The Story Of How N.Y.C. Created Modern Tattoos

Thomas Edison, sideshows, and a vengeful city bureaucrat (at least according to legend) all helped shape tattoo culture in the city.

Today, tattooing is a ubiquitous facet of mainstream culture across the country. But New York City has a particularly complex relationship with the art form, as explored by an upcoming exhibit at the New York Historical Society. New York not only gave birth to modern tattooing—it played a role in forming the industry’s subcultural roots and its technical evolution.


Of course, long before New York ushered in modern tattooing, Native Americans in the region would tattoo their bodies to memorialize victories or even to treat medical conditions like arthritis. Representations of native body art date back to the 1700s, making them the earliest recorded images of tattooing by Westerners.

Nearly 100 years later, in the early 19th century, seamen would pass through New York’s port and show off their tattooed bodies in pop-up sideshows to make a few extra bucks. Tattooed ladies were also a popular attraction at sideshows–some of the most celebrated tattooed ladies were able to use their popularity to become financially independent, even though the practice was considered coarse and unbecoming for women. By 1859, tattoos had already begun to make more permanent inroads into New York’s downtown with the city’s first established tattoo parlor.

Then, in 1891, the tattoo artist Samuel O’Reilly patented the first electric tattoo machine in the Bowery, inspired by Thomas Edison’s patent of the electric pen. The machine’s speed made the practice faster and cheaper, allowing tattooing to spread quickly around the city. Through the decades, tattoo artists in New York continued to invent their own variations, making the city a hub for the technology behind the craft. By the 1920s, the Bowery neighborhood had become the center of New York tattoo culture–ostensibly because of its then-reputation as a hub for the city’s grittiest inhabitants.

Then as now, tattoos were both a fashion statement and a marker of identity. While in the 20th century they became associated with gang allegiances, tattoos also made their way into high society. According to the exhibition curator Cristian Petru Panaite, Europeans traveling to the States made tattoos somewhat of a fashion statement in the early 20th century. Manhattan society women in the 1930s would travel downtown to get small tattoos that could easily be hidden–a little mark of rebellion in a repressive world.

“Flash”–the paper drawings of tattoo designs that often decorate the walls of parlors and give artists a portfolio of designs from which to work–also originated in New York. In the early 20th century, the tattoo artist “Lew the Jew” Alberts developed and popularized them because they enabled anyone to walk into a tattoo shop, point at a design, and walk out with it inked on their skin. Flash drawings have been a staple of shops across the country ever since.

The industry flourished until 1961, when New York’s Health Department banned the practice of tattooing. According to Panaite, there are several competing stories as to why. The official line is that the agency was responding to a cluster of hepatitis B cases that had come out of Coney Island tattoo shops. But if you talk to tattoo artists who were around at the time, he says, they’ll tell you it was because a high-level bureaucrat wanted revenge on a tattoo artist who’d broken his heart (maybe he regretted getting her name tattooed across his bicep).

Irving Herzberg (1915–1992). Tattoo shop of “Coney Island Freddie” just prior to New York City’s ban on tattooing, 1961. [Image: via Brooklyn Public Library]

The ban forced tattooing underground, but at the same time, mainstream visual artists began to get into the art form. In the 1970s, the sculptor Mike Bakaty would tattoo clients in his apartment while his more traditional work was displayed in gallery shows. His studio is considered the longest running tattoo parlor in the city–once the ban was lifted, he set up shop in the Bowery. Before beginning research on the Historical Society exhibition, Panaite got a tattoo of a bird from Bakaty’s son to memorialize his mother.

While the ban’s existence may sound dramatic, Panaite says that only one of the many tattoo artists featured in the exhibition was actually imprisoned for working during those years (and even then, Panaite says, he was likely let out of jail after a day or two since he wasn’t caught in the act). Because only the act of tattooing was illegal, it was easy enough to dodge inspectors. By the 1980s, tattoo artists had actual storefronts in the Bronx–even the cops would go there to get inked–and the ban was eventually lifted in 1997. Today, there are more than 270 tattoo shops across the city.

Romanian-born Panaite knew almost nothing about tattoo culture before beginning research into its history in New York, but the art form charmed him enough that he recently got his second tattoo on New Year’s Eve. It’s the date he became a naturalized American, woven into the word “Brooklyn”–a style that harkens back to a 1930s fad when people would tattoo their social security numbers, embedded in words and graphics, on their skin. With a president-elect who opposes much immigration about to take power, Panaite says, this tattoo is a permanent “just in case,” proof of where he belongs.


About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor at Co.Design based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture.