Category Archives: Tattooing

The Death And Life Of the New York City Tattoo

Charlie Wagner, legendary tattoo artist, at work in the Bowery, circa 1947.

The story of how the tattoo worked its way on to American skin in the 1800’s is unique to New York City, a place that is now considered one of the global hubs of the arts world and a place where seeing people with tattoo sleeves is just a part of everyday life. Last year a New York Times article reported that the Food and Drug Administration estimated that as many as 45 million Americans have tattoos. But it was not always this way. In fact, for 36 years there were essentially no tattoo shop storefronts in New York City because the City Health Department banned tattooing from 1961 up until 1997 due to an alleged series of blood-borne hepatitis B cases linked to Coney Island tattoo parlors in the late 1950’s.

However, old-timer tattoo artists like Mike Bakaty of Fineline Tattoo, and Wes Wood of Unimax Supply Company agree that hepatitis was actually never linked to tattooing. Wood, one of the people who fought to get tattooing re-legalized, admitted that maybe there was one or two hepatitis cases involved with tattooing, but that was definitely not the real reason for the Health Department to pull the plug on tattooing.

“The Health Department’s position was that they were against legalization because they didn’t want to spend the money – they thought it was a waste of taxpayer’s money. They even knew that no one was getting hepatitis or aids. When tattooing became popular people got concerned with that and people got the perception that because there is blood involved people are getting diseases – it’s that perception that drove all this hysteria,” said Wood.

Tattooing was considered deviant and it was associated with those in the realm of macho male drunken sailors, outlaw bikers, thugs, and criminals. “The best reason I ever heard for why tattooing was outlawed came from old Coney Island Freddie (old-school Brooklyn tattoo artist). His thought was that the Health Department was trying to ‘clean up the city’ in preparation for the World’s Fair that was here in ’64 – and that made more sense to me than anything,” said Bakaty.

Instead of closing up shop, New York City tattoo artists like Bakaty and Wood began to operate underground for 36 years in secret backrooms and loft apartments until the prohibition years ended. The operating out of secret backrooms was possible because there was not heavily enforced.

Up until the ban was lifted Bakaty, now 76-years-old, operated out of a private loft in the Bowery and ran ads in the Soho Weekly

Mike Bakaty opened Fineline Tattoo in 1976 during the New York City ban on tattooing and he still tattoos there to this day.

News even though, at the time, tattooing was a violation of the health code. He relocated Fineline Tattoo to First Avenue on the Lower East Side where he still tattoos today alongside his son, Mehai Bakaty.

Fineline Tattoo is a small tattoo parlor with its walls lined with the Bakaty boys’ original flash art (tattoo designs) of dragons, eagles, tigers, panthers and Celtic knots. Fineline Tattoo is considered the longest continually running tattoo shop in Manhattan.

From the time it was born up, arguably, up until the 1980’s a tattoo not only permanently inked a person’s skin, but it also attached a stigma to that person – today this idea of a tattoo stigma has dwindled. Before one can get into how tattooing has worked itself so deeply into America’s mainstream culture, one must start from the beginning.

The birth of tattooing in the United States and a German immigrant named Martin Hildebrandt go hand in hand. Hildebrandt set up New York’s first tattoo shop on Oak Street in lower Manhattan where he tattooed soldiers who fought on both sides of the Civil War. The tattooing that Hildebrandt did on his daughter, Nora Hildebrandt, who is considered America’s first professionally tattooed lady, was the most notable. Not only was getting tattooed socially unacceptable, but a woman who was inked was completely unheard of.

Another man highly responsible for the integration of tattooing into American society is a New Yorker named Samuel O’Reilly who opened up a tattoo shop at 11 Chatham Square in the Chinatown area of the Bowery in 1875. The Bowery area and Coney Island were considered the tattoo meccas of New York City during a significant portion of the 19th century and well into the 20th century.

