Tattoo artists have the best stories, especially those who made their living pre-Instagram, so naturally I loved this interview with Sailor Fred Steinhart (embedded above) by Tim Adams, aka Tattoo Timmy. The interview is straight talk from Sailor Fred on being "one of the last tattoo artists from his father's litter" -- his father being famed tattooer Sailor Barney, a "carny" who tattooed the carnival circuit from the early 50s.
Sailor Fred and his 3 brothers learned the craft from Sailor Barney, and took off on their own, tattooing across the US. Sailor Fred started out on the carnival circuit with his father, and then later opened up Sailor Fred's Golden Needle Tattoo Studio in 1975. Sailor Fred also set up a traveling tattoo museum, but as he says, that didn't go over on the carnival lot.
Sharing stories about his father's tattoo life as well as his own, Sailor Fred doesn't need any fancy film production crew to make this interview so compelling. It's a great watch and I learned a lot in just those 11 minutes. This video is Part 1, with a second installment coming soon.
Today, Sailor Fred is semi-retired, but you can still find him doing tattoos at Tat Kat's in Springwater, NY.
Tim Adams did a great job capturing a piece of our history and I look forward to seeing more of Tattoo Timmy's Tattoo TV.
Thanks, Marvin Moskowitz and Jack Two-Hands for the link!
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.
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.
This weekend, our friend Dr. Matt Lodder, an art historian with a particular expertise in tattoo art, posted to Facebook his recent find: A side-by-side comparison of a painting by J. Trivett Nettleship (c. 1900) and a tattoo of that painting by Alfred South (before 1903).
In his Facebook post, Matt notes that the foregoing, among other examples, could be regarded as a sort of "proto-flash." He explains that there is evidence that tattooers had in their studios pattern books and print collections, which were not what we would consider flash, however, he says, "I think it makes sense to think about this as a genealogical precursor (especially as some of these paintings and prints were reference for actual flash...)."
Matt also writes that South's tattoo was "not the most complex find ever as the tattooer had the foresight to admit the rip, but still a fun comparison I think," adding, "Also shows South was no MacDonald in terms of tattoo ability." Matt is referring to Sutherland MacDonald, on whom he will be giving a lecture entitled "Sutherland MacDonald: The First Tattoo Artist," on January 29th at Cock a Snook Tattoo in Newcastle, UK. In that talk, Matt will delve "into the birth of English tattooing as an artistic profession in the 1880s," discussing the life and work of MacDonald and even show never-before-seen images of MacDonald's work. For tickets to that lecture (which are limited), email email@example.com.
I'm also anxiously awaiting the tattoo flash collection hardcover, to be published by Edition Reuss, that will feature artwork from the world's very best tattooers and Matt's introduction, which will go into further detail on these types of tattoo art history finds. I'll let y'all know when it is released.
I came across this wonderful "Tattoo Soldiers" video, via Lal Hardy, in which three heavily tattooed Australian soldiers discuss some of the stories behind their tattoos ... or as the voiceover says, it's a "talk on titivating the torso." The video title reflects that the film was taken in 1942, and it's interesting how the discussions of one's tattoos -- and the excitement so often behind such talks -- hasn't really changed much.
Portrait of Tennessee Dave James by Shawn Barber.
Yesterday, the tattoo community lost another great legend, Tennessee Dave James. I read about his passing from Baba Austin online, owner of Vintage Tattoo Art Parlor in LA, where Dave made his home in the recent years of his long tattoo history. He was a mentor and father figure, not just to Baba, but to so many artists. Laid back, with a gift of storytelling, Tennessee Dave James put on a strong tattoo. His tattoo calling card was his little outhouse tattoo design. If you find it inscribed on one of the many bodies around the world, you know that collector has a good Tennessee Dave story.
To read more about Tennessee Dave's incredible stories, check this extensive Skin & Ink Q & A from 1998, with his tales of being tattooed at 15 in the fifties to tattoo turf wars to the Greek Mafia.
You can also read tributes to Dave on his Facebook page.
Over the weekend, Dr. Matt Lodder sent us this link to the Jezebel Post "World War II's Badass Female Tattoo Artist" -- a look at the UK's tattoo godmother Jessie Knight.
