Tracing a Tattoo Dynasty Back to Its Bowery Days

By Gabrielle Birkner

Published September 19, 2003, issue of September 19, 2003.
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Tattooed on Marvin Moskowitz’s right forearm are a skull, a knife, a dove and — in red, white and blue ink — a small Star of David paired with the words “Never Again.” The irony of a tattoo tribute to Holocaust victims is not lost on Marvin. Still, he considers it a fitting memorial.

“People often don’t know what to make of the Jewish star,” said Marvin, whose imposing frame teeming with tattoos gives him a don’t-mess-with-me air. “I don’t exactly fit their stereotype of a Jew.”

“In the bars and clubs I go to, people are always saying, ‘Jew this, Jew that.’ When they see the star, they keep their mouths shut.”

At 48, Marvin is the youngest member of a celebrated New York tattoo dynasty. Sixty years ago, Marvin’s late grandfather, Willie Moskowitz — a Yiddish-speaking immigrant who moved to the Lower East Side from Russia in 1918 — opened a small tattoo parlor in the basement of his Bowery barbershop.

Willie learned the trade from his friend, famed tattoo artist Charlie Wagner, who perfected the electric tattoo machine still used around the world, known to masters as the dual-coil reciprocating engraver. With a wife and three children to support, it didn’t take Willie long to realize that the rough-and-tumble world of tattooing was far more lucrative than cutting hair.

“The guys who would come into the shop were always getting drunk and fighting,” said Michael McCabe, a tattoo artist and the author of “New York City Tattoo: The Oral History of an Urban Art,” which features a chapter on the Moskowitz clan. Until the late 1980s, McCabe said, “tattooing wasn’t some vanity thing, it was part of this old, knock-around, masculine culture.”

In recent years, as tattooing has become more mainstream, interest in the trade’s history has surged. So too has nostalgia for the bygone era of Bowery tattooing. “Young tattoo artists… are always asking me about the Moskowitzes,” McCabe said. “The mythology of these guys is like that of the Bowery in the 1940s and ’50s — big, bad and bold.”

The reputation was earned in an unorthodox way. By day, Willie’s son Walter studied Torah and Talmud at a Brooklyn yeshiva. By night he learned the tattoo trade in his father’s shop, located beneath the old Chatham Square elevated train station at No. 4 Bowery.

“Yeshiva taught me the value of putting in a long day’s work,” said Walter, 66, a Reform Jew and Zionist. Walter’s work ethic proved valuable when he and his brother, Stanley, inherited the Bowery shop after their father’s death in 1961.

“I worked 10 hours a day, six days a week for 50 years,” Walter said. “It has been a very interesting life. I came in contact with every type of personality, from the highest to the lowest — and sometimes the highest was the lowest.”

As a result, Walter, now a semiretired freelance tattoo artist living in Ronkonkoma, Long Island, can adapt to almost any situation. “He is a scholar of people,” said Walter’s youngest son, Douglas, who works in compliance at an international bank. “He can converse and relate to everyone — whether the person works as a physician or is in a gang.”

Stanley, now 71, divides his time between Tamarac, Fla., and Bar Harbor, Maine. Like his brother, he works as a freelance tattoo artist. “Never a day went by without a fight,” said Stanley, who sports 25 tattoos, recalling his days in the Bowery parlor. “People think Jews are just nice little mothers’ boys, but we are strong, and we could beat them.”

Stanley and Walter were forced to shut down their Lower East Side joint when the New York City Health Department ordered all city tattoo parlors closed following a hepatitis outbreak during the early 1960s. In 1964, the New York State appellate court upheld the ban. “Tattoo design,” the decision read, “ is in our culture a barbaric survival often associated with a morbid or abnormal personality.”

Instead of calling it quits, however, the Bowery brothers relocated, opening S & W Tattooing in Amityville, Long Island. “If it hadn’t been for the Moskowitz brothers, tattooing might have died out altogether,” McCabe said. “These were the guys that hung in there before tattooing was popular and… gentrified.”

As tattooing rose from low culture to pop culture, S & W flourished, even after the New York City ban was reversed in 1997, leading to a proliferation of new competitors. Walter’s oldest son, Marvin, joined S & W 30 years ago and worked there until his father and uncle went into semiretirement and decided to sell the tattoo shop in 2000.

“It’s an honor to be tattooed by one of the dinosaurs of the old ink trade,” said Bob Anspake, one of Walter’s regular customers. Though Walter tattooed thousands of people like Anspake over the years, he has only one tattoo of his own. It bears the names of his two sons Marvin and Stephen (who also earns a living with needles — he’s a doctor in Boston).

“For many years, a tattoo was a sign of religious rebellion, of going against the Torah and denying the existence of God,” said Rabbi Joshua Cypess of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, an Orthodox synagogue in Manhattan. Rabbinic authorities, he said, trace the Jewish prohibition against tattooing to Leviticus 19:28: “Ye shall not make any cuttings in your flesh… nor imprint any marks upon you.”

“These days,” Cypress said, “Jews with tattoos are not usually denied a Jewish burial. We do this out of realism and out of the higher ideal of keeping the community together.”

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, when Holocaust survivors returned from Auschwitz with numbers tattooed on their arms, Jews’ attitudes toward tattooing shifted.

“For Jews who grew up after World War II, the idea of tattoos is certainly associated with the Shoah,” said Aaron Demsky, a professor of Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel, who has written and lectured widely about Judaism’s tattoo prohibition.

But two generations later, the Holocaust associations seem to be dissipating as some secular Jews have come to see tattooing as a form of personal expression.

“For a long time, getting a tattoo was something nice Jewish girls just didn’t do,” said Tricia Freeman, 43, a Jewish Manhattanite with a colorful bouquet of flowers tattooed on her right forearm. “I think especially among Reform Jews like myself, the taboo has really faded. A handful of my Jewish girlfriends have tattoos, and through [the Internet dating site] JDate I’ve met plenty of Jewish guys with tattoos.”

Noting the influx of Jewish tattoo clients, Marvin added, “I don’t know if they’re not familiar with Jewish law or, like me, they don’t see any contradiction in being a tattooed Jew.”

Marvin is proud of his family’s long history in the tattoo trade. “There’s a little celebrity in being a Moskowitz,” he said. “I can go to virtually any tattoo shop in the country and they’ll give me the red-carpet treatment.”

Still, Marvin, who plies his trade at Pat’s Tattoos in East Northport, Long Island, is adamant that tattooing is not a family tradition he wants to perpetuate. “I don’t want to pass this on to my child,” said Marvin, whose grown daughter is studying to be a psychologist.

“Tattooing is grueling work, like digging ditches,” he said. “The Moskowitz tattoo dynasty will end with me.”

Gabrielle Birkner is a reporter at The Stamford Advocate in Stamford, Conn.

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