William Ettlin: Tattoo Portraits by a Bowery Photographer

Researched and written by Derin Bray

 
ettlin's studio, 17 chatham square, n.y. new york, cabinet portrait, cabinet card w. a. ettlin photograph antique tattoo tattooed tattoo wagner getchell alberts
 

In the heyday of New York’s rough-and-tumble Bowery, tattoo shops stood shoulder to shoulder with dive bars, flop houses, strip joints, dime museums and, quite notably, photo studios. Few people navigated this colorful landscape and its rotating cast of characters better than photographer William Ettlin. Long overlooked by scholars of tattoo history, Ettlin operated a bustling business at 17 Chatham Square, just footsteps from pioneering tattooers Prof. Samuel O’Reilly, “Electric” Elmer Getchell, Charlie Wagner and Lew “The Jew” Alberts. Because of his proximity to their shops —and no doubt his prowess behind the camera— he often found himself at their service. Indeed, for several years in the early 1900s William Ettlin documented New York tattoo culture at its height. And he did so to spectacular effect!

 
William Partridge, Tattooed by Lew Alberts. “Tattooed by Alberts, N. Y.,” Cabinet Card Photograph by William Ettlin, Ettlin’s Portraits, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1905.  Derin Bray Collection

William Partridge, Tattooed by Lew Alberts. “Tattooed by Alberts, N. Y.,” Cabinet Card Photograph by William Ettlin, Ettlin’s Portraits, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1905. Derin Bray Collection

 

The son of a Swiss-German tailor, William Ettlin (1859-1911) was reared in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the sprawling immigrant neighborhood known as Little Germany. At various times in his youth he lived on the edge of the Bowery and sometimes smack dab in the heart of the city’s cheap entertainment district. It was likely here, in his own backyard, that he received instruction in the mysterious art and science of photography.

By 1884, at age 25, Ettlin began identifying himself as an artist and photographer. His place of employment at this time isn’t yet known, but several clues indicate he worked for a prominent studio. After honing his skills for several years, he struck out on his own and, by 1889, established himself professionally at 17 Chatham Square.

An advertisement for W. A. Ettlin, 17 Chatham Square, New York.  The Photographic Times , 1892.

An advertisement for W. A. Ettlin, 17 Chatham Square, New York. The Photographic Times, 1892.

Ettlin worked on the top floor of the massive brick hardware store of White, Van Glahn & Co., one of the Bowery’s landmark buildings. And he wasn’t alone. He shared the space, which stretched from 17 Chatham Square to 8 Catherine Street, with veteran Bowery photographer Carl Schultze, who had operated the Schultze Photo Equipment Co. there since at least 1886.

 
William Ettlin’s photo studio was located on the top floor of the White, Van Glahn & Co. hardware store. The building (and Ettlin’s studio) stretched from 17 Chatham Square to 8 Catherine Street.  White, Van Glahn & Co. Illustrated Catalogue and Price List , 1902.

William Ettlin’s photo studio was located on the top floor of the White, Van Glahn & Co. hardware store. The building (and Ettlin’s studio) stretched from 17 Chatham Square to 8 Catherine Street. White, Van Glahn & Co. Illustrated Catalogue and Price List, 1902.

 
 

William Ettlin worked on the top floor of the highly-visible White, Van Glahn & Co. hardware store at 17 Chatham Square. Schultze Photo Equipment Co. was also located at this address. Detroit Publishing Co., Publisher. "L" Station, Chatham Square, New York. New York New York State New York. United States, 1905. [?] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2016805354/.

 

Studio portraits were Ettlin’s bread and butter. Most of his clients consisted of local New Yorkers looking for a handsome picture to share with friends and family. But he also captured the likenesses of musicians, actors and all manner of performers who —when they passed through the Bowery— sought photographs to promote their acts and to sell as souvenirs. Ettlin worked this way for nearly two decades until he fell ill in 1911. He died that year at the Fordham Hospital in the Bronx and was buried in St. Michael’s cemetery. His studio, however, lived on. Brooklyn-based photographer Ralph Tarsy ran the place until 1915. He capitalized on Ettlin’s good name by continuing to print “The Ettlin Studio” on his mounts, at least for a few years.

 

Ettlin's Photographic Studio, photographer. Civil War veteran Abraham G. Demarest / Ettlin's Studio, 17 Chatham Sq., N.Y. ; Ettlin's Photographic Art Studio, 17 Chatham Sq., N.Y. United States, None. [New york: ettlin's photographic art studio, 17 chatham sq., between 1889 and 1900] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017659663/.

 
 

Performer in Native American Costume. Cabinet Card Photograph by W. A. Ettlin, Ettlin’s Portraits, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1905. Courtesy of Heritage Auctions

 
 

The Lee Family, Cabinet Card Photograph by Tarsy / The Ettlin Studio, 17 Chatham Square / 8 Catherine Street, New York, ca. 1915. Archives Center, Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History

 

The Intersection of Photography & Tattoo History

William Ettlin’s lofty studio at 17 Chatham Square stood conveniently across the street from tattoo luminaries Samuel O’Reilly and Elmer Getchell. In fact, O’Reilly’s shop at 5 Chatham Square may have been a point of introduction for the three men. By 1897, when O’Reilly first wielded an electric needle at No. 5, Carl Schultz’s (1830-1891) photo equipment company (and likely photo studio) was already a fixture on the top floor. Schultze, of course, operated a second location at No. 17, where William Ettlin also hung his shingle. Presumably Schultze, O’Reilly and Ettlin were well acquainted. Getchell too; he joined O’Reilly at No. 5 for two years, but relocated to 11 Chatham Square following a legal dispute over patent infringement for tattoo machines.

 
Elmer E. Getchell business card from “Souvenirs of the Travels and Experiences of the Original Gus. Wagner Globe Trotter & Tattoo Artist” scrapbook, ca.1897-1941. The Alan Govenar and Kaleta Doolin Tattoo Collection at South Street Seaport Museum, New York. (2001.039.0023)

Elmer E. Getchell business card from “Souvenirs of the Travels and Experiences of the Original Gus. Wagner Globe Trotter & Tattoo Artist” scrapbook, ca.1897-1941. The Alan Govenar and Kaleta Doolin Tattoo Collection at South Street Seaport Museum, New York. (2001.039.0023)

 

William Ettlin & Elmer Getchell

We don’t know if O’Reilly ever set foot in Ettlin’s studio, but his rival, “Electric” Elmer Getchell, certainly did. In 1902, Getchell ventured across the street beneath the elevated train tracks and climbed to the top of 17 Chatham Square. There, Ettlin photographed him in the staged act of tattooing Otto Schmidt, a German nurse finely adorned with snakes, dragons, frogs, fish and the like. Copies of this image —duplicated later by other photographers— no longer bear Ettlin’s mark or mount, but the distinct furniture and studio props are tell-tale signs of his studio (more on this below).

