Tattoo History: A Haven of Ink is Born on the Bowery

Posted on: November 7th, 2013 at 11:37 am by
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Hold fast to your ink … as if you really have a choice.

Fellow inked and non-inked brethren, we are taking another trip down memory de lane and how it became tattoo central in the 19th century.

This time we are focusing on a few of innovative people, to be introduced a little later on. First, some context.

The first tattoo shops in ol’ New York initially catered to seafarers who grabbed a haircut and some permanent ink in what is now the Wall Street district. Yet, like all things in this city – that changed. By the late 19th century, tattoo mecca had moved to the Bowery. Tattooists catered to all kinds, but the Bowery was soldiers’ and sailors’ depraved heaven (and haven).

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During this era, the tattoo and barbershop often shared a storefront, leading to the appearance of barber poles. These storefront ornaments reflected the common belief that haircutters were “doctors” of the days (blue – veins, red – blood, white – bandages). As far back as the medieval times, “barbers were more akin to surgeons than hairdressers, and provided much more than a simple shave and a haircut…they lanced abscesses, set bone fractures, picked lice from hair and even pulled rotten teeth.”  By the 19th century, tattooists “fixed” your black eye while barbers continued their role as surgeons (not for too much longer). This entailed placing a hot towel on the injured eye to reduce the swelling, then adding leeches around the blackened socket.

So why was it so important and widely advertised that black eyes could be painted?

Simple – men looking for day work would most likely be  passed over for a job if the bosses saw black eyes. Tattooists to the rescue! Make up artists in disguise.

Those not getting the shiner fix in the 19th century Bowery might have gotten one of the following tattoos:

  • Holdfast: Holdfast was unequivocally one of the most popular tattoos amongst sailors. This tattoo was meant  to ward off bad luck of falling to their deaths either on the deck or in the sea.
  • Anchors: keep us grounded.
  • Nautical stars: guide us home.
  • Swallows: Often interchangeable with sparrows, they denote successfully sailing a certain amount of miles (generally, across a sea). Additionally, all swallows return home to San Juan Capistrano every year. So the tattoos were used to say that you will always come home.

Samuel O’Reilly was the first notable rockstar tattoo artist. It was he who secured the first patent for a tattooing machine in 1891 (patent #464,801). He essentially re-designed Thomas Edison’s electric pen to create this device that would change tattooing forever.

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Before this invention, the tattooing process was as follows:

The tattooing instrument used by Hildebrandt (more on him later), O’Reilly and contemporaries was a set of needles attached to a wooden handle. The tattoo artist dipped the needles in ink and moved his hand up and down rhythmically, puncturing the skin two or three times per second. The technique required great manual dexterity and could be perfected only after years of practice. Tattooing by hand was a slow process, even for the most accomplished tattooists.

Most of what we know about Samuel O’Reilly comes from the 1933 book Tattoo, Secrets of a Strange Art as Practised by the Natives of the United States by Albert Parry. Parry described O’Reilly as an Irish immigrant who held the honor of patenting the first tattoo machine in the United States.

The year was 1891 and O’Reilly was already a well established tattooist in New York City, having arrived around 1875.

After Samuel O’Reilly was issued his patent, many sideshow and circus attractions came to him for additions to their collections, as well as tattooing lots of new attractions, including John Hayes, Frank & Emma deBurgh, Calavan, George Mellivan and Annie Howard, to name a few. Folks in the show business world thought that his electric machine was faster and produced cleaner work.

Samuel O’Reilly operated a shop on Broadway and the Bowery in New York City but it was at #11 Chatham Square where he made his name. The famous #11 Chatham Square shop was not much more than an over-sized closet in the back of a barber shop.

O’Reilly operated out of this space for several years, and his student Charlie Wagner carried on there until his death in 1953. There are also stories of O’Reilly working the summer crowds on the famed Stillwell Ave. of Coney Island.

Albert Parry stated that Samuel O’Reilly died in 1908 from a fall while painting his home in Brooklyn. There are no known pictures of the pioneer, save for this one sketch:

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Frank deBurgh

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Emma deBurgh

Stay tuned for O’Reilly’s apprentice and the man who would take over the 11 Chatham shop. We’ve also got Millie Hull coming up…

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