Tattoo History: The Bowery

Bowery 800

Image source: Bowery Boys History

New York City has been the birthplace of some of biggest advancements in the world of traditional tattooing, from the start traditional tattooing revolution in the middle of the 19th century, to the temporary outlawing of the practice in 1961. And the heart of the tattoo world during its early years was an area known as the Bowery.

The Rough Side of the City

Nestled in the south part of Manhattan, and bordering both Chinatown and the Lower East Side, the Bowery was known as a rough area, catering to those that were looking for “low-brow” establishments such as flophouses, bars, brothels, pawn shops, and of course, tattoo parlors.

Some of the most influential members of the traditional tattooing elite could be found there, including Samuel O’Reilly. Not the first to start working the Bowery, but arguably the most important, O’Reilly is known for obtaining the patent for the first electric tattoo machine in 1891, and is considered by many to be the father of the electric tattooing practice.

Tattoo Innovations

Although there was never much written about his life and work, O’Reilly is widely regarded to be a pioneer of the tattoo world, and his shop at #11 Chatham Square in the center of the Bowery was not just where O’Reilly earned his living, but also where other influential artists cut their teeth.

After O’Reilly’s death in 1908, one of his students took over his shop and his pioneering efforts. Charlie Wagner became the proprietor of #11 Chatham Square, and also patented the first coil tattoo machine in 1904. Even though Wagner’s design was created over 100 years ago, it is still the same one that most tattoo artists can be found using to this day.

Wagner’s Designs

Not only known for his igneous work with the tattoo machine that Wagner is known and loved for. He has also been credited with creating many classic pieces of tattoo flash, including his well-known designs of eagles, crosses, ships, and hearts that are still popular with traditional tattoo ink collectors and artists. Wagner’s flash art helped to popularize the bright and bold traditional style of tattooing, and his work was easily recognized not only for the high quality, but for his signature practice of placing two stars and the year that the tattoo was acquired at the bottom of each of his designs.

Wagner followed in the footsteps of his mentor, Samuel O’Reilly in another way, as well. He chose to pass on his expertise to other artists, and took Willie Moskowitz under his wing during the 1940s, teaching him the tricks of the trade that made him such a success.

The Bowery Boys

After Wagner’s death in 1953, Moskowitz took over the shop at #11 Chatham Square, and brought in his sons, Walter and Stanley to make it a family affair. The Moskowitz brothers were known as the “Bowery Boys,” and their work was well-known and much loved by the clients that flocked to their shop. It has been told that the brothers would have lines of up to fifty customers at a time, looking to get ink done by the “Bowery Boys” at the legendary shop on Chatham Square.

The Moskowitz brothers are said to be the last tattooers to work in the Bowery, but elsewhere in New York, tattoo artists continued to improve the practice of tattooing and make a name for themselves. These include such pioneering artists as Brooklyn Blackie, Bill Jones, Coney Island Freddie, and Huck Spaulding.

These men continued on with the legendary work of O’Reilly and Wagner by not only creating tattoos of the highest quality, but also building their own tattoo machines and making and selling supplies to the rest of the tattoo world.

Banning Tattoos

In 1961, the tattoo world was hit with a devastating blow. New York banned the practice of tattooing, stating that the art was “barbaric,” and was associated with those that possessed a “morbid or abnormal personality.” Even during its ban, many artists chose to risk jail time to practice their art, and tattooers such as Thom de Vita and Tony Polito continued to make a name for themselves in the the then underground world of tattooing.

Thankfully, the city reversed the ruling in 1997, and tattooing is once more legal in New York. In spite of the difficulties that tattoo artists faced in the 20th century, the practice of tattooing continues to thrive in the city to this day, and will continue to do so for many years to come.