Tattoo History: Fineline Tattoo and the Legacy of the Moskowitz Clan

Posted on: November 20th, 2013 at 11:12 am by

BB: When did you first fall in love with tattooing?

I’m still falling in love with tattooing. I got interested back in ’74 when I went to get some work covered up…I got more interested in ’75…and then by 1976 my interest was such that I started tattooing myself.

BB: And you didn’t care that tattooing was illegal at the time in NY?

Hell yeah, I cared. Every time the phone rang I jumped thinking it was the cops looking to bust me.

After 21 years eventually I got over jumping at the phone.

BB: How do you feel at the Bowery now and all the changes going on?

Well, you know, it’s not the Bowery I lived on for 34 years, you know? Don’t know how I feel about the changes. When they first built the Whole Foods down here I thought who the hell is gonna come down here and buy food?

We tried to save the building we lived in (McGurk’s Suicide Hall). I lived there for 34 years.

BB: Tell me about one haunting

I used to have this piece that hung from the ceiling and more than once that piece would just be moving, swinging around.

BB: Do you think it was one of the prostitutes?

Well yeah could be. There was only one carbolic acid suicide I knew about.

We tried to get the building preserved, I read somewhere years back that it was the first building in New York to have a neon sign.

BB: Do you read Bowery Boogie?

No, see I’m not really a computer guy, but Mehai (his son) has told me about you.

BB: So if I print this out will you read it?

You know I can read (chuckles) and that used to be a big deal among tattooers so yeah, I will definitely read it.

BB: Opinion on Mildred Hull?

Millie Hull, well she was one of the first female tattooers I ever heard of. There’s a picture of her right there (points to picture on the wall).

BB: This piece will have her in it and some other legends like Charlie Wagner.

Well it was us (Fineline) that brought tattooing back to the Bowery and the fact of the matter is I was totally blind to the fact that the Bowery had such tattoo history.

I read somewhere the first heavily tattooed person exhibition was around 1876 right across from 295 (Bowery) where we lived.

I also read somewhere the first tattooer in NYC was a German guy who tattooed across enemy lines during the Civil War and when it was over he moved to Grove Street. Can’t remember where I read it.

Grove Street was his parlor.

(This German man Mike is referring to is named Martin Hildebrandt – his daughter Nora was the first professional tattooed lady. Here’s a bit more about them from Vanishing Tattoo:

The best known tattooist of the time (1840s) was German born Martin Hildebrandt, who began his career in 1846. He traveled a lot and was welcomed in both the Union and Confederate camps, where he tattooed military insignias and the names of sweethearts. In 1870, Hildebrandt established an “atelier” on Oak Street in New York City and this is considered to be the first American tattoo studio. He worked there for over 20 years and tattooed some of the first completely covered circus attractions, including his daughter Nora.

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Nora Hildebrandt first appeared at Bunnell’s Museum in New York City in 1882 with a tattoo for every day of the year. 365 tattoos done by her father Martin. Tattooed daughters and wives became a calling card for many tattooists of this era..)

BB: Do you call this a parlor or a shop?

It’s a studio. I don’t see a parlor anywhere in here.

BB: Mehai, come on over. Anything you want to add about McGurk’s?

Mehai: I grew up in the building that was once McGurk’s Suicide Hall, but was a long time before we knew it had been McGurk’s. Before we knew anything about the hauntings. Strange chills in the corners. Weird feelings in the stairwell.

Mike: Lotta people were spooked by the stairwell. People would make appointments (to get a tattoo) ring the buzzer and I’d wait and wait and wait and when they finally came up I said “what took you so long?” and they’d say “man, those stairs looked scary.”

BB: Mike, where do you live now?

1st street, still on the Lower East Side.

BB: Can I ask how old you are? 

Well, I’m 77.

G-d Bless you, man! You don’t look a day over 60.

Well thank you, I just passed the big 77. If I knew I was gonna get this old I’d have taken better care of myself (laughter).

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Angelo Saracina

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Mehai Bakaty

Love that place!

One final word from Mike:

BB: Do you consider yourself a legend?

In my old mind maybe, (laughter) no really though I’m just a guy doing what he likes to do.

Hear! Hear!

Mike tipped his hat to me and said goodnight. I watched a Bowery icon walk out the door and got myself a new tattoo from Mehai.

That’s the Lower East Side for you. A story behind every door, a legend in some capacity walking down every street.

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Ah, New York. My stunning and gritty, sparkling and filthy, tremendous, transcendent metropolis…

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