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Jews and Tattoos: A New York Story

The legacy of the ink industry’s founding fathers is alive and well

Marjorie Ingall
June 22, 2015

Every time I read yet another personal essay by a young Jew or Jewess about “how I got a tiny tattoo and my parents are rilly upset but guess what I can still get buried in a Jewish cemetery,” my eyes roll back so far in my head I worry that they will get stuck that way, and I will walk around looking like a zombie extra in a Christopher Lee movie.

A little-known fact: The tattoo business as we know it was largely created by Jews. Lewis “Lew the Jew” AlbertsCharlie Wagner, Brooklyn Joe Lieber, William Moskowitz, Milton Zeis … these are the founding fathers who created the art of American tattooing and the technology that helped establish an industry.

The most artistically talented of this group, arguably, was Lew the Jew. According to Don Ed Hardy’s new art book Lew the Jew Alberts: Early 20th Century Tattoo Designs, Lew was born Albert Morton Kurtzman in 1880. As a teenager, he attended Hebrew Technical Institute, where he studied drawing, then began work as a wallpaper designer. But the Spanish-American War cut his career short; Kurtzman joined the Army and fought in the Philippines, where he began learning about and collecting tattoos. When he returned home, he opened a tattooing business.

Lew was one of the first creators of flash, the familiar drawings and paintings on the walls of tattoo shops. A glance at Hardy’s book shows the influence of wallpaper design on Lew’s art: bold, graphic roses, sailing ships, pretty ladies, snakes, eagles and sharks—much of this familiar iconography came from Lew. And much of it was originally drawn on the backs of wallpaper samples.

Tattoo collector Brad Fink (“I’m German-Jewish, probably”) is co-owner of New York City’s Daredevil Tattoo on Division Street, itself just steps from one of Lew’s early shops at 11 Chatham Square. “At a time when there was a stigma to being Jewish, Lew the Jew actually claimed it,” Fink told me. “This is just speculation, but there were a lot of tattooers back in the day; changing his name was a way to distinguish himself.”

For a while, Lew was in business with Charlie Wagner (né Weigner), another groundbreaking turn-of-the-century Jewish tattooer. Wagner had a shop on the Bowery as well as one in Chatham Square. Both men designed tattoo machines based on “perforating pen” technology, patented by Thomas Edison. “Part of the reason for the first heyday of tattooing in America was the rise of electricity and the industrial revolution,” Fink said. “Doing tattoos by hand was time-consuming and painful. Tattoo machines—which basically were derived from the principle behind a doorbell—changed everything.”

Wegner was better known for commerce than for art. He pursued publicity with a relentlessness that would make any tattoo reality show star proud, winning gushing profiles in newspapers and women’s magazines (some of which grace the walls of Daredevil Tattoo), and drastically undercutting other artists’ prices. In undated letters from the late 1940s or early 1950s printed in Hardy’s book, Lew and Brooklyn Joe Lieber (1888-1953) snarked about Wagner’s business practices (“that cheapo Wagner”) and lamented the loss of artistry among younger tattoo artists (“today the country is run with bums and louse tattooers not fit to tattoo a billy goat”). They were right about Wagner’s casual relationship with carefulness: In 1944, Wagner was fined by the city for not sterilizing his needles.

But Wagner seemed to know and work with everyone, at least for a while. Another Jew he collaborated with was Willie Moskowitz, a Russian immigrant who moved to the Lower East Side in 1918 and opened a barbershop on the Bowery in the 1920s. Moskowitz figured out that tattooing was a bigger money-maker than hairstyling, and Wagner taught him to tattoo. “Moskowitz was a businessman,” Fink said. “He saw an opportunity. He might as well have opened a produce stand as a tattoo stand.”

In a memorable piece published in The Forward over a decade ago about three generations of the Moskowitz tattoo dynasty, Gabrielle Birkner wrote: “By day, Willie’s son Walter studied Torah and Talmud at a Brooklyn yeshiva. By night he learned the tattoo trade in his father’s shop, located beneath the old Chatham Square elevated train station at No. 4 Bowery.” Walter and his brother Stanley inherited the Bowery shop when Willie died in 1961, but like many generations of post-war Jews, they left the city for the bucolic joys of Long Island, where they opened S&W Tattooing in Amityville. Walter, who died in 2007, recorded a funny, foul-mouthed CD called The Last of the Bowery Scab Merchants, about the history of this now-lost community of Lower East Side artists. Walter’s son Marvin continues the family business. Now a grandfather, Marvin still tattoos on a freelance basis.

These artists were rough-and-tumble guys, but they tattooed the elite as well as the hoi polloi. The dewy youth of today might believe that tattoos among privileged people is a new fad, but it’s actually been a cyclical trend throughout modern history. A 1943 New York Times article observed with characteristic stuffiness: “Back in the Nineties it was the fashion to be tattooed. The British, Russian, German and Scandinavian heirs-apparent, along with lesser royalty, were tattooed while junketing in their respective navies. The late George V of England returned from the Orient with a dragon tattooed on his arm. Continental royalty and nobility imitated the English.” Socialites through the 1920s had dainty tattoos on their wrists and shoulders, and it became trendy among the NYC wealthy to visit Japanese tattoo artists.

But what with that whole cyclical thing, tattooing fell out of favor during the Depression and war years. Soon it became associated with low-class, seedy types. Using the pretext of a hepatitis outbreak (never actually linked to tattoos), New York City banned tattooing in 1961.

A Jewish tattoo artist, Fred Grossman (aka Coney Island Freddie) sued the city for illegitimately crushing his business. (Mike Bakaty, the founder of Fineline Tattoo and an East Village tattoo legend, who died last year, told a journalist that Grossman felt that the Health Department’s motive was to “clean up the city” before showing it off at the 1964 World’s Fair.) Grossman lost, then lost again on appeal. State appellate judge Aron Steuer (the son of Max Steuer, my husband’s cousin who defended the Triangle Factory owners—the New York Steuers were clearly charming people) ruled that the city had the right to decide what was healthy behavior and what wasn’t. And furthermore, he noted, “the decoration, so-called, of the human body by tattoo designs is, in our culture, a barbaric survival, often associated with a morbid or abnormal personality.” (Another Jewish judge, Samuel Rabin, dissented, saying that “the testimony of the defendants’ medical experts indicates that the practice of tattooing can be safe, if properly conducted in accordance with appropriate principles of asepsis. That being so, I am of the opinion that the outright prohibition of the practice of tattooing is an unwarranted extension of the police power and therefore is invalid.” Medically correct, but societally unpopular.)

The tattoo ban was lifted in 1997. It was obvious that unregulated, underground tattoo studios existed all over the city. In fact, then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani stated, “There has not been a single documented case of Hepatitis B in New York City transmitted by tattooing in almost 40 years since the ban was enacted.”

That same year, Brad Fink and Michelle Myles opened Daredevil Tattoo on Ludlow Street on the Lower East Side. Two years ago, a 50 percent rent hike made them relocate their business to Division Street, right where tattooing began in New York City. Fink decided to display his personal collection of tattoo memorabilia, and last week, he and Myles launched a Kickstarter campaign to build a museum documenting the early roots of NYC tattooing.

Perhaps soon the stories of these unheralded immigrant pioneers will be less obscure.

Marjorie Ingall is a former columnist for Tablet, the author of Mamaleh Knows Best, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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