Prior to 1891, the tattooing that men like Hildebrandt and O’Reilly did was done by hand. The tattoo machine used by these men consisted of a set of needles attached to a wooden handle. Tattoo artists of this age would dip these needles in ink and move their hand rhythmically up and down, puncturing the skin two to three times per second. Tattooing by hand was an extremely slow practice that took years of experience to perfect, even for the greatest tattoo artists of that time. This manual way of tattooing all changed when O’Reilly revolutionized tattooing in 1891 with his invention of the first electric tattoo machine, which was a modification of Thomas Edison’s perforating pen.

This invention transformed tattooing into a quicker, more attractive process even though the pain one goes through to get a tattoo will never dissipate. Modern tattoo machines puncture the skin between 50 to 3,000 times per minute. The needle penetrates the skin by a millimeter and deposits a drop of ink into the skin with each puncture. It sounds like a grueling process, I know, but that doesn’t stop anyone who truly wants a tattoo. It didn’t stop me.

Sailors were the big tattooees of the day, circa 1944.

The way tattoo shops were run during the early 20th century are not the way tattoo shops are run today. Bakaty, who opened Fineline Tattoo in 1976 during the midst of the underground atmosphere of New York City’s ban on tattooing, recalled that from the 1940’s up until the mid 1960’s there was virtually no sterilization, hygiene, or running water in tattoo shops – they were referred to as “bucket-shops.” The artist would tattoo next to a bucket of water with a sponge in it, and that same bucket of water and sponge were used to wipe down every tattoo the artist did that day.

In those days tattoo artists had to have a sense of how to actually make tattoo machine tubes and needles. They couldn’t just learn the technique from opening a book, like many tattoo artists do today, primarily because those types of “how-to-tattoo” books didn’t even exist. During that age, the tattoo artists had to have knowledge of how the tattoo machinery worked and an understanding of the different types of pigments because tattoo supply stores were just not available the way they are today.

However, these same tattoo artists never even thought about sterilization, wearing gloves, changing the needles, or even changing the cups of ink after every client. Bakaty said that when the tattoo was finished the artists would swipe a glob of Vaseline over the fresh ink and stick a piece of newspaper to it – when the newspaper fell off the tattoo was considered healed. “Thank goodness that that’s gone the way of the dinosaurs,” said Bakaty.

In 1944 Charlie Wagner, one of America’s greatest tattoo legends, was involved in one of the first instances of legal trouble for the tattoo world. He was fined by the city of New York for not sterilizing his needles. Wagner tattooed in the infamous Bowery for 50 years starting in the 1890’s up until his death in 1953. Wagner took over the shop space at 11 Chatham Square, which originally was occupied by O’Reilly.

In 1936 a December issue of Life Magazine revealed that one out of every ten persons in the U.S was tattooed in whole or in part, which translated to about 10 million Americans or six percent of the population. This article also revealed that there were only 60 established tattoo artists throughout all of the United States. According to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, there are currently approximately 1,900 licensed tattoo artists in New York City alone.

“Tattooing in New York City in the 70’s was essentially a dying art,” said Bakaty. The fact that this tattoo culture was dying out

In 1891 Samuel O'Reilly revolutionized tattooing with his invention of the electric tattoo machine. (source: http://www.vanishingtattoo.com)

is primarily what got him interested in the world of tattooing. “Tattooing wasn’t as out in the open as it is today. When I started tattooing there were probably 500 tattoo artists in the whole country, to tell you the truth,” he said.

When the tattoo ban was inflicted many tattoo artists moved out of the city and preceded to evolve with the art form elsewhere, but for those tattoo artists who stayed the ‘80’s was really when tattooing began to make its way into the mainstream.

“It started in the 1980’s when tattooing was becoming a new artistic view – people wanted to disassociate their selves with the American view,” said Wood who grew up in Long Island in the ‘50’s and the only tattoos he ever saw were on Popeye. “America began to see good people had tattoos. When we saw Roseann Barr on television with a portrait on her chest that blew everyone away,” said Wood.

