Why The Bowery

When putting together the pieces of New York’s tattoo history, the Bowery is what anchors the story. The Bowery is New York City’s oldest thoroughfare and the city’s first entertainment district. In the early 20th century, tattoo artists lined the street, sometimes tucked in the backs of barber shops under the shadow of the elevated train.

As the Bowery morphed from country lane to theater district to gangland to skid row, eventually making its way into its present gentrified state, tattooing came ashore in New York, brought by sailors, the first to visit the cultures that practiced the art. The Bowery was the scene for tattooing’s adaptation of the electric tattoo machine, with Bowery artists scoring the first patents for the earliest machines in the United States. Tattooing grew up with the Bowery from its rough-and-tumble roots into an art form that’s now an accepted and celebrated part of pop culture.

Illustration by Michelle Myles
Illustration by Michelle Myles

This timeline is intended to answer the questions of why the Bowery was so important and why it became the root of tattooing’s family tree. The earliest artists that helped bring tattooing into the modern era all worked in the neighborhood now known as the Lower East Side or in what were the fourth and sixth wards of the city either on or close to the Bowery.The Bowery originally connected different native tribes that lived on the island and developed into a path for traders. The Dutch settled Manhattan, establishing New Amsterdam on the south tip of the island, which faced one of the finest natural harbors in North America. In the 1660s, the Dutch laid out farms along the path then named the Bowery from an old Dutch word for farm, bouwerij. The path ended close to Collect Pond, the original source of water for Manhattan, about three-quarters of a mile beyond the town limits. The pond served as the main water source for the city and was fed by the Tea Water Spring. In the 17th and 18th centuries, people tended to avoid drinking fresh water for fear of disease and usually drank either beer or water that had been boiled for tea. Breweries and distilleries were established next to the Tea Water Springs water source. Stockyards and taverns were built along the Bowery to serve the needs of the drovers and their thirsty cattle.

Slaughterhouses were banned from inhabited areas and the Collect area was the only place where one could kill livestock lawfully.

In 1664, the English took over the colony and New Amsterdam was renamed New York. In the 1700s, the importance of the Bowery grew, with more taverns and inns opening up. The Bulls Head Tavern opened at 50 Bowery in the mid-1700s and was a stop for George Washington after he marched his troops down the Bowery on Evacuation Day when the British were driven from Manhattan on November 25, 1783. The taverns along the Bowery drew weekend crowds and created a market for other forms of entertainment–theater, horse racing, gambling, dancing.
By the 1800s, the industries using Collect Pond had polluted the water severely. Tanneries, breweries, slaughterhouses, and ropewalks were the worst polluters of their day (ropewalks were long narrow lanes used to manufacture ropes essential for sailing ships). By 1813, Collect Pond had been filled in, laying the ground for what would become the world’s most notorious slum. Houses built on the land began to sink and tilt because the landfill and drainage were engineered poorly. Buried vegetation released methane gas, the streets were mud, and mosquitoes bred in stagnant pools caused by the poor drainage. A canal was built to carry off excess water but it wasn’t effective and it quickly became a polluted open sewer. In 1819, the canal was covered over, then filled in, and by 1820, Canal Street was in place. The Bowery had gone from well-to-do to more working class as wealthy residents moved north and property values and living conditions in the area plummeted. Trash collection was virtually nonexistent and in the 1820s, it was estimated officially that there were 20,000 wild hogs running throughout the city.

The pigs provided a cheap source of protein but they also helped contribute to the foul and unhealthy conditions that plagued the island.