 

Elmer Getchell Tattooing Otto Schmidt, Photograph by William Ettlin, 17 Chatham Square, New York. (L) New York Tribune Illustrated Supplement, April 26, 1902. (R) The Shreveport Times, May 28, 1902.

 

Getchell probably returned to the portrait gallery in 1904, when Ettlin photographed a second human canvas decorated by the veteran tattooer. Images of this striking, yet-unidentified man are boldly inscribed “Tattooed by Prof. Getchell, Norfolk, Va.” This bit of shrewd marketing and self-promotion signalled Getchell’s departure from New York City —and his shop at 11 Chatham Square— for a fresh start in Norfolk, Virginia.

 

“Tattooed by Prof. Getchell, Norfolk, Va.,” Photograph Duplicated from a Cabinet Card by William Ettlin, 17 Chatham Square, ca. 1904. Courtesy of Doc Don Lucas

 

William Ettlin & Lew Alberts

A curious shuffling of shops occurred after Getchell exited the New York tattoo scene. His exact reason for leaving is unknown, but he may have been fed up with the heavy excavation in the center of Chatham Square. That spring the city began building an undergound public comfort station beneath the elevated train. The project dragged on for nearly a year and must have hampered local businesses. O’Reilly, in particular, may have been feeling the squeeze. Several photographs show his shop directly fronting the construction; his building is partially boarded up and tattoo flash appears to be hanging in the windows. Shortly after this photo was taken, O’Reilly packed up his belongings and moved a few doors down to Getchell’s newly-vacant 11 Chatham Square, where he remained until his death in 1909.

Unfazed by the construction, tattoo newcomer Lew “The Jew” Alberts seized the opportunity and took over O’Reilly’s old spot. His graphic business card from this period confirms his Chatham Square address, though his time there was fleeting.

 
Prof. Alberts Business Card, 5 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1904.  Collection of Derin Bray

Prof. Alberts Business Card, 5 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1904. Collection of Derin Bray

 

By the following winter Alberts was already searching for a neighborhood with less competition. Before leaving Chatham Square —or more likely upon a return visit— he and a heavily-inked man made their way to Ettlin’s studio to be photographed. Ettlin didn’t disappoint. He captured Alberts and his friend (possibly a young Harry Lawson) in a series of stunning images, one of which shows a fresh-faced Alberts holding an electric tattoo machine. Each photograph is inscribed “Tattooed by Lew Alberts, Pittsburg[h} Pa.” The distinct handwriting —etched in the negative by Ettlin or one of his assistants— is another hallmark of Ettlin’s studio.

 
Lew Alberts and One of His Tattooed Attractions, Possibly Harry Lawson. L) “Tattooed by Lew Alberts, Pittsburg[h] Pa.,” Detail of a Real Photo Postcard (RPPC) Duplicated From a Cabinet Card Photograph by William Ettlin. R) Tattooed by Lew Alberts, Pittsburg[h] PA,” Detail of a Cabinet Card Photograph by William Ettlin, Ettlin’s Portraits, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1906.  Collection of Derin Bray

Lew Alberts and One of His Tattooed Attractions, Possibly Harry Lawson. L) “Tattooed by Lew Alberts, Pittsburg[h] Pa.,” Detail of a Real Photo Postcard (RPPC) Duplicated From a Cabinet Card Photograph by William Ettlin. R) Tattooed by Lew Alberts, Pittsburg[h] PA,” Detail of a Cabinet Card Photograph by William Ettlin, Ettlin’s Portraits, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1906. Collection of Derin Bray

 
 

In a 1905 interview, Alberts took credit for tattooing Otto Schmidt, raising the possibility that he had some association with Elmer Getchell at 11 Chatham Square. Alberts also stated that he tattooed Ed Greenwood, whose work is often attributed to Charlie Wagner. Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, March 15, 1905.

 

Charlie Wagner & William Ettlin

The Bowery’s brash and ambitious Charlie Wagner also found occasion to visit 17 Chatham Square. Between 1903 and 1907, when Wagner tattooed at 223 1/2 Bowery (one mile from Getchell and O’Reilly), Ettlin photographed the young tattooer and several of his clients, including a portly Ed Greenwood. Lew Alberts —Wagner’s sometimes-partner and associate— had a hand in Greenwood’s elaborate covering, but Ettlin’s photographs fail to attribute the work to either man. This was partially corrected when Wagner commissioned the studio of Obermuller & Son to produce additional cabinet cards with the inscription “Tat[t]ooed by Prof. Wagner, 223 1/2 Bowery, N.Y.” A comparison of the cards confirms that Obermuller copied at least one of Ettlin’s portraits. During this period it was common for photographers to duplicate photographs from negatives or positive images.

 

Ed Greenwood, Tattooed by Charlie Wagner and Lew Alberts, Cabinet Card Photograph by William Ettlin, Ettlin’s Portraits, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1903. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

 
 

Ed Greenwood, Tattooed by Charlie Wagner and Lew Alberts, Cabinet Card Photograph by William Ettlin, Ettlin’s Portraits, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1903. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

 
 
L) Ed Greenwood, Tattooed by Charlie Wagner and Lew Alberts, Cabinet Card Photograph by William Ettlin, Ettlin’s Portraits, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1903.  Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.  R) “Tat[t]ooed by Prof. Wagner, 223 1/2 Bowery, N.Y.,” Cabinet Card Photograph of Ed Greenwood by William Ettlin, Duplicated by Obermuller and Son, 28 Cooper Square, Opposite 5th St, New York, ca. 1905.   Collection of Prof. York

L) Ed Greenwood, Tattooed by Charlie Wagner and Lew Alberts, Cabinet Card Photograph by William Ettlin, Ettlin’s Portraits, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1903. Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin. R) “Tat[t]ooed by Prof. Wagner, 223 1/2 Bowery, N.Y.,” Cabinet Card Photograph of Ed Greenwood by William Ettlin, Duplicated by Obermuller and Son, 28 Cooper Square, Opposite 5th St, New York, ca. 1905. Collection of Prof. York

 

Tattooed marvels Henry Kiegal and Ed Gilbert also found themselves in front of Ettlin’s camera, often with the help of a cast-iron posing stand. In 1904/5, Ettlin produced stunning portraits of each man showing their beautifully etched fronts and backs in half-length and full-length views. Never one to shy away from the limelight or an opportunity to advance his business interests, Wagner joined in the fun. Ettlin photographed the charismatic tattoo master showcasing his creations and the tools of his trade —electric tattoo machines, rheostat boards, clip cords, hand-painted flash and signs promoting his location at 223 1/2 Bowery.