Except for women like Nora Hildebrandt, it used to be a rarity to a see a woman with tattoos and now women make up half the clientele for most tattoo artists.

By the 1980’s tattooing had become an integral part of society – it was no longer part of a subculture. In 1981 MTV, an American network based in New York City that was the first 24-hour music video cable channel, took over the air waves and had a prominent impact on the music industry and popular culture. During that time, many members of hair metal bands displayed on MTV such as Mötley Crüe, Black Sabbath, and Guns N’ Roses had obscure tattoos on their arms and torsos. Tattoo popularity only grew from there.

There is no doubt that television has influenced the general public’s perception of tattooing for better or for worse. Although some stereotypes associated with tattooing still persist, a stigma is definitely not associated with it the way it once was. Present-day tattooing has gotten a massive amount of exposure through the media, Hollywood, rock stars, celebrities ranging from Johnny Depp to Lady Gaga, and kitschy tattoo television programs like LA Ink or Miami Ink. All of these facets play a role as to why it is no longer considered taboo or deviant to get a tattoo.

The popularity and acceptance of tattooing has undoubtedly evolved over time and it will continue to evolve. A tattoo is a way to give your skin a permanent representation of who you are and where you’ve been, and judging from the history, there is always going to be a portion of the population that is going to want to get inked. Making it illegal couldn’t even stop the tattoo world from evolving.

Tattooing through the eyes of the artists at Fineline Tattoo:


An Evolving Artform

source: www.vanishingtattoo.com

Frank Deburdg was tattooed by Samuel O' Reilly at his Bowery studio (source: http://www.vanishingtattoo.com)

[audio http://dl.dropbox.com/u/24204836/Tattooing%20data.mp3]

It’s amazing to see how the transformation of tattooing has integrated itself so deeply into American culture since its birth in New York City in 1846.

In 1936 a December issue of Life Magazine revealed that one out of every ten persons in the U.S was tattooed in whole or in part, which translated to about 10 million Americans or 6 percent of the population. This article also revealed that during 1936 there were only about 60 established tattoo artists throughout all of the United States. Today, according to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene there are currently approximately 1,900 licensed tattoo artists in New York City alone. According to a 2006 survey conducted by Pew Research, 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 26 and 40 have at least one tattoo and 36 percent of those between the ages of 18 to 25 reports having a tattoo. A report by the Food and Drug Administration estimated that as many as 45 million Americans currently have tattoos.

The birth of tattooing and a German immigrant named Martin Hildebrant go hand in hand. In 1846 Hildebrant set up New York’s first tattoo shop on Oak Street in lower Manhattan. Another man liable for the integration of tattooing into American society is a New Yorker named Samuel O’ Reilly who opened up a tattoo shop at 11 Chatham Square in the Chinatown area of the Bowery in 1875. During this time, the tattooing that men like Hildebrant and O’ Reilly did was done by hand. The tattooing instrument used by these men was a set of needles attached to a wooden handle. The tattoo artists would dip these needles in ink and move their hand rhythmically up and down, puncturing the skin two to three times per second. Tattooing by hand was an extremely slow practice that took years of experience to perfect, even for the greatest tattoo artists of that time.

This manual way of tattooing all changed when O’ Reilly revolutionized tattooing in 1891 with his invention of the first electric

Samuel O' Reilly's patent drawing for his tattoo machine (source: http://www.vanishingtattoo.com)

tattoo machine, which was a modification of Thomas Edison’s perforating pen. This invention transformed tattooing into a quicker, more attractive process even though the pain one goes through to get a tattoo will never dissipate. Modern tattoo machines today puncture the skin between 50 to 3,000 times per minute. The needle penetrates the skin by a millimeter and deposits a drop of ink into the skin with each puncture. It sounds like a grueling process, I know, but that doesn’t stop anyone who truly wants a tattoo. It didn’t stop me, even though I was biting holes into the collar of my shirt to ease the pain during a four hour long tattoo on my ribcage.

