Over the past two decades, tattoos have become an increasingly common part of American culture. But it wasn’t that long ago that those with tattoos were marginalized by the mainstream. The once-deviant practice and its colorful history are the subjects of the New-York Historical Society’s exhibition, Tattooed New York (up now through April 30). The show traces the 300-year-plus history of tattooing in NYC, beginning with the area’s Native American tribes in the early 1700s and continuing up until today. (In case you’re considering some ink yourself, the exhibit also features live tattoo demonstrations in the gallery every Saturday.)
For a taste of what’s on offer, watch our video full of interviews and close-ups with the curator and artists behind the work. To accompany it, we've highlighted important moments in the history of the art form, along with images you can expect to see at the exhibition. They’ll be better than that stick-and-poke tattoo you got as a dare.
Zoomed In on Tattooed New York
1710 Printmaker John Simon produced an early depiction of tattooed Native Americans. Titled The Four Indian Kings, the set of images portrays three members of the Mohawk tribe and one Mahican tribesman before they traveled from New York to England to meet with Queen Anne.
1870 Martin Hildebrandt, the City’s first-known tattoo artist, opened what’s believed to be the first tattooing business in the United States at 77 James St. in Manhattan, located in today’s Chinatown. Hildebrandt’s daughter Nora, meanwhile, had around 350 tattoos and was considered the first tattooed lady. She later exhibited herself as part of Barnum & Bailey’s circus troupe.
1875 Samuel O’Reilly established his studio at 11 Chatham Square, which became a central locus for NYC tattooing.
1876 Thomas Edison patented the precursor to today’s tattoo machine, an electric pen he invented for creating stencils and puncturing paper.
1891 O’Reilly patented the first electric tattooing machine, giving rise to parlors on the Bowery as well as in Brooklyn’s Coney Island and Vinegar Hill. Patriotic and religious “flash,” or tattoo designs, became popular. The average cost for a tattoo was a nickel (about $1.35 in 2017 dollars).
1890s–1953 Charlie Wagner worked at Sam O’Reilly’s studio, eventually taking over the business. Wagner improved O’Reilly’s tattoo machine design and received his own patent in 1904, which helped him become one of the most famous artists working the Bowery. He was the enterprising sort: Wagner became known for covering up ex-girlfriends’ names on his customers; during World War II, he offered similar services to sailors who were forbidden from having “obscene” body work (think: pin-up girls). A uniquely American style of tattooing emerged during this time: folksy images composed of thick lines, bold colors and black shading.
1916–1917 Nineteen-year-old Bob Wicks, known as “America’s youngest tattooer,” develops a style that would later become popular all over the US, mixing patriotic iconography with cartoon characters. Wicks spent time painting carnival banners in Coney Island (and at Wagner’s shop), which helped inform his work.
1930s William “Willie” Moskowitz, a Russian immigrant, began tattooing customers in the basement of a building at 12 Bowery. Moskowitz, who also learned from Wagner, taught his sons the practice; they later opened up shop in Chatham Square as well. Referred to as the Bowery Boys, the Moskowitz brothers were the last of this historic crew to tattoo in the area up until New York City banned tattooing in 1961. They charged between 10 and 25 cents for a tattoo. The brothers also created their own line of colors, Bowery Ink, with all the traditional hues—green, yellow, brown, black, Irish green, red, blue and white.
1939 Millie Hull, a burlesque dancer turned tattoo artist, opened a Lower Manhattan shop called the Tattoo Emporium. (It wasn’t exactly the glamorous sort of studio we’re used to seeing today: she worked in a tiny booth in the back of a barbershop.) Known as the Queen of the Bowery, Hull learned to tattoo from Wagner, who also tattooed Hull’s entire body, and was considered NYC’s only female artist at the time.
1961–1997 Following an outbreak of hepatitis B, City officials banned tattooing, citing the risks associated with unsanitary needles and the need to prevent young kids from “regretting it the rest of their lives,” as one councilman put it. During this period some artists still found a way to work, operating underground tattoo parlors. The best known among them included Brooklyn Blackie in Coney Island, Tony D’Annessa in Hell’s Kitchen and Thom deVita on the Lower East Side. The late ’70s and early ’80s saw the rise of artists like Coney Island Freddie, Ron Lopez in Staten Island, Mike “Michael Angelo” Perfetto and Tony Polito in Brooklyn, and Tattoo Al in Queens.
1997 New York City Council passed a bill that legalizes and regulates tattooing. In all the years of the ban the Health Department never shut down a tattoo parlor, nor had it documented any cases of hepatitis B in NYC transmitted by tattooing.
1998 The first annual tattoo convention was held in NYC at the now defunct Roseland Ballroom.
2017 There are almost 300 tattoo shops in New York City, covering all the styles: traditional American, Japanese and much more—even hand poke.
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