 
Ed Gilbert, Tattooed by Charlie Wagner, Real Photo Postcard (RPPC) Duplicated From a Cabinet Card Photograph by William Ettlin, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1905.   Collection of Harry Sorensen

Ed Gilbert, Tattooed by Charlie Wagner, Real Photo Postcard (RPPC) Duplicated From a Cabinet Card Photograph by William Ettlin, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1905. Collection of Harry Sorensen

 

Ettlin’s most recognized images, however, depict a shockingly young Andy Stuertz. Around 1907, Ettlin created no fewer than six different portraits of the 13/14 year-old tattooed marvel. And yet, examples of these photos are often embossed with the mark of Luther S. White, a photographer located at 105 4th Avenue. The personal scrapbook of famed circus performer Jim “The Texas Giant” Tarver helps put this in context. For several years Tarver and Stuertz worked together beneath the sideshow tent for Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey. Both men did a brisk business selling souvenir photographs and, evidently, struck up a friendship. Stuertz gifted (or possibly sold) the giant one of his pictures, which Tarver dutifully inscribed with the year 1915. Nearly a decade after the image was first taken, Stuertz was still handing out photographs of himself as a “tattooed boy.” Indeed, it was likely Stuertz himself who ordered the duplicated photographs from White so he could continue to sell them.

 

Andy Stuertz, Tattooed by Charlie Wagner, Photograph by White’s Studio, 105 4th Avenue, New York, Duplicated From a Cabinet Card Photograph by William Ettlin, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1907. Private Collection

Andy Stuertz, Jim Tarver and Harry Morris, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, ca. 1915.  Private Collection

Andy Stuertz, Jim Tarver and Harry Morris, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, ca. 1915. Private Collection

 
 
Charlie Wagner Tattooing Andy Stuertz, Photograph by White’s Studio, 105 4th Avenue, New York, Duplicated From a Cabinet Card Photograph by William Ettlin, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1907.  Collection of Derin Bray

Charlie Wagner Tattooing Andy Stuertz, Photograph by White’s Studio, 105 4th Avenue, New York, Duplicated From a Cabinet Card Photograph by William Ettlin, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1907. Collection of Derin Bray

 

Charlie Wagner, Lew Alberts & William Ettlin

The careers of Charlie Wagner, Lew Alberts and William Ettlin converged, quite spectacularly, around 1909. Samuel O’Reilly died that spring and Wagner took over his shop at 11 Chatham Square, where he was joined with his long-time associate Lew Alberts. It was here, in the house that Getchell and O’Reilly built, that the duo created one of the crowning achievements of tattoo history —the suit of otherworldly tattoos belonging to Jack Tryon, later known as “Painless Jack.”

 
Jack Tryon, Tattooed by Charlie Wagner and Lew Alberts. “Tattooed by Wagner and Alberts, Chatham Sq., N.Y.,” Cabinet Card Photograph (trimmed), by William Ettlin, Ettlin’s Portraits, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1909.  Derin Bray Collection

Jack Tryon, Tattooed by Charlie Wagner and Lew Alberts. “Tattooed by Wagner and Alberts, Chatham Sq., N.Y.,” Cabinet Card Photograph (trimmed), by William Ettlin, Ettlin’s Portraits, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1909. Derin Bray Collection

 

Ettlin not only captured Tryon in his full glory, but he also documented —to great effect— the ascent of Wagner and Alberts to the top of the tattoo food chain. In what might be his greatest tattoo portrait, he photographed the well-dressed duo as they pretended to decorate their canvas. The sign resting on the white fur rug confirmed their authorship of the tattoos and, more importantly, announced to the public their new location in the hallowed ground of Chatham Square.

 

Charlie Wagner and Lew Alberts Tattooing Jack Tryon. “Tattooed by Wagner and Alberts, Chatham Sq, N.Y.,” Cabinet Card Photograph by William Ettlin, Ettlin’s Portraits, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1910. Division of Work & History, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

 

Identifying Ettlin’s Portraits

During his lifetime William Ettlin’s photos of tattooed attractions and tattoo artists were duplicated by other photographers, including several contemporaries who pasted them to their own mounts or embossed them with their own studio marks. This can make it difficult to identify Ettlin’s work. To make matters worse, from the 1910s through the 1940s, long after Ettlin had died, his images were copied over and over again and printed as real photo postcards (RPPCs). The duplicated images are so far removed from the originals that they no longer contain printed information about Ettlin. But like all great artists, his work is embedded with several characteristics —some unique— that are helpful in identifying his studio.

Hallmarks:

1. Ettlin used a few hand-painted backdrops that appear in most of his known cabinet cards. Scroll down to the gallery to see several examples.

2. Ettlin used faux grass to disguise the unsightly area between the bottom of his backdrops and the studio floor.

 
Ettlin's Portrait Cabinet Card of Tattoo Artist Tattooed Man Vintage 17 Chatham Square New York RPPC Photo Postcard
 

3. The same chairs, stools, tables and plant stands appear in many of Ettin’s photographs. For example, the stool with twisted metal legs in which tattoo artist Elmer Getchell sits can also be seen in a photograph of musicians (see gallery below). Likewise, the stool on which Otto Schmidt is sitting appears in other photos as a plant stand (see gallery below).

4. Several photographs of Ettlin are inscribed in the negative with information about Getchell, Wagner or Alberts. The writing style is distinct and represents the work of the same hand, possibly Ettlin or a studio assistant.

 
Tattooed by Lew Alberts Pittsburg Pa Tattooed by Prof. Getchell norfolk, VA tattooed by prof. Wagner new york tattooed cabinet card photo rppc photo postcard antique
 

5. The fur rug! Ettlin’s subjects often stood or rested on a fur rug. See above photographs of Stuertz and Tryon.

6. Ettlin’s bust-length portraits often include fuzzy white circles on the left side; these are probably the white flower on his back drop, which have become distorted.

ettlin's studio tattooed by

Tattooed Attractions Photographed by Ettlin:

  • Otto Schmidt

  • Harry Lawson (possibly)

  • Jack Tryon

  • William Partridge

  • Ed Gilbert

  • Henry Kiegal, aka Harry Karsey

  • Ed Greenwood

Tattoo Artists Photographed by William Ettlin:

  • Elmer Getchell

  • Charlie Wagner

  • Lew Alberts

Gallery of Cabinet Cards by William Ettlin

 

Cabinet Card Photographs, by William Ettlin, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1905. Private Collection

 
 

L) Cabinet Card Photographs, by William Ettlin, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1905. Private Collection. R) Cabinet Card Photographs, by William Ettlin, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1905. Courtesy of Worthpoint

 
 

L) Cabinet Card Photograph, by William Ettlin, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1900. Coll. of Prof. York. R) Willie Butler, Cabinet Card Photograph, by William Ettlin, 17 Chatham Square, New York, ca. 1905. The Cabinet Card Gallery

 

Notes:

  1. Full citations are available upon request.

  2. Following Ettlin’s marriage in 1884, he relocated his family home from the Bowery to Brooklyn. He made a series of moves north in the 1890s, until finally situating his family in the Bronx.

