Tattooing Embraced Long by New Yorkers
Q. Now that summer is here and people are wearing less clothing, the number of people sporting multiple tattoos you see on city streets is really amazing. Does tattooing have a particularly colorful history in New York?
A. Today, the nondescript five-story building at 11 Chatham Square in Chinatown houses apartments, a sandwich shop and a liquor store. But 11 Chatham Square occupies an outsize place in New York’s tattooing history, having once housed generations of artistic inkers. Tattooing was brought to New York by sailors, who used hand needles to while away the boredom of shipboard life, as well as to initiate sailors into the fraternity. New York City’s most famous tattoo was undoubtedly the red star on the forearm of Rowland H. Macy, the founder of the department store, a souvenir of his whaling days. It remains Macy’s insignia.
A Civil War tattooist, Martin Hildebrandt, established a shop on Oak Street in Manhattan in 1870 and worked there for 20 years, according to “Tattoo History,” by Steve Gilbert (Juno Books); the author believes that it was the first American tattoo studio. In 1875, Samuel F. O’Reilly established his studio at 11 Chatham Square, and in 1891 he was granted the first United States patent for an electric tattooing machine, according to tattooarchive.com.
Mr. O’Reilly, who called himself “Professor,” modeled his machine after Thomas A. Edison’s automatic pen. It revolutionized tattooing, and Mr. O’Reilly made a small fortune from the machine and his own commissions. “Would-be sideshow attractions flocked to O’Reilly after hearing about his new tattooing device,” the website says, “believing that it would be faster and less painful to acquire the necessary coverage for show business work.”
Mr. O’Reilly died of a fall in 1908, but a student of his, Charlie Wagner, took over his shop and continued there until his death in 1953. He had improved on Mr. O’Reilly’s mechanical design and received his own patent in 1904. Mr. Wagner, perhaps the most publicized tattooist of his era, once said that next to covering up names of customers’ former girlfriends, his greatest source of income was a 1908 naval order forbidding sailors to wear obscene tattoos; he was kept busy tattooing clothes on the figures sported by would-be enlistees.
Tattooing was banned in the city from 1964 to 1997. Opponents cited the danger of hepatitis from unsanitary needles and the temptation of young people to get markings and then, a city councilman said, “regretting it the rest of their lives.” Upholding the ban, an appeals court called the practice “barbaric.” For years, tattoo parlors operated secretively in the city. In 1997, after the art had become increasingly popular, tattoo artists were licensed and the practice became legal again.
Charlie Wagner, a New York City tattoo artist in the 1940s.
JULY 10, 2015