Charlie Wagner, a tattoo artist who lived from 1875 to 1953, is usually credited as one of the kings of American tattooing. Practicing his art right in the middle of tattooing’s first hey-day in New York’s Bowery, he not only developed an influential art style; he invented new machinery that helped the art of modern tattooing to spread.
Charlie was born as Charlie Wiegner in 1875 in Presov, a city in Slovakia that was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1880, when Charlie was only five, his family moved to America. Charlie grew up in the Lower East Side of New York City, where he mingled with other immigrants, gang members, and a wide mixture of people.
Charlie trained under Samuel O’Reilly, another founded of New York City tattooing, who had invented the first electric tattoo machine in 1891. Around 1899, when Charlie was in his mid-twenties, he opened his own tattoo shop on East Houston Street.
With his very own practice, Charlie joined a rich tattooing tradition in New York City. Since the mid-1800s, New York City side shows were incredibly popular. At the start, these side shows often exhibited captured Native Americans, whose tattoos were put on display. By the time that Wagner had opened his own tattoo shops, Bowery had become famous for its dime museums, which often included tattooed Americans. People hoping to make a career in these sideshows now sought out full-body tattoos, creating a whole new market for tattoo artists.
These sideshow characters included adult men and sometime women, but often it would be teenage boys seeking out Wagner’s tattoos, hoping to make a career out of them. It was largely through these specialized clients that Wagner’s tattoos gained fame. He also tattooed his own entire body, excluding his face.
Charlie’s other major contribution to the field of tattooing was the invention of a new tattoo machine in 1904, the second such invention after that of his mentor, Samuel O’Reilly. Wagner’s new machine used vertical coils in a tube assembly, the first to do so. Today, over 100 years after Wagner’s invention, tattoo artists continue to use machines with the same alignment. In addition to using the new machine himself, Charlie sold them to other tattoo artists, influencing the practice throughout New York and beyond.
Over the next 50 years, Charlie would continue to expand his practice. When Samuel O’Reilly died in 1909, Wagner took over his tattoo shop in Chatham Square. In many ways, Wagner also took up O’Reilly’s mantle as the father of American tattooing. His reputation and his business continued to grow, even remaining popular through the Great Depression. The men and women he tattooed went on to become some of America’s most famous side show acts. By the time of his death in 1953, Charlie Wagner had solidly established himself as one of the great names in American tattooing.