Five Points was named for the five-cornered intersection just to the east of what was Collect Pond and a couple of blocks west of the bottom of the Bowery in the area now known as Columbus Park.  By the 1830s, Five Points had become so infamous that out-of-town visitors would go “slumming” (with a police escort) to witness the poverty and vice for themselves. One particular building, The Old Brewery, seemed to manifest all of the worst qualities of Five Points. The Old Brewery had brewed beer on the Collect Pond shore until about 1837, when it  became too run down for commercial purposes and was converted into a tenement. The Police Gazette described the Old Brewery as “the wickedest house on the wickedest street that ever existed in New York… in all the country and possibly all the world” (Five Points, page 67). The Old Brewery was filthy, overcrowded, and disease-ridden, with rooms known as the “den of thieves” and “murderers alley.” Legend was that the Old Brewery housed over a thousand people at once, most living without furniture or anything else, sleeping on piles of dirty rags or straw and often having to stay in place for weeks at a time, else they risked losing their space. Unverified reports estimated that there was a murder a night for almost 15 years in the Old Brewery.

Illustration by Michelle Myles
Illustration by Michelle Myles

This was around the time that the first Bowery B’hoys made it on to the scene. The B’hoys were a nativist group of working-class Bowery locals distinguished by their unusual attire–black silk hat (cocked just so), bright red shirt, fancy silk vest, and breeches tucked into their boots, with a distinctive walk/swagger, cigar clenched in their teeth. B’hoys were typically found hanging out in the bars or theaters in their spare time and known for their unique style, independence, and readiness to fight or jump into action. Many were members of volunteer fire companies, which often focused more on fighting each other than fighting fires.

In 1835, P.T. Barnum got his start on the Bowery when he sold his grocery store, borrowed money, and spent $1,000 for the rights to exhibit “George Washington’s wet nurse”–Joyce Heth, who claimed to be 161 years old. Barnum showed Heth at a coffee house on the corner of the Bowery and Division before he moved her to Niblo’s Garden on Broadway and Prince, eventually clearing $1,500 a week and launching Barnum’s career as a showman. In 1842, James F. O’Connell, “The Tattooed Irishman,” worked for Barnum as the U.S.’s first tattooed showman. O’Connell told his story of being shipwrecked on the Carolina Islands and being saved from death by performing Irish jigs for the amusement of the natives.

He claimed to have been tattooed for eight days by several of the native women and then married to the daughter of the chief, who was the last to tattoo him.

It was said that if a pregnant woman so much as glanced at him, her future child could be born as hideously marked as he was. His performance involved recounting his story, stripping down to show his tattoos, and dancing the Irish jig that saved his life. O’Connell passed away on January 29, 1854, at the age of 46.

In the 1840s, New York City’s population expanded by 60%. Five Points had hit bottom and counted as the most densely populated neighborhood in the world. Waves of immigrants were making their way to New York City, with scores ending up in the already crowded Lower East Side.  The Irish Potato Famine lasted from 1845-1850, sending over 1.5 million adults and children to America to seek refuge. Most were desperately poor and many were suffering from starvation and disease, adding to the many Irish that had already come over as part of the labor force for the building of the Erie Canal from 1817-1825. The German Revolutions in 1848 forced many Germans (known as the Forty-Eighters) into exile to escape political persecution, ending up in the Lower East Side neighborhood known as Kleindeutschland, or little Germany. Some Germans had come over earlier to fight as mercenaries for the British, settling in New York after the Revolutionary War.

Religious and humanitarian organizations were making efforts to transform Five Points. In 1852, the Methodist Ladies Home Missionary Society bought the Old Brewery, which was then demolished to build a missionary and use it as the society’s headquarters. The demolition of the Old Brewery marked the start of changes in the neighborhood.

Ethnicity, neighborhood affiliation, and livelihoods were some of the social markers that differentiated the gangs of New York in the 1800s. Gangs at the time were not always criminal–they were social units similar to some of the fire companies, fraternal organizations, and political clubs of the day. It wasn’t until later in the century that gangs evolved into hardened organized crime enterprises. By 1857, the Bowery Boys were more of a nativist political unit than the earlier, more colorful subculture of the B’hoys. The Dead Rabbits were believed to have splintered from the Roach Guards, although some denied that the Dead Rabbits even existed. On July 4, 1857, a riot erupted when the Dead Rabbits and the Plug Uglies raided the Bowery Boys’ headquarters at 40 Bowery. At the time, there were two competing police forces in the city that, like the fire brigades, were more interested in fighting each other than in fighting crime–the Municipal force and the Metropolitan force. The gang war raged on for two days and was one of the deadliest episodes of civil unrest in New York’s history, with an estimated 800-1,000 gang members fighting. This event was the inspiration for the Martin Scorsese film “Gangs of New York,” and the original row house at 40 Bowery still stands.