  3. 1892 is the earliest documented instance of William Ettlin working at 17 Chatham Square. However, the backs of some of his cabinet card mounts include a copyright date of 1889 for his studio logo, suggesting he went into business closer to that time.

  4. Ettlin likely had a small staff to assist in the studio. In 1894, he advertised for a “negative retoucher” and “someone willing to make himself generally useful.”

  5. Carl Schultz’s died in 1891. His son Theodore, a photographer based in Brooklyn, ran Schultze Photo Equipment Co. until the business went belly up in 1894.

  6. Ralph Tarsy worked at 17 Chatham Square through at least 1931.

  7. For a timeline and discussion of Getchell and O’Reilly’s shops, see “Tattoo Shops at 5 & 11 Chaham Square,” www.buzzworthytattoo.com

  8. For a clearer image of Getchell tattooing Schmidt, see The Father of American Tattooing, Franklin Paul Rogers, Published by the Tattoo Archive, p. 89.

  9. By the time Getchell began tattooing Schmidt in early April, construction on the underground comfort station was already underway. A photograph of the excavation dated March 11, 1904, is in the collection of the New-York Historical Society.

Derin Bray
The Tattooed Man and His Mummy: A Short History of Chicago's Barney Kruntz, aka Joseph Harkin

Researched and written by Derin Bray

 
Joseph Bernard Harkin, aka Barney Kruntz, Cabinet Card by J. S. Johnson, Johnson’s photo studio, 193 Wabash Ave., Chicago, IL, ca. 1905.  Derin Bray Collection

Joseph Bernard Harkin, aka Barney Kruntz, Cabinet Card by J. S. Johnson, Johnson’s photo studio, 193 Wabash Ave., Chicago, IL, ca. 1905. Derin Bray Collection

 

Before transforming himself into a tattooed marvel, Joseph “Barney” Harkin was better known as a plucky young tailor from Toronto, Canada. And like many performers who climbed to the top of their profession, his life story reads like a work of sensational fiction, replete with magicians, train wrecks, and even the mummified body of John Wilkes Booth –or so he claimed! 

 
Joseph and Agnes Harkin.  Private Collection

Joseph and Agnes Harkin. Private Collection

 

By the time he was eighteen years old, Joseph “Barney” Harkin (1883-1943) had already set his sights on a career in show business. He moved to Chicago around 1902 and quickly found himself on South State Street, one of the country’s busiest and bawdiest entertainment districts. While there he became acquainted with old-time tattooer and tattooed attraction Albert “Dutch” Herman, aka “New York Dutch.” The exact circumstances of their meeting are unknown, but Herman would soon hand-poke hundreds of designs on Harkin’s body, including an elaborate backpiece depicting the Crucifixion of Jesus. 

 

 

Joseph Harkin, aka Barney Kruntz, with Campbell Bros. Circus, 1909, by Frank Carney. Courtesy of Circus World Museum

 
 

For the next fifteen years Harkin exhibited himself –sometimes as Professor Barney Kruntz— at Chicago dime museums and with sideshows that crisscrossed the country, notably Sells-Floto, Al. G. Barnes and Barnum & Bailey. His wife Agnes (1884-1974) joined in too. She performed a popular “Den of Snakes” act, often under the stage name Viola. 

 

The London Dime Museum, Chicago, ca. 1907. Barney Harkin performed here in 1903.

 
 
Barney Harkin, Tattooed Man, exhibited himself at the London Dime Museum in Chicago.  New York Clipper , April 18, 1903. Albert Herman was also a frequent exhibitor at the London Dime Museum.

Barney Harkin, Tattooed Man, exhibited himself at the London Dime Museum in Chicago. New York Clipper, April 18, 1903. Albert Herman was also a frequent exhibitor at the London Dime Museum.

 

Like many illustrated men and women, Harkin padded his income by tattooing. He even dabbled in the supply business. Throughout 1909, he and his father-in-law, James Black, advertised tattoo machines, design books, and inks from their home base in Chicago. Black, a former worker at a forge in Toronto, may have brought his metalworking skills to bear on the craft-side of the operation.

 
Harkin & Black Advertisement for Tattoo Machines and Supplies, 200 S. Halsted, Chicago, IL,  Billboard , Apr. 10, 1909.

Harkin & Black Advertisement for Tattoo Machines and Supplies, 200 S. Halsted, Chicago, IL, Billboard, Apr. 10, 1909.

 

Hagenbeck-Wallace was the last circus the Harkins traveled with as performers, and for good reason. Life on the road was grueling, especially with young children. And travel could be quite dangerous. On June 22, 1918 near Hammond, Indiana, an empty train piloted by a sleeping engineer plowed into the idle train carrying Hagenbeck-Wallace’s 400 performers and personnel. It was one of the deadliest crashes in U.S. history. Barney was aboard the vehicle. He managed to walkaway from the crash, but many weren’t so fortunate —86 people died and more than 127 were injured (learn more about it here). 

 
Aftermath of the Hagenbeck-Wallace train wreck near Hammond, Indiana, 1918. Courtesy of the Hammond Public Library

Aftermath of the Hagenbeck-Wallace train wreck near Hammond, Indiana, 1918. Courtesy of the Hammond Public Library

 

The wreck undoubtedly shook the Harkins. Whether it motivated their next move is unclear, but they retired their acts the following year and purchased an arcade on South State Street. Evidently business was good. By 1921 Barney had pulled together enough money to purchase one of two theaters owned by famed magician Howard Thurston. Located just a few blocks away at 518 South State Street, the Trocadero, as it would become known, offered burlesque shows on the first floor and a museum of oddities on the second. 

 
Billboard, October 29, 1921

Billboard, October 29, 1921

 

But the theater business presented its own set of challenges. Local reform organizations determined to run Harkins out of town for promoting immoral exhibitions. As one investigator reported, for a mere nickel, lewd girly shows could be watched through a peep hole. The police and health department followed up on such tips with raids, often arresting some of the women and their male customers. Harkin himself was hauled away on a few occasions. Things quickly came to a head in the the spring of 1923. The state attorney general filed a bill for injunction against the veteran showman, alleging that the Trocadero was operating as a brothel “in which women solicit patronage and…obscene performances are staged.”  

