According to some dedicated tattoo history research by Daredevil Tattoo co-owner Michelle Myles, the likely first permanent place of business for tattooing in the United States was that of Martin Hildebrandt over 150 years ago. Michelle notes, "Hildebrandt's 'atelier' was a few blocks southeast of the Bowery and Chatham Square, where Samuel O'Reilly later patented the first electric tattoo machine and other Bowery legends, including Charlie Wagner, worked until tattooing was banned in NYC in 1961."
That tattoo atelier was just steps away from the current location of Daredevil Tattoo, a highly respected place for tattooing today, and also, what will become a tattoo museum, which will be a resource for others to connect with that NYC's tattoo history through their collection of artifacts and documentation. Daredevil co-owner Brad Fink has been collecting tattoo memorabilia for over 20 years and has amassed a collection with items including a Thomas Edison engraving pen (that the O'Reilly patent was based on) and original O'Reilly artwork, among many other gems. But before Michelle and Brad can bring the pen and other artifacts to their museum, they need to to complete the work on the space and finish the display cases so the entire collection can be secured. They are asking for some help in doing that.
While I have a "no-Kickstarter rule" for this blog (as there are way too many requests), I'm making an exception here because this is an important project that will benefit the tattoo community overall.
On Daredevil Tattoo's NYC Museum of Tattoo History Kickstarter page, you'll find this beautiful video, embedded above, which I highly recommend watching, even if you cannot contribute, because it is so chock full of wonderful history lessons, including archival footage and a NYC tattoo history timeline. You'll also get to peak inside the Daredevil studio and growing museum space.
If you do contribute, even as little as $1, there are some fantastic perks, like beautiful prints from Daredevil's artists, tees, customized lighters, even a sideshow banner. For bigger spenders, Michelle will give you a tattoo history walk and lunch in Chinatown, along with the other perks, and for the top contribution, there's 12 hours of tattooing in the package, dinner for 6 at the chic Beauty & Essex, original artwork, and all the other goodies. Some serious swag, and for a good cause.
You can find more on it all here. But, as I said, I highly recommend you check out the video for a little learning.
For a fantastic American tattoo history lesson, culled from dusty archives and numerous libraries, enjoy this guest post by Daredevil Tattoo co-owner Michelle Myles who laboriously researched the life of Martin Hildebrandt, renowned for establishing what is likely the first permanent place of business for tattooing in the United States -- steps away from Daredevil's NYC location. While tattooing has long been running since the new Daredevil studio opened, Michelle and her partner Brad Fink are still working on Daredevil's tattoo museum, housing Brad's collection of antique tattoo memorabilia. About half of the collection is on display, with more display cases to be built and further cosmetic construction, but it looks like the official launch of the museum will be in May.
In her writing below, Michelle chronicles the life of this tattoo legend and also shares how she went about discovering more on Hildebrandt's life.
By Michelle Myles, Daredevil Tattoo
One hundred and twenty-five years ago today, on January 16th, 1890, tattooer Martin Hildebrandt passed away in the New York City Asylum for the Insane on Wards Island. He was 65 years old. Hildebrandt started tattooing in 1846 as a sailor aboard the frigate United States. Through extensive archival research, I found records listing Hildebrandt as tattooing in New York City from as far back as 1859. During the Civil War, Hildebrandt served with the Army of the Potomac, and is quoted as saying of his time in the service:
During war times I never had a moment's idle time. I must have marked thousands of sailors and soldiers [...] I put the names of hundreds of soldiers on their arms or breasts, and many were recognized by these marks after being killed or wounded. (The New York Times: January 16, 1876).After the war, in 1875, Hildebrandt tattooed at 77 James Street at the corner of Oak, in Lower Manhattan. The New York Times describes it as "a tavern, with a well sanded floor, and on the walls hung pictures..." Beginning in 1880, Hildebrandt tattooed at 36 1/2 Oak Street, described this way in the Times: "Alongside the door of a house in Oak Street is a framed sign bearing an elaborately-executed and vividly-colored Goddess of Liberty, with the equally glaringly-tinted words underneath, 'Tattooing done here by Martin Hildebrandt.'"
Hildebrandt was married to Mary Hildebrandt, the union producing one son named Frank. In 1882, a woman tattooed by Hildebrandt exhibited in Bunnell's dime museum on the Bowery as the first "tattooed lady," and identified by the name Nora Hildebrandt. [Nora took his surname and was assumed to be Hildebrandt's daughter or wife, but was in fact born in England and was neither married nor related to Martin.] Martin is known to have tattooed a handful of other tattooed ladies who worked as attractions in dime museums in New York and worked in shows that traveled the world.
The last mention of Hildebrandt is on June 20th, 1885 in The New York Clipper, under "Circus and Sideshow News": "Martin Hildebrand (sic) the tattooer of this city, whose wife is with a circus, was on June 10 sent to jail for disorderly conduct. His son charges that he is insane and he is to be transferred to an asylum."
