned that he could support his family better through tattoos than cutting hair, and so he had his friend Charlie Wagner, another legend, teach him the craft. Along with tattooing came the drunken shop brawls between (and with) rowdy clients, police harassment, and the general hustle to make a living during and after the Depression. Not an easy life, but it made for good stories.
Many of those stories are captured on the Last of the Bowery Scab Merchants, a wonderful two audio CD set (more than 2 1/2 hours of tattoo tales) accompanied by a 24-page color booklet with photos and articles. The audio documentary also includes guest commentators, and I'm honored to be one of them.
As I wrote on this blog in 2011 when the audio collection was released, Walter's son Doug recorded these stories in the last year of his father's life so that they may live on. The stories are funny, educational, sad and triumphant. As Doug says, "You will not only get to hear great tattoo stories but you will also get a nice perspective of who my dad was as a person; the era he, his father, and brother tattooed in; and how that related to what he did."
In commemoration of Walter's birthday, Last of the Bowery Scab Merchants will be discounted for the next few days, and can be purchased for just $15 on Amazon. It is the perfect gift for tattooists, collectors, history buffs, and, really, for yourself (you deserve it!).
By sharing his stories, Walter gave us a gift, one I'm grateful for.
The most perfect gift for tattoo artists, collectors, and anyone with a love of history and a good story is the Last of the Bowery Scab Merchants -- a two audio CD set filled with over 2 1/2 hours of tattoo tales by Walter Moskowitz, one of the legendary "Bowery Boys." More than something you put on your iPod or listen to in your car, it's truly a collectors item -- richly designed, with cover art by CIV, and a 24-page color booklet with old photos and essays written by Mike McCabe, Chuck Eldridge, and Brian Kates. I am also very honored to have contributed as well in the text and in audio.
Walter's son Doug offers a wonderful introduction and weaves his narration through Walter's stories, which were recorded prior to his passing in 2007. You'll hear about a great race-fixing horse caper, black eyes tattooed to look natural, life on the Bowery, and the Human Autograph, among so many other gems.
Read more in my initial post on the set in April. There are also some great reviews on Amazon, Book Mistress, and on the CDs' Facebook page.
For the holidays, Last of the Bowery Scab Merchants is being offered for only $19.99 on ScabMerchant.com. A must have!!
Tattoo lore spoken in gritty detail and tone. The Last of the Bowery Scab Merchants By Walter Moskowitz is a gift that this Bowery Boy left us before his passing. Walter's son Doug recorded these stories in the last year of his father's life so that they may live on. And now they are being shared in a two audio CD set (more than 2 1/2 hours of tattoo tales) accompanied by a 24-page color booklet with photos and articles. It is all richly designed, with cover art by CIV, into a perfect collector's piece.
You can buy the collection from the Moskowitz family on Scabmerchant.com or but it on Amazon.com.
The stories are funny, educational, sad and triumphant. As Doug says, "You will not only get to hear great tattoo stories but you will also get a nice perspective of who my dad was as a person; the era he, his father, and brother tattooed in; and how that related to what he did."
The audio documentary also includes guest commentators, and I'm honored to be one of them. As I wrote in my memorial to Walter in 2007 (originally published on my old site Needled.com), I was pretty nervous when I met him. What would I say to "one of the last links to New York's tattoo heritage" as per Michael McCabe's New York City Tattoo: The Oral History of an Urban Art. But Walter Moskowitz was warm and welcoming and instantly made you feel at ease -- the perfect tattooer trait.
Here's more from that memorial:
He was also a gifted story teller. Listening to him, transports you to the 50s, NYC's Lower East Side.
His father, Willy Moskowitz, emigrated from Russia and opened up a barbershop. He soon learned that he could support his family better through tattoos than cutting hair, so he had his friend Charlie Wagner, another legend, teach him the craft. Along with tattooing came the drunken shop brawls between (and with) rowdy clients, police harassment, and the general hustle to make a living during and after the Depression. Not an easy life, but a good trade.
Willy Moskowitz passed down the trade to Walter and his brother
According to the article "The Kosher Tattoo Kings," Walter learned to tattoo at night after spending the day studying the Torah and Talmud at a Brooklyn yeshiva. The article quotes Walter as saying "It has been a very interesting life. I came in contact with every type of personality, from the highest to the lowest -- and sometimes the highest was the lowest."
An interesting life is a humble understatement. Many of us tattoo history buffs pass around stories of the Bowery Boys with a bit of awe. McCabe says it best: "Young tattoo artists are always asking me about the Moskowitzes. The mythology of these guys is like that of the Bowery in the 1940s and 50s -- big, bad and bold."
I love that mythology, the stories. But I'm also thankful that I got to meet Walter in person, feel his strong but friendly handshake, and thank him for the history lesson.