Not surprisingly, Harkin made a swift break from the museum and theater business. And before long he was back on the road —this time traveling by truck— with a minstrel show and later a war exhibit that boasted a vast display of ancient military artifacts. During an especially memorable appearance with the S. W. Brundage Carnival in 1924, chaos broke out in Harkin’s tent:

The monkey speedway was spotted next to Barney’s war show, and one of the simian daredevils escaped, and got in among the war relics. When finally caught, he was reported attired in German, French, and Irish military paraphernalia. But Barney, so front-line reports stated, retrieved his w. k. Scotch pea cap.

At the outset of the 1930 season, the Harkins interrupted their engagement with Brundage show to seize a rare opportunity. Barney had been in the market for a flashy new attraction and found just thing on a potato farm in Declo, Idaho: “The real embalmed body of John Wilkes Booth.”

 

Advertisement for the embalmed body of John Wilkes Booth, Billboard, May 10. 1930.

 

Indeed, for more than two decades the leathery remains of a man known as John St. Helen (aka David E. George) had been exhibited throughout the country as the body of John Wilkes Booth, notorious assassin of President Abraham Lincoln (read more about it here and here). As the story goes, St. Helen had confessed his identity to his lawyer, Finis L. Bates, who later promoted the conspiracy through the popular book The Escape and Suicide of John Wilkes Booth (1907). Shortly after he came into possession of the corpse, Bates began leasing it to showmen, who added to the spurious story with affidavits and medical examinations. Interestingly, reports substantiating the claim never mention whether the mummy featured the tattooed initials “J. W. B.,” which Booth had crudely pricked on the back of his hand as a boy.

 

“The True Emblamed Body of John Wilkes Booth.” Photo courtesy of Sideshow World.

 

The Harkins purchased the controversial attraction for a purported $5,000 and toured with it throughout the 1930s. A spread in Life magazine captured the exhibit in its full glory. Barney can be seen collecting the 25 cent admission, while Agnes provides the crowd with x-rays intended to corroborate the story of Booth’s escape and his subsequent life on the run. Behind the podium painted sign boldly declares “$1,000 reward if proven not genuine.”

 

“Twenty-five cents admission is charged to see the mummy. ‘Barney’ Harkin tends gate. His wife does the explaining,” LIFE, July 11, 1938. William Vandivert—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

 
 
“An X-ray of mummy’s stomach, exhibited by Mrs. Harkin, shows signet ring with “B,” supposedly swallowed by Booth,”  LIFE , July 11, 1938.   William Vandivert—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

“An X-ray of mummy’s stomach, exhibited by Mrs. Harkin, shows signet ring with “B,” supposedly swallowed by Booth,” LIFE, July 11, 1938. William Vandivert—The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

 

Barney and Agnes Harkin were true show people. By virtue of grit, talent, and force of personality, they blazed their own trail through the rough-and-tumble world of sideshows, arcades, dime museums, and carnivals in early twenty-century America. Barney passed away in 1943 at the age of 60. Agnes continued to live in Chicago until her death thirty years later. They are buried in Acacia Park Cemetery in Chicago.

 
Obituary for Joseph Bernard Harkin,  Arlington Heights Herald , December 31, 1943.

Obituary for Joseph Bernard Harkin, Arlington Heights Herald, December 31, 1943.

 

Notes: 

1. Citations for this article are available upon request. 

2. Joseph Harkin was born in Duluth, Minnesota, but moved to Toronto at an early age. He was working in Toronto in 1901, moved to Chicago at an unknown date, and returned to Toronto in 1902 to marry Agnes Black.

3. It’s possible that Harkin had existing ties to the amusement world. His father-in-law, James Black, was described as a veteran showman in his 1922 obituary in Billboard magazine. At the very least Black played an important role Harkin’s career. He partnered with him in a tattoo supply business in 1909 and later sold tickets, most likely at Harkin’s arcade.

4. Harkin’s old friend, Albert “Dutch” Herman, aka “New York Dutch,” may have worked in the museum. By 1925, after Harkin had exited the museum business, Hermann set-up shop at Thurston’s other dime museum at 526 South State Street.

Eddie Levin: Baltimore Sign Painter & Cartoonist

Researched and written by Derin Bray

Charlie, did big Ted Liberty come down there and set up shop? He’s out of Boston. I saw “Dad” [Liberty] a while back and he said Ted had gone to Baltimore.

Fred Day to “Tattoo Charlie” Geizer, Jan. 2, 1951

 
Trade Sign for Ted Liberty’s Tattoo Studio, painted by Eddie Levin, Baltimore, ca. 1950

Trade Sign for Ted Liberty’s Tattoo Studio, painted by Eddie Levin, Baltimore, ca. 1950

 

In 1950, veteran tattoo artist Edward “Ted” Liberty packed up his shop in Boston’s Scollay Square and made his way to Baltimore. His final destination was The Block, the notorious stretch of East Baltimore Street crowded with strip joints, dive bars, and shooting galleries. And like many other business owners in the city’s gritty entertainment district, he turned to local painter and cartoonist Eddie Levin for flashy show cards to decorate his new studio. Levin did not disappoint. He furnished Liberty with a bold and brightly-painted sign loaded with patriotic imagery and a banner that declared “Ted’s Tattoo Studio” was open for business.

 
Eddie Levin Baltimore Sign Painter Cartoon
 

Born in Lutsk, Russia in 1889, Edward “Eddie” Levin (real name Leifer) emigrated to the United States with his family in 1891. His father was a tailor, but Eddie and his younger brother Albert pursued careers as commercial artists. By 1910 the Levin brothers had landed jobs as card writers for a department store. It was the first of many gigs for Eddie. He would go on to paint for Baltimore Show Card Works, the Clover theater, and many other local businesses and sign companies.

 

The GayetyTheatre’s Impressario in Action, by Eddie Levin, Baltimore, 1957. Private Collection

 

In the late 1930s, he struck out on his own and opened a studio above the Playland penny arcade at 420 East Baltimore Street. Incidentally, Ted’s tattoo shop was located just a few steps away above Mardi-Gras Novelty Amusements, an arcade and lunch counter at no. 424. Those who knew Levin during this period remember him as a talented, but penniless artist. He lodged in the Armitstead Hotel.

 
Eddie Levin’s WWII Draft Card Showing his Studio Address at 420 E. Baltimore Street. *Note: Victor Herfel operated a photography studio at the same address.

