Back in 2011 I came across an article on a soon-to-be-released audio CD titled The Last of the Bowery Scab Merchants by Walter Moskowitz. Walter was a second generation tattoo artist, having learned the skill from his father, Willy. I quickly purchased the CD as soon as it was out, and listened to it on repeat (even while cutting the grass).
I took to Walter and his stories very quickly. He was my type of people — no bullshit, swears like a sailor, tough love, yet amiable. I loved hearing about his father and Walter’s own stories of drunken sailors, the ban on tattooing in New York, and the way of life in the Bowery back in the day. I also discovered that modern-day electric tattooing was born right in the heart of the Bowery.
The Bowery during this time was a rough and tumble neighbourhood, home to a raucous bunch of people often referred to as “Bowery Bums”. The Bowery also encompassed the entire area previously known as the “Five Points”, a particularly rough area of post-Civil War New York, made up of brothels, saloons and generally seedy establishments (ever seen The Gangs of New York with Leonardo DiCaprio? That movie depicts life in the Five Points during its heyday).
In 1875 the first electric tattoo machine was introduced to the industry by the Bowery’s own Samuel O’Reilly, an invention that he patented in 1891. O’Reilly opened up shop on Chatham Square and eventually took on a man by the name of Charlie Wagner as an apprentice. Wagner would then go on to not only become a tattoo legend himself, but also to modify the machine used, creating a new patent of his own in 1904 (very little about the design of the machine has changed since).
Wagner tattooed in the Bowery for over fifty years, and at some time in the 1930s was befriended by then barber Willy Moskowitz.
Realizing that tattooing was more profitable than cutting hair, allowing him to better provide for his family, Willy learned how to tattoo from Wagner. He then opened up a shop of his own in the basement of her barbershop at #4 Bowery, ultimately passing on the tattoo tradition to his sons, Walter and Stanley.
Last of the Bowery Scab Merchants was recorded by Walter and his son over a period between 2005-2006. Walter passed away in 2007, leaving his tattoo legacy to forever be immortalized on this CD (and on the skin of any of his clients who may still be around).
I’ve been a tattoo enthusiast for the second half of my life to date. As a result of this, I’ve collected a number of my own over the years (much to my parent’s chagrin, especially my mother). I’m also a bit of a nerd when it comes to discovering the history of my favourite places. Scab Merchants was a gold mine of a discovery for me. So in honour of Walter, Willie, Charlie and Sam, I made a small pilgrimage to the Bowery to walk its streets.
This is #4 Bowery, the previous location of Walter Moskowitz’s shop. As you can tell, the area’s changed a bit:
On my next visit to NYC, whenever that may be, I’m going to have to do a proper tour of the Bowery. I was in the area towards the end of my first day in New York, so I wasn’t in the right state of mind to spend a ton of time there (i.e. I had very little patience for the crowded sidewalks). Next time, I’m going to dedicate a good half a day to the neighbourhood. I want to seek out the former locations of Sam’s and Charlie’s shop (I’ve learned that Charlie took over the original shop opened by Sam on Chatham Square), and get a Bowery tattoo of my own. Hell, maybe I’ll even write about it 😉