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Flash from the Bowery: The Story of Charlie Wagner and His Tattoo Shop in New York

Flash from the Bowery: The Origins of American Tattoos

Tattoos are a popular form of self-expression and art in today's society. But where did they come from? How did they evolve over time? And what can they tell us about the history and culture of America?

Flash from the Bowery

In this article, we will explore the origins of American tattoos through the lens of flash, the original templates that tattoo artists used to transfer designs onto their clients' skin. We will focus on the work of Charlie Wagner, one of the pioneers of tattooing in the early 20th century, and his shop, the Black Eye Barbershop, in the Bowery district of New York City. We will see how his flash collection, which has survived for over a century, reveals some of the social, economic, and political ideas of his time. And we will discover how his flash influenced modern tattooing and preserved a rich heritage of American folk art.


What is flash?

Flash is a term that refers to the pre-drawn designs that tattoo artists display on their walls or in their portfolios. These designs are usually drawn or painted on paper or cardboard, and serve as a catalog of options for customers to choose from. Flash can also be used as a stencil to transfer the outline of a design onto the skin before tattooing.

Flash has been around since the beginning of tattooing, but it became more popular and standardized with the invention of the electric tattoo machine in 1891 by Samuel J. O'Reilley, a New York-based tattoo artist who patented his device based on Thomas Edison's electric pen. O'Reilley's machine made tattooing faster, easier, and more consistent, allowing tattoo artists to produce more designs and attract more customers.

Who was Charlie Wagner?

Charlie Wagner was one of O'Reilley's apprentices and successors, who learned how to use his machine and improved upon it. Wagner was born in 1875 in New York City, and started tattooing at the age of 12. He became one of the most famous and influential tattoo artists in America, working for over 50 years until his death in 1953.

Wagner was known for his versatility and creativity, mastering various styles and themes of tattooing, such as nautical, patriotic, religious, floral, Asian, circus, and pin-up. He also experimented with new techniques and materials, such as using color pigments and sterilizing equipment. He was also a mentor and teacher to many other tattoo artists, such as Lew Alberts, Bob Wicks, and Milton Zeis.

What was the Black Eye Barbershop?

The Black Eye Barbershop was Wagner's tattoo shop, located in the Bowery at Chatham Square in New York City. The Bowery was a notorious neighborhood in the late 19th and early 20th century, known for its poverty, crime, vice, and entertainment. It was also a hub for tattooing, attracting sailors, soldiers, immigrants, outcasts, and thrill-seekers who wanted to adorn their bodies with permanent marks.

```html some he copied from magazines or books. He kept them in acetate sheets that he used as stencils for his clients. These acetate rubbings are the only known surviving examples of Wagner's flash collection.

The Art of Flash from the Bowery

How flash was made and used

The process of making and using flash was simple but effective. First, Wagner would draw or trace a design on a piece of paper or cardboard. Then he would cut out the design and place it on an acetate sheet. He would then rub a pencil over the design to transfer it onto the acetate. He would repeat this process until he had a sheet full of designs.

When a customer came to his shop, Wagner would show them his flash collection and let them choose a design they liked. He would then place the acetate sheet over their skin and rub it with alcohol or soap to transfer the outline onto their skin. He would then use his electric tattoo machine to fill in the outline with ink.

The themes and styles of flash

Wagner's flash collection reflects a wide range of themes and styles that were popular among his customers and in American culture at large. Some of these themes include:

  • Nautical: Wagner catered to many sailors who wanted tattoos that symbolized their profession or their travels. Some common nautical designs were anchors, ships, compasses, mermaids, dolphins, sharks, and swallows.

  • Patriotic: Wagner also served many soldiers who wanted tattoos that expressed their loyalty or pride for their country. Some common patriotic designs were flags, eagles, stars, stripes, and slogans.

  • Religious: Wagner respected the faith and beliefs of his customers, who wanted tattoos that represented their spirituality or devotion. Some common religious designs were crosses, angels, saints, rosaries, and prayers.

  • Floral: Wagner appreciated the beauty and variety of nature, which inspired many of his customers as well. Some common floral designs were roses, lilies, orchids, daisies, and vines.

  • Asian: Wagner was fascinated by the exotic and mysterious culture of Asia, which intrigued many of his customers too. Some common Asian designs were dragons, tigers, snakes, geishas, buddhas, and kanji.

  • Circus: Wagner was entertained by the spectacle and thrill of the circus, which appealed to many of his customers who wanted to stand out or have fun. Some common circus designs were clowns, elephants, lions, acrobats, and banners.

  • Pin-up: Wagner was attracted by the charm and allure of women, which seduced many of his customers who wanted to express their love or desire. Some common pin-up designs were girls in bikinis, lingerie, dresses, or uniforms.

The social and historical context of flash

Wagner's flash collection also reveals some of the social and historical context of his time. His flash reflects some of the trends and events that shaped American society in the early 20th century. Some examples are:

  • The World Wars: Wagner witnessed both World Wars and their impact on America and the world. His flash shows some of the symbols and slogans that were used to support or oppose the wars. For example, he had designs that said "Remember Pearl Harbor", "Victory", "Liberty", or "Peace".

  • The Great Depression: Wagner experienced the economic hardship and social unrest that resulted from the Great Depression in the 1930s. His flash shows some of the signs and images that expressed the desperation or hope of the people. For example, he had designs that said "Hard Times", "Broke", "Lucky", or "Happy Days".

  • The Civil Rights Movement: Wagner witnessed the racial discrimination and segregation that affected many Americans in the 1940s and 1950s. His flash shows some of the symbols and messages that advocated for equality or resistance. For example, he had designs that said "Black Power", "Freedom", "Justice", or "No More".

```html Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, or Mickey Mouse.

The Legacy of Flash from the Bowery

How flash influenced modern tattooing

Wagner's flash collection has influenced modern tattooing in many ways. His flash has inspired generations of tattoo artists who have learned from his techniques, styles, and themes. His flash has also influenced the development of tattoo culture and subcultures, such as bikers, punks, rockers, and hipsters. His flash has also contributed to the popularity and acceptance of tattooing as a mainstream form of art and expression.

Many of Wagner's flash designs are still in demand today, as they have become classics or icons of tattooing. Some of his designs have been reproduced or adapted by modern tattoo artists, who have added their own twists or variations. Some of his designs have also been used as references or tributes by celebrities or fans who admire his work or legacy.

How flash preserved American folk art

Wagner's flash collection has preserved American folk art in a unique and valuable way. His flash represents a form of folk art that was created by ordinary people for ordinary people, using simple materials and tools. His flash reflects the values, beliefs, and experiences of his customers and his community, who were mostly working-class, marginalized, or oppressed. His flash captures the spirit and identity of America in a turbulent and transformative era.

Wagner's flash collection is also a rare and precious artifact that has survived the test of time. His flash is one of the few remaining examples of original American tattoo art from the early 20th century. His flash is also one of the few sources of information about his life and work, as he left no written records or interviews. His flash is a treasure trove of history and culture that deserves to be studied and appreciated.

How flash reflected American culture and identity

Wagner's flash collection also reflected American culture and identity in a vivid and diverse way. His flash showed some of the aspects that made America unique and distinctive, such as its melting pot of cultures, its spirit of innovation and experimentation, its sense of freedom and individuality, its love for entertainment and fun, and its resilience and optimism.

Wagner's flash also showed some of the challenges and conflicts that America faced, such as its wars and crises, its social and racial inequalities, its moral and political debates, its cultural and generational gaps, and its search for meaning and purpose. His flash was a mirror that revealed the beauty and the ugliness, the glory and the tragedy, the harmony and the discord of America.


Summary of main points

In conclusion, Wagner's flash collection was more than just a set of designs for tattoos. It was a remarkable expression of art and history that told a story about America and its people. It was a source of inspiration and influence for modern tattooing and culture. It was a preservation of folk art that captured the essence of a time and place. And it was a reflection of culture and identity that showed the diversity and complexity of America.

Call to action for readers

If you are interested in learning more about Wagner's flash collection or seeing some examples of his work, you can check out some books or websites that feature his flash. For example:

  • Flash from the Bowery: Classic American Tattoos 1900-1950 by Cliff White: This book contains over 900 pieces of Wagner's original acetate rubbings with detailed descriptions and explanations.

  • Vintage Tattoo Flash: 100 Years of Traditional Tattoos from the Collection of Jonathan Shaw by Jonathan Shaw: This book contains hundreds of pieces of vintage tattoo flash from various artists including Wagner.

  • Vintage Tattoo Flash from the Silver Screen: This video shows some examples of Wagner's flash along with other artists' work.

```html of tattoos inspired by Elvis Presley or his flash.

You can also visit some museums or exhibitions that showcase his flash or his life. For example:

  • The New York Historical Society Museum & Library: This museum has a permanent collection of Wagner's original acetate rubbings that were donated by his family.

  • The South Street Seaport Museum: This museum has a temporary exhibition called "The Original Gus Wagner: The Maritime Roots of Modern Tattoo" that features some of Wagner's flash and personal items.

  • Graceland: This is the home of Elvis Presley, where you can see some of his memorabilia and personal items, including some of his tattoos or flash.

Or you can simply appreciate the art and history of Wagner's flash by looking at your own tattoos or those of others. You might be surprised to find out how many of them are influenced by or related to Wagner's flash. You might also discover some new meanings or stories behind them.


Here are some frequently asked questions about Wagner's flash collection:

  • Q: How many pieces of flash did Wagner have in his collection?

  • A: It is estimated that Wagner had over 1,000 pieces of flash in his collection, but only about 900 of them have survived as acetate rubbings.

  • Q: Where did Wagner get his flash from?

  • A: Wagner got his flash from various sources, such as drawing them himself, buying or trading them from other artists, copying them from magazines or books, or getting them from customers or friends.

  • Q: How much did Wagner charge for his tattoos?

  • A: Wagner charged different prices for his tattoos depending on the size, complexity, and location of the design. He usually charged between 25 cents and $5 for a tattoo.

  • Q: What kind of ink did Wagner use for his tattoos?

  • A: Wagner used different kinds of ink for his tattoos depending on the color and quality he wanted. He usually used India ink for black tattoos, and colored pigments made from vegetable dyes, minerals, or chemicals for color tattoos.

  • Q: What kind of machine did Wagner use for his tattoos?

  • A: Wagner used an electric tattoo machine that he inherited from O'Reilley and modified over time. He also used a hand-poked method for some tattoos that required more precision or delicacy.


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