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

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


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


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

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).

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

Recent Stories

Clayton’s Corner: Of Generations and Gentrification [PHOTOS]

As the unrelenting winds of the international corporate gentrification keeps eroding away the deep, rich, soil of our culture, it also disposes of “neighborhood” and “community.” It affects both collective memory and history. For example: changing the name of PS 122 into Performance Space New York obliterates the connection to the previous 30-year history. Another […]

Rumor: McNally’s ‘Cherche Midi’ to Close by Summertime

Renowned restaurateur Keith McNally last week sold his West Village townhouse for $10.3 million. Elsewhere, his Bowery hangout is rumored to shutter. Word on the street is that Cherche Midi, the three-year-old successor to Pulino’s Pizzeria is on the way out. A tipster tells us that management began telling staff of the impending closure – […]

East Broadway Walkup Fetches $7M

The East Broadway corridor adjacent to Essex Crossing is heating up. Case in point: the five-story tenement at 215 East Broadway, near Clinton Street, just traded hands for the princely price of $7 million. According to the city’s public transactions database, the buyer of record is apparently a resident of the adjacent building, named Ms. Wang. […]

Discovery of Asbestos at 85 Bowery Delays Return of Displaced Tenants

The discovery of asbestos during rehabilitation efforts at 85 Bowery has thrown a wrench in the timeline of return for exiled tenants. Roughly one hundred tenants (mostly low-income) remain homeless, now two months after the city ordered their eviction. This is all part of the latest chapter in a nasty dispute with controversial landlord Joseph […]

‘NYPL Sings’ Another Kids Record

Here’s a rare instance of bookworms making earworms. NYPL SINGS is the latest album to come out of the New York Public Library (yes, you read that correctly). It’s an upbeat record geared towards kids, but enjoyable for everyone (we’re partial to track 10,”The Library Song”). Each song represents a different way for caregivers to introduce their […]