Charlie Wagner is one of America’s great tattoo legends and he tattooed in New York City from the 1890s until his death in 1953. Working on the Bowery in lower Manhattan, Wagner took over the shop at 11 Chatham Square that Samuel O’Reilly had occupied for many years. As a matter of fact, Charlie Wagner really carried on where O’Reilly left off in many ways.
One of Wagner’s more important contributions was his tattoo machine ideas that he patented in 1904. This was the first tattoo machine patented with coils in a vertical position, that is, in line with the tube assembly. This was a major improvement in machine design; in fact most machines built today use this alignment. Another of Charlie’s endeavors that is not well known today was his supply business.
During World War II, Wagner was arraigned in New York’s Magistrate’s Court on a charge of violating the Sanitary Code, he told the judge he was too busy to sterilize his needles because he was doing essential war work: tattooing clothes on naked women so that more men could join the Navy. The judge must have felt that this was a reasonable defense. He fined Wagner ten dollars and told him to clean up his needles. Wagner estimated that during his career he had tattooed tens of thousands of individuals, including over fifty completely covered circus and sideshow attractions. His clients included people listed in the social register. There are photographs of him in formal evening attire, complete with top hat and boutonnière, tattooing an elegantly attired society lady.
Wagner was the first American tattoo artist who successfully practiced the cosmetic tattooing of women’s lips, cheeks and eyebrows. He also tattooed dogs and horses so they could be identified in case of theft. He was also known to be able to combine and organize several small designs to make a larger harmonious pattern.
Wagner continued to tattoo until the day of his death, on January 1, 1953. He was 78 years old and had worked as a professional tattoo artist for over sixty years. After his death the contents of his studio were hauled off to the city dump. All his original drawings were destroyed.
He had tattooed thousands of individuals and hundreds of tattoo artists admired his designs and drew from variations of them. Today he is recognized as a major influence in the classic American style of tattooing.