Last year our shop Daredevil moved to a larger space a few blocks from the Bowery and Chatham Square, the birthplace of modern tattooing. The new Daredevil includes a museum displaying Brad Fink's collection of antique tattoo memorabilia that he has collected over the last 20 years. Being surrounded by so much tattoo history and working so close to where it all started, I wanted to know more about who was working where, and when. "Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art" by Albert Parry (1933), was a useful historical resource for beginning my research. It was Parry who mentioned Hildebrandt as the first to open a permanent place of business for tattooing in the United States.
Beyond that, there was very little information about Hildebrandt to be found online, and much of what does appear is contradictory or flat-out inaccurate. Eventually I found articles dating as far back as 1876 in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe and other publications, but I couldn't immediately discern when he was born, or when he died. I couldn't even determine where Oak Street was, because there is no Oak Street in present-day lower Manhattan. Eventually though, after combing through historic city records, newspaper archives and out-dated maps, I discovered that Oak Street was in the Fourth Ward, a few blocks from the south side of Chatham Square. [Oak, James and other streets were razed in 1947 in order to make way for the construction of public housing.] It was at this point that I finally located Martin's death certificate in the Municipal Archives, which showed that he died in that Wards Island asylum five years after his arrest.
I hate to think of what life was like in New York's Asylum For the Insane back then. Martin might have ended up alone in a very bad place, but I'm honored to remember him now and bring his story back to life so that he can be commemorated as a pioneering figure in our tattoo history.
Today, we have another wonderful installment from Paul Roe of Britishink for you tattoo history buffs!
By Paul Roe:
Now as I sit down to write this, that Shirley Bassey song just kept popping in to my head. Tattooing, like most things human, has been re-invented many, many times.
What is "Old School"? This question arose from a discussion on the way historic tattooing is presented in an exhibition setting. Some learned institutions are displaying comic book portrayals of anything tattoo related, which only perpetuates the myths, usually the bad ones, and ignores the rich social context and cultural significance of the art.
Generally, the stereotype is a grubby man in a one room shop, cigarette butt in mouth; this was the case in most major metropolitan cities -- and here's the key -- after the Wall Street Crash of 1929. This is the common perception of "Old School" tattooing that most people have today. The hardships and honest sweat of the working class man, purveyor to the working class around him, scraping a living from his street front shop. Bleak? Definitely.
The worn and weathered face of Charlie Wagner personifies the "Old School" so I'll use him as an example. He lost his life's savings in the crash -- about $11, 000 in 1929 -- equivalent to about $150,000 today. That tidy sum had been built up over a period of time starting as the apprentice to Samuel O'Reilly, the inventor of the electric tattooing machine. O'Reilly died in 1908, and by this point, Wagner had taken over the shop. So let's go back a little further to get an idea of what Mr. Wagner had as a working environment and mentor before America got broke.
Tattooing has always been a cross-class activity; in the vast majority of indigenous tattooing, the hierarchy of the group carries the most and best tattoos. Westerners spread the practice on board ships and the hand poked tattoos of ocean crossings took a great deal of time to complete. Some of those sailors settled in port towns to tattoo by hand primarily serving the military of that port.
Let's look at NYC before Wagner...
Martin Hildebrandt, a German immigrant, settled in New York City in 1846 and did great trade up to and through the Civil War, crossing the line to tattoo both Yankees and Confederates, establishing himself as the tattooist in NYC. In 1875, Samuel O'Reilly opened his Chatham Square location and became Hildebrandt's competition. Remember at this point all tattooing was done by hand and a growing interest was stirring in the society class of New York as wealthy British and Europeans returned from India and Japan with handmade body decorations as souvenirs of their travels, men and women alike. European aristocracy had embraced tattooing for decades and the news was spreading west.
The 1870's New York tattoo craze was on. And of course with each dinner party, each ball, each of those tattooed aristocrats needed to out-do their peers with the delicacy of their tattoo work, the price was often bragging rights too (and one carefully cultivated among the tattooists). But this was an age of revolution -- every process that could be mechanized was being mechanized. O'Reilly sped up the process a hundred fold with his rotary machine, which meant more tattoos could be done, and bags of cash could be made.
Marketing himself directly at the wealthy O'Reilly followed the names of Sutherland MacDonald (London) and Hori Chyu (Yokohama) as the go to tattooist on this side of the Atlantic, and by the time Charles Wagner joined him in the 1890s, O'Reilly ran quite a fine establishment. His Japanese assistants not only served tea to the clients but also would be sent uptown to apply a tattoo in the residence of a wealthy patron. This cost extra I'm sure.
The Japanese studio layout was emulated too, the first room you entered had couches and pillowed nooks to sit and take your tea, the second room contained the apprentices, both Japanese and American in O'Reillys case, and this is where Wagner started. The third room was the masters studio and if you had enough money and influence you got tattooed there. This layout and hierarchy is very similar to the western "atelier". The atmosphere would have to be pleasant for the upper class customers, a surrounding they would feel comfortable in with its damask cushions and elegant artwork strewn walls.