There are many New Yorkers just like me who wait until their 18th birthday comes along, because that is the legal age to get tattooed in New York City and many other places throughout the U.S as well. According to a U.S News and World Report article there are an estimated 20,000 tattoo parlors operating in the United States, with new parlors opening up everyday. This exemplifies how the popularity of tattooing has grown compared to the 1930’s when there were only about 60 tattoo artists throughout the entire country.


Why My Showcase Is Worth Doing

[audio http://dl.dropbox.com/u/24204836/Underground%20Tattooing.mp3]

Many people aren’t aware of the fact that tattooing in New York City was banned for 36 years through 1961 up until 1997. The fact that just 14 years ago tattooing in New York City was illegal is pretty bizarre considering how deeply tattooing is rooted into the City’s culture and even American culture as a whole – especially now with mainstream kitschy television programs like LA Ink and Miami Ink.

Many tattoo enthusiasts like Mike Bakaty of Fineline Tattoo and Wes Wood of Unimax Supply Company are certain that the City Health Department’s justification for banning tattooing was not true at all. Tattooing was made illegal because the Health Department found a series of blood-borne hepatitis B cases coming from tattoo parlors in the early 1960’s.

Wes Wood, one of the people who fought to get tattooing re-legalized, admits that maybe there was one or two hepatitis cases involved with tattooing, but that was definitely not the real reason for the Health Department to pull the plug on tattooing.

“The Health Department’s position was that they were against legalization because they didn’t want to spend the money – they thought it was a waste of taxpayer’s money. They even knew that no one was getting hepatitis or aids. When tattooing became popular people got concerned with that and people got the perception that because there is blood involved people are getting diseases – it’s that perception that drove all this hysteria,” said Wood.

During the 1960’s tattooing was still a stigma, it wasn’t like it is today. A November 2010 New York Times article reported that the Food and Drug Administration estimated that as many as 45 million Americans currently have tattoos.

Ever since the 1890’s when tattooing was born in America is was a popular thing to do, but just different kinds of people who were presented in a bad light were making it popular. The artwork has infinitely changed since the prohibition years and even before that. The reasons people get tattoos have also changed and it would be interesting to explore the tattoos of the old and young and the differences between techniques and style.

Some people like Jon Clue, a tattoo artist in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn, have strong feelings that people getting tattooed nowadays make poor selections in choosing a tattoo in order to make a fashion statement or keep up with the trendiness of getting a tattoo. That may even be true, but I think it is just too general of a statement. So many people have such intricately, thought out tattoos that leads me to believe they aren’t so vapid. A tattoo is probably one of the most blatant forms of expression a person can display. Many people have real, strong reasons behind why they ink their skin and others just simply like the way it looks.

According to a 2006 survey conducted by Pew Research, 40 percent of Americans between the ages of 26 and 40 have at least one tattoo. A certain kind of person will cover their arms or legs in tattoos. And a certain kind of person will ink their actual face, but regardless of one tattoo or 10 tattoos, a tattoo’s permanence makes it a very powerful form of expression, which is worth being explored.


A Once-Dying Art, Now Alive More Than Ever

Tattooing in the United States essentially began in New York City in 1846 when Martin Hildebrant, a German immigrant, opened the first American tattoo shop on Oak Street. In 1875 Samuel O’ Reilly opened up the second tattoo shop in New York City in Chatham Square in the Bowery, and it was in the 1890’s when modern tattooing was invented.

By the 1920’s the center for the New York tattoo world moved from the Bowery to Coney Island. During the 1961-1997 New York City tattoo ban, the New York tattoo world moved entirely underground. According to Mike Bakaty, 74, tattooist and owner of Fineline Tattoo in Manhattan, there were probably 500 tattoo artists in the entire country during the years of the ban.

The tattoo ban was enacted due to health reasons, however there was still a stigma involved in the general public’s perception on people who inked their skin. Tattooing was primarily associated with “drunken-sailors,” convicts, and bikers, but today that has all changed.