Jessie is considered the first professional British female tattooist, whose career spanned from the 1920s through the '60s. The Tattoo News offers some info on her start:
You can read more and find addition photos on the Tattoo News forum thread on Jessie as well as on Jezebel. Also check the video below (which we also posted last April), showing her in action.
Photo from Amelia Klem Osterud's "The Tattooed Lady: A History"
Inspired by the Ladies, Ladies Art Show, today's holiday gift guide post features books that celebrate tattooed ladies through history. These titles have all been mentioned here before but worth repeating for those who haven't scooped them up yet.
* The Tattooed Lady: A History by Amelia Klem Osterud is a beautiful hardcover that explores the lives of tattoo's godmothers, complete with fascinating narratives and photos dating back to the 1880s. We wrote about its release last November, and it still sits close to my desk for reference. For more info, check out Amelia's blog.
* Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo by Margot Mifflin remains a classic. From sideshow ladies to prominent female tattoo artists, the book looks at how tattoo culture has changed & the roles women have played in it. It features great stories and images as well. Margot's latest, The Blue Tattoo: The Life of Olive Oatman, is also an interesting read.
* The Tattooing Arts of Tribal Women by tattoo anthropologist Lars Krutak is a scholarly book on the role of women as tattooists in many indigenous cultures, with over 250 photos & illustrations. Lars has a new book out called Kalinga Tattoo, which is so gorgeous it warrants its own post. That's coming up.
* Madame Chinchilla's Electric Tattooing by Women 1900-2003 is a yearbook of women tattoo artists over a century. It's not a fancy book but it is a Who's Who of Tattoo up until 2003 with quotes from each artist.
* On the fiction front, check out Tattoo Artist: A Novel by Jill Ciment -- a story about a New York artist who is marooned in the South Pacific and eventually becomes a revered tattooist among the Tu'un'uu people at the turn of the century. It then flashes forward, 30 years later, when she returns as a heavily tattooed woman to New York. A fun read.
If you have your own favorites, feel free to share them in the comments.
The mother of all tattoo websites, The Vanishing Tattoo, which is one of the oldest and most comprehensive online resources on the art, has a new feature that I'm just loving:
Check out the Tattoo Theater, a collection of video interviews, like the one above, with tattoo legends talking about everything from getting your first tattoo to old time tales of tattooists working in meat lockers and plexiglass-protected spaces to keep the bullets away. It's a treasure trove of thrilling stories. More footage will be added to the Theater on a regular basis. Bookmark it!
"The tattooist is almost a fairy-tale figure, hovering in his gloomy, weirdly decorated and mysterious little shop like some grotesque but bewitching hermit ..."
Such a description -- one befitting many of my tattooer friends today -- was written in 1953 by Hans Ebenstenin in what Time magazine called "a short, bright book": Pierced Hearts and True Love. That old review started out with this rhyme:
By electrical means, without pain
Your pure epidermis may gain
From head unto heels -- the idea appeals
Decorations of which you will be vain
I came across Pierced Hearts and True Love via SOI 13 Books based out of Thailand. SOI 13 is a project by C. Wirzman, who tracks down "rare and unusual" books on tattooing and offers them at reasonable rates for resale on his site. I did a price comparison of Pierced Hearts and True Love for example, and SOI 13 did have the lower rate, prompting me to share this online shop with y'all even though the book titles are limited and you'll probably buy up all the ones I want before I get to them.
Other books include Irezumi, The Pattern of Dermatology Dermatography written by W.R. van Gulik, the son of a Netherlands ambassador; Tattoo World, written in Hebrew by Sailor Mosko; and a number of titles on traditional Thai tattooing.
Also on the SOI 13 site, Wirzman excerpts fiction and non-fiction writing on tattooing in his Content section. Here's a taste from The Tattooer, which is the featured text online now:
Visitors to the pleasure quarters of Edo preferred to hire palanquin bearers who were splendidly tattooed; courtesans of the Yoshiwara and the Tatsumi quarter fell in love with tattooed men. Among those so adorned were not only gamblers, fireman, and the like, but members of the merchant class and even samurai. Exhibitions were held from time to time; and the participants, stripped to show off their filigreed bodies, would pat themselves proudly, boast of their own novel designs, and criticize each other's merits.
Bookmark SOI 13 for an update on their book sales and clips of tattoo texts.