In 1857, “The Captivity of the Oatman Girls” by Royal B. Stratton was published, documenting the story of Olive Oatman and containing: “An interesting account of the massacre of the Oatman family, by the Apache Indians in 1851; the narrow escape of Lorenzo D. Oatman; the capture of Olive A. And Mary A. Oatman; the death, by starvation, of the latter; the five years’ suffering and captivity of Olive A. Oatman; also her singular recapture in 1856; as given by Lorenzo D. And Olive A. Oatman, the only surviving members of the family, to the author.” Olive became a celebrity in her day, recognizable by her chin tattoo, but some parts of her story were embellished or inaccurate. Her captors were probably not Apache, she seems to have been treated as a part of the family, and her tattoo was similar to those that Mohave women traditionally wore. Olive’s story might have inspired future tattooed women, who would later claim captivity stories as part of their acts.

By the 1860s, New York City was the economic hub of the nation and the Bowery’s notorious reputation reached far and wide. Nearly anyone visiting New York not of the wealthy class would have found their way to the Bowery eventually. The mansions and shops had long given way to low-brow concert saloons, taverns, brothels, dime museums, pawn shops, and flop houses. On the eve of the Civil War, tattooing was taking its first steps into public consciousness. Tattoos were seen as exotic, uncivilized, or barbaric. The most notable tattooed figures of the day had all received their tattoos from indigenous cultures–James O’Connell with his markings from the South Pacific, and Olive Oatman with her Native American chin tattoo. After O’Connell’s death, the New York Times said that Barnum was featuring “[a] live specimen of a New-Zealander, most elaborately tattooed, who goes about the Museum with his garments rent, by way of exhibiting his tattoo, [and who] is among the latest curiosities introduced for the gaze of the public” (September 8, 1860). American tattooing did not yet exist in any recognizable form on its own. Although tattooing was being practiced on ships by sailors who had been exposed to it through journeys to the Polynesian islands and other places, it wasn’t until 1858 that New York City had a documented professional tattooer working in the first permanent place of business for tattooing in the United States. His name was Martin Hildebrandt.

Illustration by Michelle Myles
Illustration by Michelle Myles

In 1794, Congress passed the “Act to Provide a Naval Armament,” authorizing the launch of the new U.S. Navy with six heavy frigates. These ships, wooden-hulled and three-masted, were larger and more heavily armed than standard frigates of the time. The first was the USS United States, which was named by George Washington, who toured the ship with First Lady Martha before it was launched as the first American warship and the first ship of the U.S. Navy on May 10, 1797.

In 1843, Herman Melville enlisted as an ordinary seaman onboard the United States in Honolulu. White Jacket, published in 1850, is a fictionalized account of Melville’s time aboard the United States, dubbed the USS Neversink in the story. Melville refers to the tattooing on board as a way to pass the time and earn money. He wrote (chapter XLII): “Reading was by no means the only method adopted by my shipmates in whiling away the long tedious hours in harbor…others excelled in tattooing, or pricking as it is called in a man-of-war. Of these prickers, two had long been celebrated, in their way, as consummate masters of the art. Each had a small box full of tools and coloring matter; and they charged so high for their services, that at the end of the cruise they were supposed to have cleared upwards of four hundred dollars. They would prick you to order a palm tree, an anchor, a crucifix, a lady, a lion, an eagle, or anything else you might want.” Melville was discharged in Boston in October 1844.

White Jacket was highly critical of U.S. Navy customs, describing the harsh existence of a typical U.S. sailor aboard a man-of-war. The book was the inspiration for Congress to ban flogging on all U.S. ships in September 1850, although branding and tattooing were still legal means of punishment for another 15 years.