On January 30th, 1880, the New York Times explained "...that the noble savage has become the newfangled ideal...and hence to be tattooed is to put one's self in sympathy with Nature and to protest the sickly conventionalities of civilization..."
The poet Andrew Lang, in his 1884 Rhymes a la Mode proclaimed a high-caste person when tattooed was really an Art's Martyr:
"...The china on the shelf is very fair to view,So with the newspapers, the society balls and dinners, artists and statesmen alike buzzing with the tattoo fad from Europe, American tattooing flourished. High society names of the day wore tattoos from O'Reilly's establishment which could well have been tattooed by his assistant Wagner; among them Mrs. George Cornwallis West boasting a delicate snake around her left wrist, which she covered during the day with a matched gold bracelet, and Mrs. Clara Ward who's daytime dresses all had a long right sleeve and a short left sleeve but her evening dresses were constructed in reverse to reveal a snake circling her right shoulder and a butterfly.
The fashion waxed and waned each few years and those tattooists who endured were those who actively targeted their audience directly. In a 1905 publicity photo of Wagner, he's seen wearing a top hat and large fresh flower in his lapel, interestingly enough holding an O'Reilly machine when he had patented his own device (a side by side twin coil machine) only the year before.
But with the death of O'Reilly the socialites slowly stopped visiting Chatham Square as the fashions were changing and high society, in both Europe and the US, shunned the bold lines and "the American style" even straying from the patronage of Sutherland MacDonald in search of finer lines and more delicate work at the hands of Japanese masters such as Hori Chyu of Yokohama. This trend had started in the late 1890s, and by 1900, a New York millionaire had offered Hori Chyu an establishment in NYC at the annual salary of $12,000 (about $180,000 today). Sadly this arrangement never came to fruition.
The Bowery "fun zone" with its dime museums and amusements, displays of tattooed men and women and of course tattoo shops was falling out of vogue with the rich but not the average American. The tattooed men and women of the sideshow and circus were bread and butter for the tattooists of the day but sideshow wages were dropping and their novelty with the public wearing off. Just around the corner was the First World War and a new batch of tattoo hungry customers would descend upon the port city of New York...the military.
The latest and greatest development in the tattoo business was flash -- the stock images displayed usually on the walls and ready to be tattooed. These images had been around a long time, each individual artist making their own travel books and sketches but the wholesale distribution of pre-drawn flash really took off during WWI. The name "flash" is from the carnival days - a canvas roll of brightly colored images hanging outside the tattooist tent - to "flash" and catch the eye of the passing customer. Regimental badges, patriotic eagles and sweetheart remembrances are still with us as standard flash today.
Prior to about 1900 all the aristocratic atelier tattooing was custom drawn, made once and not repeated, in fact the derogatory term "Jagger" (still in use on the Bowery until the mid-thirties) meant someone who uses stencils and does not draw the tattoo on the body or even tattoo the image without the use of guide lines. Jagger is from the Scottish slang "to jab wildly". The act of replication was frowned upon by the great names but proved to be the saving grace for the industry as electric tattooing equipment had been for sale through various gentlemen's magazines and publications and now sheets of designs could be purchased too.
Lew the Jew tattooed in NYC from the early 1900s and is the person most responsible for the proliferation of tattoo flash. A former wallpaper designer, he returned home from the Spanish American war tattooed and entranced by the tattoo business. His basic designs are those that set the western traditional style and are still seen today on the walls of shops across the world.
Harry Lawson took a different approach. His three room studio in Los Angeles had examples of tattoos framed on every wall -- not flash painted on paper or card but preserved human skin, contracted from people he had met, bribed from the local coroner's office and otherwise obtained by unknown methods. His workspace contained a large desk with medical books and implements giving him a learned air. Mr. Lawson disappeared in 1920 and had advertised he was retiring in 1919, selling his entire operation and giving it up. He resurfaced on the Pike twenty years later. The stories of the high ranked officials and military officers he had tattooed were told until his death in 1950.
So "Old School" should be a term used lightly.
In my humble opinion it correctly describes any tattooing pre-electric device, which would make the great names of O'Reilly, MacDonald, Burchett and Wagner..."New School"!
The image of the grubby man sitting outside his one room street front shop, hungry and, surly with it, are what we consider to be right for the Old School label. But as with most of the industrial revolution we remember the grit, grime and soot, the appalling sanitary conditions of the very end of this historic period. We forget the lavish interiors, the splendor of presentation, the exotic visual influences from Asia and India and the titled men and women of leisure who were old or new money and would spend it to out-spend their peers as a kind of competition of worth, capitalized on by the tattooists of the day.
So as we begin 2013, we see that it's not too dissimilar from 1913 in terms of tattooing. There are excellent custom tattoo studios out there producing quality work on a small scale and there are street shops banging out flash all day long. Each has its market as history repeats itself.
That was the Golden Age of tattooing as this is the Golden Age of tattooing.
At your service,
Tattoodles Online Inc.
508 H St. NE
Washington DC 20002