“Them days, you didn’t fuck around on the Bowery”
From the beginnings of American traditional tattooing in the mid 19th century, up until the outlawing of tattooing in New York in 1961, the Bowery and Chatham Square were a hotbed for tattooing. Located in the south of Manhattan and bordering Chinatown and the Lower East Side, it was well known that the Bowery was a rough area. It catered to anyone looking for anyone looking for some (what some people would call) “low-brow” entertainment, with everything from flophouses and bars, to pawn shops and brothels, and of course, tattoo parlours.
Not the first to work there, but perhaps the most important, was Samuel O’Reilly. Patenting the first electric tattoo machine in 1891, O’Reilly is known to some as the father of electric tattooing. Not much was ever written about him, but he is well regarded as a pioneer in tattoo history. After his death in 1908, his student Charlie Wagner continued to work out of their shop at #11 Chatham Square. Wagner patented the first coil machine 110 years ago in 1904, the same design that you will see most tattooers using today.
It wasn’t only machines that he is credited with designing, many classic eagles, crosses, ships and love hearts that you see tattooed today were popularised by Wagner. His tattoos were easily recognisable, if not for their design or quality then for his signature of 2 stars and the year at the bottom of the tattoo.
Wagner passed on his torch to the Moskowitz family. Willie Moskowitz learned to tattoo in the late 40’s from Wagner, not long before his death in 1953, and Willie passed on the tradition to his sons Walter and Stanley, often referred to as “The Bowery Boys”. There are stories of 40 or 50 customers queuing to be tattooed by the Moskowitz brothers, who are said to be the last tattooers to work in Chatham Square on the Bowery.
Elsewhere in New York, tattooers like Brooklyn Blackie, Bill Jones, Coney Island Freddie and Huck Spaulding made a name for themselves tattooing, building machines and selling supplies. But in 1961 all this came to an end when the city of New York banned tattooing, declaring it “unlawful for any person to tattoo a human being”. In the judge’s opinion, “the decoration, so-called, of the human body by tattoo designs is, in our culture, a barbaric survival, often associated with a morbid or abnormal personality”. Tattooing was legalised again in 1997, but even during its ban tattooers like Thom deVita and Tony Polito continued to make a name for themselves, putting classic designs on New Yorkers throughout the 20th Century. In fact, Polito’s shop Old Calcutta closed it’s doors for the last time just yesterday on Saturday the 6th of September 2014. In spite of the hard times, tattooing has always thrived in New York, and will continue to do so for years to come.
Stanley Moskowitz with a great story from the Bowery.