On April 16, 1859, the Yazoo Democrat published a story about sailors and tattooing: “Among the unconsidered trifles that float about the forecastle of a man-of-war, one cannot help observing the tattooed arms…scarring the flesh with five needles tied together…. It is estimated that at least four thousand persons in the US Navy, annually, are tattooed, with figures costing from seventy five cents to fifteen dollars. A single artist has been known to pocket over a thousand dollars in a cruise of a frigate in these senseless India ink prickings.” Just two years after Melville’s time aboard the United States, Martin Hildebrandt enlisted on that same ship, where he learned to tattoo.

Hildebrandt often reminisced about his early days tattooing as a sailor: “[B]efore I settled down I was a sailor. I have roamed pretty much all over the world. During the Mexican War, in 1846, I was on the old Frigate United States, under Commodore Reed (sic), ‘Old Paddy Reed’ the men used to call him….” “Paddy Reed” refers to Commodore George C. Read, an Irishman, who had served previously on Old Ironsides during the War of 1812. Read was commanding the African Squadron in charge of suppressing the illicit slave trade, with the United States as his flagship when Hildebrandt served under him. Hildebrandt sailed three years with Read aboard the United States before being discharged at Norfolk, Virginia. “After that I went with Commodore Perry on the Japan expedition…. There was no other sailor in  the squadron who could tattoo as well as  I  could” (“The Tattooing Artist,” The Sun (New York), December 18, 1872).

Commodore Matthew Perry embarked from Norfolk, Virginia, for Japan on November 24, 1852, and reached Edo Bay in Japan on July 8, 1853, opening the Japanese ports to American trade. Perry returned to the United Sates in 1855.

Three years later, Hildebrandt was listed in the 1858 Trowe’s New York City Directory as tattooing at 361 Water Street. Water Street was in the Fourth Ward, a few blocks southeast of Five Points. This was one year after the 1857 gang war between the Bowery Boys and the Dead Rabbits.

Another tattooer from this period was Edwin Thomas, who wasn’t listed in the directory until later. Hildebrandt didn’t mention working with Thomas but Thomas claimed to have started out with Hildebrandt: “There are but three professional tattooers in the United States,” he remarked, “and they are Martin Hildebrand and Stephen Lee, of New York. and myself. Hildebrand and I established ourselves in business in New York, as partners, thirty-five years ago. I have recently arrived in Chicago. After halting here awhile I shall locate in San Francisco…. It is no egotism for me to say that I rank as the first tattoo artist of America. I learned the art–that is, I took my first lessons at it–in the United States Navy, while serving on board a man of-war. I was on the first American war vessel that visited Japan” (“Artistic Tattooing,” Chicago Herald, October 3, 1883). He began life as a sailor, and followed the sea for twelve years, being one of the crew of the first American war vessel, the Vincennes, Captain Paulding, that ever entered a Japanese port. He learned the art of tattooing on board ship, and thirty-two years ago, when his time was out in the navy, he came to New York and set up in business as a tattoo artist” (New York Journal, October 18, 1886). The Vincennes sailed for the Far East on June 4, 1845, under the command of Captain Hiram Paulding and anchored off Uraga on July 19, 1846. The Japanese surrounded the vessel, preventing it from landing. Attempts at opening trade were rebuffed. The Vincennes remained on the China station for another year before returning to New York on April 1, 1847.

Hildebrandt described his learning process and the tattoos that he himself had gotten: “It was on shipboard that I first became interested in tattooing. We had a tattooing artist aboard by the name of Alf Harrington of Philadelphia (an engraver) …. I used to watch how he fixed his needles, and afterward began to practice on my own legs. Finally, I became an expert at the art and worked on other people…” (Boston Weekly Globe, August 22, 1882). “I practiced on myself for a good while before I spoilt anyone else’s skin. On my back covering a good bit of it is a crucifixion” (Chicago Daily Tribune and The Sun (New York), October 28, 1877). An article from 1872 quotes Hildebrandt regarding his back tattoo: “He  covered my back with the crucifixion. It took him about ten days to do it. I haven’t seen it for fifteen years, but I suppose it’s there yet….[T]here isn’t an inch of my  skin  except my face but what is tattooed“ (“The Tattooing Artist,” The Sun (New York), December 18,1872).

