William Ettlin: Tattoo Portraits by a Bowery Photographer
Researched and written by Derin Bray
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tattooed marvels Henry Kiegal and Ed Gilbert also found themselves in front of Ettlin’s camera, often with the help of a cast-iron posting stand. In 1904/5, Ettlin produced stunning portraits of each man showing their beautifully etched fronts and backs in bust-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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tattooed Attractions Photographed by Ettlin:
Harry Lawson (possibly)
Henry Kiegal, aka Harry Karsey
Tattoo Artists Photographed by William Ettlin:
Gallery of Cabinet Cards by William Ettlin
Full citations are available upon request.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Ralph Tarsy worked at 17 Chatham Square through at least 1931.
For a timeline and discussion of Getchell and O’Reilly’s shops, see “Tattoo Shops at 5 & 11 Chaham Square,” www.buzzworthytattoo.com
For a clearer image of Getchell tattooing Schmidt, see The Father of American Tattooing, Franklin Paul Rogers, Published by the Tattoo Archive, p. 89.
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.