Tattoo History: Charlie Wagner & Millie Hull Leave an Indelible Mark on the Bowery

Posted on: November 14th, 2013 at 11:09 am by

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Let’s dive back into the tattoo history of the Bowery, kicking off with Charlie Wagner.

This man became another indelible mark on the history of the Bowery, and no, we’re not talking about the famous baseball player.

Wagner was New York’s most skilled and revolutionary tattoo artist of his day, plying his ink trade behind the partition of a “five-chair barber shop” on the Bowery, according to a 1943 New York Times article. Men and women in New York City sought his talented hand from the 1890s up until his death in 1953.

During this six-decade career, he even revamped O’Reilly’s groundbreaking tattoo machine and received his own patent in 1904 (#768,413).

charlie wagner tattoo

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The next artist worth noting is a kindred spirit, insofar as not many could get down with the rough-and-tumble Bowery set. Not only did she hold her own, she boasted her own shop.

Meet the Queen of the Bowery herself: Mildred Hull (aka Millie Hull), whose life was too short.

Millie was born in 1897, and later began her career in the circus as an exotic dancer. However, she was tattooed by Charles Wagner so often she eventually became known as the “tattooed lady.” By 1939 she owned her own shop called the Tattoo Emporium, which she shared with a barber and fellow tattoo artist. Many sources claim this man was Charlie Wagner.

mildred hull tattoo sign

Damn, Millie. That’s quite a sign!

The etymology of tattoo has soldiers and sailors embedded in it. Apropos for the Bowery wouldn’t you say?

Word origin time!! I was surprised at this, from Dictionary.com:

Word Origin & History
tattoo “signal,” 1688, “signal calling soldiers or sailors to quarters at night,” earlier tap-to (1644, in order of Col. Hutchinson to garrison of Nottingham), from Du. taptoe, from tap “faucet of a cask” (see tap (2)) + toe “shut.” So called because police used to visit taverns in the evening to shut off the taps of casks. Transf. sense of “drumbeat” is recorded from 1755. Hence, Devil’s tattoo “action of idly drumming fingers in irritation or impatience” (1803).

Oh, but that devil got to Millie. She committed suicide in August of 1947, drinking a vial of poison (we don’t have this commonality, not to worry).

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We’ve got more for you…part three coming up.

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