Eddie Levin’s WWII Draft Card Showing his Studio Address at 420 E. Baltimore Street. *Note: Victor Herfel operated a photography studio at the same address.

Eddie Levin and Victor Herfel both had studios at 420 East Baltimore Street. Around 1953, Mardi-Gras Amusements at no. 424 became Polock Johnny’s; Ted Liberty tattooed upstairs.

Photo postcard of Victor Herfel (R), probably taken in a Baltimore arcade. Both he and Eddie Levin worked at 420 East Baltimore Street, home to Playland penny arcade. The man on the left is unidentified, but appears to be holding paint brushes.  Private Collection

Photo postcard of Victor Herfel (R), probably taken in a Baltimore arcade. Both he and Eddie Levin worked at 420 East Baltimore Street, home to Playland penny arcade. The man on the left is unidentified, but appears to be holding paint brushes. Private Collection

 

Levin painted thousands of show cards and signs over the course of his lengthy career, but he is best-known for his witty cartoons of dancers, gamblers, night club owners, and the other colorful characters who inhabited The Block during its heyday. These precise and often comical sketches offer a rare glimpse at life in one of Baltimore’s seediest neighborhoods.

While several examples of Eddie Levin’s work survive in public and private collections, the details of his life and career still remain a mystery. He died in 1968 and is buried in the Chizuk Amuno Congregation Arlington Cemetery in Baltimore. 

 

Eddie Levin Timeline

***If you have information about Eddie or know of other examples of his work, I would love to hear from you!***

1889 - Edward "Eddie” Louis Levin (real name Edward Leifer) was born in Lutsk, Russia

1891 - Edward’s father immigrates to the United States and establishes himself in Baltimore

1910 - Edward and his younger brother Abraham worked as card writers for a local department store

1911 - Listed as a cartoonist in the city directory

1917 - Card writer for Baltimore Show Card Works

1922 - Card writer for Acme Show Card Works at 412 East Baltimore Street

1926 - Manager of the Art-Ad Sign Co. at 325 North Eutaw Street

1936 - Sign painter for the Clover theater at 414 East Baltimore Street

1940 - Operated a painting studio above the Playland arcade (later Penny Land) at 424 East Baltimore Street

1968 - Edward Levin is Buried in Chizuk Amuno Congregation Arlington Cemetery in Baltimore.

 

Notes:

Full citations for this article are available upon request

  1. Letter from Newport, RI tattoo artist Fred Day to Baltimore tattoo artist Charlie Geizer, January 2, 1950. Private Collection

  2. Ted Liberty tattooed on The Block until 1953, when he moved to Canada.

  3. Asher Levin (Eddie’s father) immigrated to the United States in 1891. Presumably Eddie and his mother came to the United States in the same year, though immigration records for them have not yet been located.

  4. Mardi-Gras would later become Polock Johnny’s.

  5. For insights into Levin and other characters from The Block, see Jacques Kelly’s 1994 articles in The Baltimore Sun (click here and here)

 
Derin Bray
Dutch: Tattooed by Percy Waters

Researched and written by Derin Bray

 

Lots of broken carnies and no money and I are one of them.  

~Egbertus Jan “Dutch” Berghege, 1939

 

The steely-eyed tattooed marvel known as “Dutch” has long captured the imaginations of tattoo history enthusiasts.  His impressive body suit –comprised of circus elephants, butterflies, and a full-rigged sailing ship, among other designs— is documented by a series of photo postcards created in the 1920s for Percy Waters, the renowned Detroit tattoo artist and supplier.  These striking images were sold to tattooers around the world, ensuring Dutch would be a familiar figure for generations to come.  And yet, despite such an ample visual record, the identity of this hardened showman has remained a mystery –until now. 

Before transforming himself into a human picture gallery, Egbertus Jan Berghege (1882-1942) toiled as a farmer in the small village of Renkum, Netherlands.  At the age of twenty-nine, in pursuit of a better life, he trekked to the bustling seaport of Rotterdam and boarded a steamship destined for London.  It was the first leg of a grueling journey to North America.  By crowded trains, boats, and no-doubt foot Berghege pressed on to Bristol, Halifax, and eventually Toronto. But the real journey was still ahead. 

 
Percy Waters tattooing Egbertus Jan "Dutch" Berghege, photo postcard, Detroit ca. 1921.  Derin Bray Collection

Percy Waters tattooing Egbertus Jan "Dutch" Berghege, photo postcard, Detroit ca. 1921. Derin Bray Collection

 

Ultimately, he had eyes for Michigan, and for good reason.  The western part of the state was home to the largest community of Dutch immigrants in the U.S.  It boasted lush farmland, good factory jobs, and friendly faces; his cousins had settled there a decade earlier.  And so, in the winter of 1914, with twelve dollars in his pocket, Berghege crossed the Canadian border and made his way to Grand Rapids. 

Fellow Dutchman and exuberant carnival owner Henry J. Pollie may have influenced Berghege during this period.  His popular Zeidman and Pollie Shows (co-owned with William Zeidman) was headquartered in Grand Rapids and opened there every spring to large audiences.  The show employed upwards of 400 people, including dozens of colorful attractions like pioneering tattooers William Grimshaw and Eddie “Hap” Hazzard. Whether Berghege interacted with Pollie at this time is unclear, but he certainly knew about him.  And the two would correspond in later years. 

 
Prof. William Grimshaw from a Pollie & Zeidman advertisement,  The Billboard , July 29, 1916.

Prof. William Grimshaw from a Pollie & Zeidman advertisement, The Billboard, July 29, 1916.

 
 
Zeidman_Pollie_Tattoo_History.jpg
 
 
Prof. Eddie Hazzard from a Pollie & Zeidman advertisement,  The Billboard , June 9, 1917.

Prof. Eddie Hazzard from a Pollie & Zeidman advertisement, The Billboard, June 9, 1917.

 

By 1918, Berghege had relocated to Detroit, where he cobbled together work as a handyman, fireman, and truck driver.  Along the way he encountered another bright light in the amusement world, Percy Waters (1888-1952).  Waters had moved to the city just a year earlier and was busy establishing the country’s preeminent tattoo supply business.  On his path to success, he covered a slew of Detroit characters to spectacular effect.  Among his human canvases were local autoworker Shelby Kemp and machinist Thomas Edward “Van” Vanderwerger, best-known for the spider web tattooed on his head.  Incidentally, Waters probably also instructed Van in the mysterious art and craft of tattooing.  He worked in one of Waters' arcade shops in the early 1920s and the two occasionally appeared together in promotional material.  

