Tattoo History: Fineline Tattoo and the Legacy of the Moskowitz Clan

Posted on: November 20th, 2013 at 11:12 am by
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Marvin Moskowitz and his family are iconic the world of tattooing.

In the 1920s, William Moskowitz, a Russian immigrant, opened a barbershop on the Bowery.  By the late ‘30s, he learned to tattoo, thanks to a little help from his friend Charlie Wagner. In pursuing both trades, he quickly realized that tattooing was way more lucrative than hair-cutting. With a wife and three children to support, the choice was a no-brainer; thus a family dynasty was born.  Willie taught his son-in-law to tattoo and then his sons, Stanley and Walter. The brothers proceeded to create a line of ink called Bowery Ink.

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From Last of the Bowery Scab Merchants by Walter Moskowitz:

In Chinatown, we moved to 52 Bowery…We were the very last of the old-timers left on the Bowery. That’s how we came to be called the Bowery Boys. My brother and I moved from the Bowery some time around ’58.

I’ve been tattooing before every one here was even alive. I’m almost 75, which is a miracle in itself. My family had been in New York since 1908. My dad was originally a barber in Chinatown. Charlie Wagner taught him how to tattoo in the ’20, but he owned a barber shop. He would leave a guy with half a shave. You know, a guy falls asleep dead drunk, he’d leave him there and tattoo three or four guys and come back and shave the other side.

From The Jewish Daily Forward:

Tattooed on Marvin Moskowitz’s right forearm are a skull, a knife, a dove and — in red, white and blue ink — a small Star of David paired with the words “Never Again.” The irony of a tattoo tribute to Holocaust victims is not lost on Marvin. Still, he considers it a fitting memorial…Marvin’s late grandfather, Willie Moskowitz — a Yiddish-speaking immigrant who moved to the Lower East Side from Russia in 1918 — opened a small tattoo parlor in the basement of his Bowery barbershop.

(I have a similar tattoo as the grandchild of Holocaust survivors. The irony is less, the taboo is irrelevant and the piece an honor to show.)

There are a plethora of  younger tattoo artists today, many of whom are nevertheless considered legends. Yet, without Martin, Charlie, Sam, Millie, and the Moskowitz family, the popularity and staying power of tattooing would be vastly different. They are pioneers past and present.

Jumping forward to the Prohibition, though not as you know it – you can have your  moonshine, but you can’t get a tattoo.

From 1961 up until 1997, there were no “legal” tattoo shops in New York City because the City Health Department banned tattooing due to an alleged series of blood-borne Hepatitis-B cases linked to Coney Island tattoo parlors in the late 1950s. Alleged.

Nowadays, there are too many tattoo shops to name, but Fineline is definitely near and dear to my skin, and to the history of NYC. I’ve been going there for years and, as it turns out, in some capacity, so has anyone tatt’ed in NY during the ban. Though, not necessarily in the space it stands today.

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Fineline Tattoo opened in 1976 during the New York City ban; it’s on First and First Avenue on the Lower East Side. Previously, Mike Bakaty, the founder and owner, operated underground for 36 years in secret back rooms and loft apartments until this prohibition on ink concluded.

The studio walls are lined with the Bakaty’s original flash art (tattoo designs). Fineline Tattoo is considered the longest continually running tattoo shop in Manhattan.

Mike is still there today, smoking his cigs, reading his papers and inking some of the strangest clients. On one occasion, a woman from Texas stripped off all her upper body garments for a tiny four-leaf clover above her right breast. Husband standing by, Mike winked at me. This woman uproariously bellowed in a less-than-PG fashion for a 10-minute tattoo and showed more boob than I’ve seen in gym locker rooms.

Mike’s son Mehai also works at Fineline. Really friggin’ dope back story: Mike and Mehai lived in McGurk’s Suicide Hall until it was torn down.

I chatted with Mike for a while. Here’s what he had to say…

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