Hildebrandt travelled the world as a sailor and his reputation was very well established.

Many articles were written about him during his lifetime and he was the first tattooer to receive notoriety for his craft:“I am pretty well known all over the United States, and as I have been working steadily at it ever since 1846” (NY Times, January 16, 1876).“For twenty years I’ve done this kind of work for sailors in India, in the South Sea Islands, in South America and Europe; perhaps you can see that I am an old salt” (Chicago Daily Tribune and The Sun (New York), October 28, 1877).

By the 1860s, the Bowery, Five Points, and the Fourth Ward, a few blocks southeast, where Hildebrandt worked, was a rough, poor neighborhood with some of the worst slums in New York. During the Civil War, the area exploded in violence with the Draft Riot of 1863. Hildebrandt continued to tattoo through the Civil War and said: “When I was with the army of the Potomac I put the names of hundreds of soldiers on their arms or breasts, and many were recognized by these marks after being killed or wounded. During the war times I never had a moments idle time” (NY Times, January 16, 1876). Edwin Thomas also mentioned his time tattooing during the Civil War: “During the war I did a large business among the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac. Often a regiment would owe me hundreds of dollars on pay day” (New York Journal, October 18, 1886).

In the 1870s, Hildebrandt, a German immigrant, was listed as tattooing at Rugen’s Saloon at 42 Oak Street. At this point, the Lower East Side had the third largest German population of any city in the world after Berlin and Vienna (as noted above, earning the nickname Kleindeutschland or little Germany). A popular aspect of German culture was the beer gardens and halls. At the time, saloons played a different role than what we think of as a modern-day bar. The Lower East Side in the mid- to late 1800s was one of the most overcrowded neighborhoods in the world. The average family size in the mid-1800s was eight people and space was also often rented to boarders. In those days, tenement living usually meant a building with up to six floors with four apartments per floor and about 325 square feet per apartment. There was no electricity, plumbing, or heat, with the entire building sharing a spigot in the back supplying water for cooking, cleaning, and laundry. Usually the entire building would share a couple of latrines in back. Most apartments had coal-burning stoves without providing any cross-ventilation or light able to penetrate into the rooms. At the time, beer was usually safer to drink than water.

Drinking water would involve getting water from the back yard, carting it up to your apartment, and firing up the stove. It would take an hour to light the coal to get the fire going to boil the water. Lager, on the other hand, was readily available, cheap, with a low alcohol content, and seen as a healthy beverage. Combined with the uncomfortable and crowded living conditions, it’s no wonder how prevalent beer halls and liquor saloons were during this period. One 32-block section of the Lower East Side mapped out 242 beer saloons and 61 liquor saloons in the 1880s. Saloons were more than purveyors of drink–they also served as meeting places and often worked as a supplemental living space away from cramped apartments. Most saloons also offered a free lunch with your beer.

The earliest tattoo “shops” were not what we think of now as a tattoo parlor. Early tattooers usually worked out of other establishments or shared their space with other businesses. With so much competition, saloon owners had to work for their business to stand out. It’s not surprising that a tattoo artist (and his clientele) would be welcomed to set up shop in a corner.

Meanwhile, in 1875 a young Thomas Edison was developing a device that would be an inspiration to change tattooing forever and bring it into the modern era. Edison started as a telegraph operator and the electric pen came out of his telegraphy research. Patented in 1876, it was the first patent for a motorized device in the United States. Edison’s electric pen was used in a system to create copies of documents. The motor drove a small needle up and down the shaft of the pen creating a stencil as the user wrote. The perforated sheet was used in a press with ink pressed through the perforations creating a copy like the original. It was claimed that each stencil could produce up to 15,000 copies. An “autographic press kit” included an electric pen, a small battery, a frame for the stencils, special ink with a roller, and waxed paper for making the stencils. The kit cost $30 when it was first put on the market.

Text by Michelle Myles