 
Percy Waters tattooing Ed Van, photo postcard, Detroit, ca. 1925.  Derin Bray Collection

Percy Waters tattooing Ed Van, photo postcard, Detroit, ca. 1925. Derin Bray Collection

 
 
Business card for Ed Van and Percy Waters, Detroit, ca. 1925.  Derin Bray Collection

Business card for Ed Van and Percy Waters, Detroit, ca. 1925. Derin Bray Collection

 

Berghege took the plunge around 1920 and submitted to the painful process of being tattooed for exhibition.  Waters covered him from neck-to-ankle with eye-catching designs ranging from Buffalo Bill Cody to Saint George and The Dragon.  His back was decorated with the iconic Pharaoh’s Horses and his belly with a harrowing scene of an angel rescuing a drowning man.  As a small tribute to Berghege’s Dutch roots, Waters also put The Crown of Netherlands just beneath his neck.  

 
Promotional Flyer for tattoo artist and supplier Percy Waters, Detroit, ca. 1922.  Derin Bray Collection

Promotional Flyer for tattoo artist and supplier Percy Waters, Detroit, ca. 1922. Derin Bray Collection

 

Old photographs of Waters' masterpiece occasionally bear the nickname “Dutch."  Although Berghege would respond to this moniker for the rest of his life, he chose to perform, instead, under the anglicized name Bert Berger.  This may have been to avoid confusion with veteran Chicago tattooer, Albert "Dutch" Herman, also known as "New York Dutch."  

For the next decade Professor Bert Berger grinded out a living as a tattooed attraction and tattoo artist with ten-in-one shows, including a stint at Granada Park in Detroit and later with Heller’s Acme Shows.  In 1932, amidst the Great Depression, he signed on with familiar concessionaire Henry Pollie and his son John.  Berghege filled a number of roles for the Pollie Shows beyond that of a tattooed person.  In fact, as the season progressed, he gained more attention for his prowess as a carnival grunt –always ready to light a show or poster a town— than for his act.  The writing was on the wall. 

That winter, after hopping freight trains back to Detroit, Berghege struck up a disheartening correspondence with the Pollies.  These remarkable letters –now housed in the Clarke Historical Library at Central Michigan University— describe the hardships he encountered back home and on the road.  He wrote to Henry in late December:  

Well how are things with you, with me it is not nothing…[but]…eat, sleep and tramp the streets looking for work, but things are here as elsewhere. I am going deeper in a hole every day, people where I are staying don’t say nothing, I can say I are home here, but debts have to be paid. After I left Cincinnati on Monday noon I arrived in Detroit Wednesday at 1 o’clock. Well that was not so bad in two days, but my feet are sore from walking and highball. So far so good

A couple of months later, with a new season on the horizon, Pollie invited Berghege to rejoin the show.  His letter fails to mention anything about tattooing, but alludes to his abilities as an electrician and suggests that he could work the kitchen: “We all liked your cooking, so maybe you’d like to try some chops, etc...”  Indeed, Berghege's act seems to have fizzled by this time.  The tattooed man for the show that year was, once again, Eddie Hazzard. 

This was Berghege's course from here on out.  He continued to troupe with shows up and down the east coast, but slogged away as a carpenter, electrician, and chef.  Never as a tattooed attraction.  He built panels and lighting strings, wired show fronts and rides, and cooked for cast and crew.  It was a hardscrabble existence.  He echoed this sentiment in a 1939 postcard to John Pollie.  Berhgege had landed in sunny Vero Beach, Florida, home to the Johnny J. Jones Exposition, but lamented that there were, "lots of broken carnie’s and no money and I are one of them."

 
Postcard from Egbertus Jan Berghege, AKA Bert Berger, to John Pollie, January 1939.  Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University

Postcard from Egbertus Jan Berghege, AKA Bert Berger, to John Pollie, January 1939. Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University

 

Berghege struggled until the very end.  In 1942,  alone and nearly destitute, he spent the offseason at the Carr Hotel in Pittsburgh.  It was a favorite stopping place for show folks and he managed to find work there as a clerk.  Sadly, on December 19, a hotel employee discovered him keeled over from a heart attack.  Berghege's death went unnoticed by local newspapers, but was reported by the only publication that would have mattered to him.  On January 2, Billboard entertainment magazine printed his short obituary:

Barglege [sic] – Egburtes [sic] Jan (Dutch), veteran tattoo artist formerly with carnivals, in Carr Hotel, Pittsburgh, December 20 [sic]. He was employed as an electrician in recent years.

 
The Billboard , January 2, 1943

The Billboard, January 2, 1943

 

***

 

Acknowledgements:  A special thank you to Marian Matin, Archivist and Assistant Professor at the Clarke Historical Library, Central Michigan University, for her help with this article.  In 2006, Marian undertook the monumental task of cataloging the John C. Pollie Papers, a remarkably intact and breathtaking account of carnival life and business from the 1910s through the 1960s.  The Pollie Papers are a wonderful resource for anyone studying popular entertainment, sideshow, and carnival history in America. 

 

Notes: 

1. Citations for this article are available upon request. 

2. For more information on Percy Waters, be sure to check out the below publications (listed in no particular order).

3. For great insight into the lives and careers of William Grimshaw and Eddie Hazzard, see Jon Reiter's, These Old Blue Arms: The Life and Work of Amund Dietzel, Vols. 1 & 2. 

Ward Hallings: Tattooed by R. L. Beck

Ward Clark Hallings (1895-1990) got his first tattoo in Detroit around 1916. Within a few years he received a full suit of classic designs from veteran tattooer Richard L. Beck. Although Beck operated a shop in Newport, Rhode Island, he probably completed the work at his main studio and residence in Rochester, New York, where Hallings and his family called home. Hallings trouped with some of the eras largest carnivals and sideshows, but spent most of his career tattooing in Seattle, WA, Charleston, SC, and Watertown, NY.  For more information on his life and career, check out my article in the third issue of the Bristol Tattoo Club Newsletter

Photo Postcard of Ward Hallings, Tattooed Man, Tattooed by R. L. Beck, Newport, RI, ca. 1920

 
 
Derin Bray
F. W. Liberty's Tattoo Trade Card

The design for this business card was first used by Boston tattooer Edward W. Liberty (1883-1957), aka "Dad" Liberty, in the early 1920s. His son Frank (1902-1956) used the same card, but added a dirty joke on the reverse. For more information on the Liberty family and the tattoo artists of  Scollay Square, check out www.tattooedboston.com

Frank Liberty Tattoo Business Card, 16 Cambridge Street, Boston, MA, ca. 1930

 
 
 
DadLibertyTattooBusinessCardDerinBrayBoston.jpg
 
Derin Bray
E. C. Kidd: San Francisco Tattoo Artist

Elias C. Kidd first appears in San Francisco street directories in 1924, when he's listed as a tattooist residing on Sutter Street. His clever chromolithographic trade card directed customers to a shop at 4 Embarcadero in the heart of the city's entertainment district. 