According to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, there are currently approximately 1,700 licensed tattoo artists in New York City.

Many male and female New York City residents patiently await their 18th birthdays because that is the legal age one can get tattooed at in New York City. Women and men of all professions get tattooed for all different kinds of reasons. My showcase is going to feature these diverse people who all share one specific thing in common – the need to ink their skin.

The art of tattooing has worked itself so deeply into America’s mainstream culture and people have a vast array of reasons as to why they ink their skin. Some people get tattooed to mark a turning point in their lives, to exemplify their individuality, to give “meaning” to their aesthetic, to express themselves visually, to be hip and keep up with the trends, or just because they simply like the way a tattoo looks. Whatever the reason may be, tattooing in New York City has exploded from the prohibition days into such a highly regarded widespread art form.

My showcase is going to feature all different kinds of New York City residents who have tattoos and the reasons why they get they ink their skin. It would be ideal to actually sit in on someone getting a tattoo with that person’s permission, of course, to film. I want to capture the piercing sound of the needle as it hits the skin and I want to capture a person’s reaction while getting tattooed. Getting tattooed is an extremely painful process, but for people who love getting inked it’s worth it.

The exclusive book “New York City Tattoo: An Oral History of an Urban Art,” by Michael McCabe has a vast array of old school pictures of the prohibition days of tattooing that I could possibly scan and use in my slideshow.

 


Notes on “Tattooing in NYC”

The more research I do on my topic, the more I find that tattooing and New York City go hand in hand. Modern tattooing in New York City all began about in 1846, when the first American tattoo shop opened. The history behind tattooing in New York City is quite interesting and I think that playing off that history as I write my article will definitely be to my benefit.

One of the problems that I am having is that I cannot seem to find the book “New York City Tattoo: The Oral History of an Urban Art,” by Michael McCabe. McCabe used to tattoo in New York City and apparently the book is chock full of interviews with tattoo artists who were tattooing in New York City during the underground days of tattooing – these are just the kinds of people I should be talking to. Unfortunately the book costs over $200.00 and I can’t seem to find it anywhere. I believe it is also out of stock and is not sold anywhere.

In all honesty, I’m not as comfortable as I’d like to be with my topic at this stage in the game. I’ve spoken to about a dozen New York City residents who are just your average civilizan who just likes getting tattooed. I thought it was important to integrate that part into my story instead of just interviewing tattoo artist who making tattooing their profession. From talking with all these different kinds of people on why they get tattoos and what tattooing means to them, I have definitely gotten a better sense on why getting a tattoo is such a growing phenomena – or maybe it has always been that way. The reasons for people getting tattooed hasn’t seem to have changed, but the artwork and the way a tattoo artist tattoos a customer certainly have changed.

At this stage in the game, I would feel more comfortable if I had spoken with more old-school tattoo artists who have been around since the prohibition days of tattooing. So far I have only spoken with a handful and it is those interviews I am relying on in order to help me paint a picture of what tattooing was like in New York City during those underground days from 1962-1997.

I am not as confident as I would like to be about this article since I feel so pressed for time. (However, I am usually very pessimistic when it comes to my work). I think I need to do a lot more research on my topic and I also think that I need to get a few more interviews in with old-school tattoo artists in New York City.

My topic calls for good quotes to spill out of a person’s mouth, which is something I’m happy with. I truthfully think that the quotes I have gotten from my interviews tied in with the vast history of tattooing in New York City and what has changed is definitely going to make my article.

Another issue I’m having is finding concrete numbers I can use in my article. The only concrete statistical information I have found is that there are currently 1,700 tattoo artists in New York City.

I have ideas of the kinds of people I want to continue to interview, but I feel pressed for time and a little rushed. For a project I have been working on all semester, I certainly want to do it justice for this class and especially for myself. I think I still have quite a bit of work ahead of me to do before I have to turn in my first draft and have this article live up to its full potential.