 

Elias Kidd, Tattoo Artist Trade Card, 4 Embarcadero, San Francisco, CA, ca. 1925

 
 
Derin Bray
Karl Bumpus: Tattooed by Bert Grimm

Karl Martin Bumpus (1905-1982) was born in Howland, Ohio in 1905. He was employed as a brakemen for The Baltimore & Ohio Rail Road, but when worked dried up during the Great Depression, he looked for other ways to make ends meet. Bumpus drifted until eventually landing in St. Louis, where he received a beautiuful body suit from Bert Grimm and, evidently, instruction in the mysterious art & craft of tattooing. During the 1930s, he scraped together a living as a tattooed attraction and tattoo artist at carnivals throughout the southwest, operating under the professional name Karl Lark. Bumpus eventually resumed work as a brakeman, but continued to moonlight as a tattoo artist from his house in Garrettsville, Ohio until he retired from the trade in 1976. 

 

Karl Bumpus, Tattoo Artist and Tattooed Man, Photo Postcard, ca. 1935

 
 
Derin Bray
Artoria Gibbons: Tattooed Wonder

Artoria Gibbons (1893-1985) was tattooed in the Los Angeles studio of her husband Charles "Red" Gibbons from 1919 to 1920. According to a 1968 interview, the work should have taken two months to complete, but Red tattooed Artoria intermittently, one hour at a time. 

 

Artoria Gibbons, Tattooed Lady, Real Photo Postcard, ca. 1920. 

 
ArtoriaGibbonsTattooedLady.jpg
 
Derin Bray
Charlie's Angel: A New Discovery from the Tattoo Shop of Charlie Wagner

By Derin Bray

 

For more than fifty years Professor Charlie Wagner (1875-1953) plied needle-and-ink on the  Bowery in New York's gritty Lower East Side.[1] Images of his famous tattoo shop at 11 Chatham Square capture in striking detail the hand-painted flash, photos, and ephemera he accumulated over the course of his illustrious career. And yet, despite this tantalizing visual record, almost none of these items are known to have survived. 

 
Charlie Wagner, ca. 1925

Charlie Wagner, ca. 1925

Charlie Wagner Business Card, 11 Chatham Sq., ca. 1930
 

 

The recent discovery of a painted trade figure, however, offers renewed hope to collectors and enthusiasts of tattoo history. The figure first crossed my path in the summer of 2012 when it came up for sale at Northeast Auctions in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.[2] It was identified as English, though the patriotic tattoo designs and elaborate angel back piece looked distinctly American.

 

 
Courtesy of Northeast Auctions

Courtesy of Northeast Auctions

Courtesy of Northeast Auctions

Courtesy of Northeast Auctions

 

 

Further sleuthing confirmed an American origin. A photograph taken by Cecil Beaton around 1938 shows the figure displayed prominently in the window of 11 Chatham Square. 

 

 
Charlie Wagner's Tattoo and Barber Shop at 11 Chatham Square, by Cecil Beaton, ca. 1938

Charlie Wagner's Tattoo and Barber Shop at 11 Chatham Square, by Cecil Beaton, ca. 1938

 

 

Wagner owned at least three other tattooed trade figures meant to entice customers and passersby. In 1931, one newspaper referred to them as “replicas of sideshow artists.[4]" Two years later journalist and historian Albert Parry described Wagner's shop window as having “a manikin…of a semi-nude tattooed lady…” that Wagner “occasionally hired out for freak millionaire playboy parties.[5]” 

 

11ChathamSquareCharlieWagnerTattooShop.jpg
 
CharlieWagnerTattooedTradeFigureDetailjpg
 

 

Still, Wagner’s tattooed figure presents more questions than answers. Who made it? Who painted it? How did it survive? No names, dates, initials, or other clues are inscribed on the papier-mâché surface. The wooden base, however, provides evidence of another kind. A hole and channel cut into the underside once accommodated electrical wiring, an indication that the figure had served as a lamp. 

 

 
CharlieWagnerTattooedTradeFigureBottom.jpg
 

 

A folded letter nailed to the underside of the base offers another possible clue. Postmarked 1912, the letter contains a list of recently elected officers for a fraternal lodge in Portland, Oregon.  The reverse is inscribed in green grease pencil; although mostly illegible, one of the words appears to be “Theater.” Curiously, the president of the lodge, George L. Baker, was a local mover-and-shaker and owner of the Baker Theater in downtown Portland. Perhaps Baker used the figure as a stage prop or decoration for his theater. How it acquired its tattoos and traveled to New York City is still a mystery. Several Portland tattooers from that era include Charles “Red” Gibbons, Hugo Spitzer, George Fosdick, Sailor Gus Franso.

 

 
IMG_6885 copy.jpg
 
 
LetterFromCharlieWagnerTattooedTradeFigure.jpg
 
 
1912LetterCharlieWagnerTattooedTradeFigure.jpg
 

 

[1] For more information on Wagner, see Michael McCabe, New York City Tattoo: The Oral History of an Urban Art and The Life & Times: Charlie Wagner, published by the Tattoo Archive.

[2] The figure first sold at Northeast Auctions, August 20, 2005, lot 957; it was catalogued as English and had once belonged to the esteemed militaria dealer E. Norman Flayderman. It sold again at Northeast Auctions, August 11, 2012, lot 670. 

[3] See Cecil Beaton, Cecil Beaton’s New York (J. B. Lippincott Co; New York, 1938).

[4] “In New York” by Gilbert Swan, The Olean Evening Times (May 11, 1931): 13.

[5] Albert Parry, Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art (1933).

Derin Bray
Artoria Gibbons: Tattooed Last Supper

Artoria Gibbons (1893-1985) was tattooed in the Los Angeles studio of her husband Charles "Red" Gibbons and first took the stage with the Kortes Shows in 1919. Her chest is adorned with a portrait of George Washington and her back features a beautifully rendered version of The Last Supper. 

Red Gibbons tattooed at several locations on Main Street in Los Angeles, all of which were a short distance from the Empire Studio (427 Main), where this photo postcard was produced. 

 

Artoria Gibbons, Tattooed Lady, Real Photo Postcard, by Empire, Los Angeles, CA,  ca. 1920. 

 
ArtoriaGibbonsBackTattooedLadyDerinBray.jpg
 
Derin Bray