Tattoos date back thousands of years, so telling its complete story is impossible to do in a single article. However, we can focus on some of the highlights, and today’s highlight is the history of tattooing in New York and the city’s very first woman tattoo artist, the iconic Millie Hull.
Though tattoos have been around for quite a long time, they’ve become increasingly popular in America over the past two decades. They’re more socially accepted now, but not long ago people with tattoos were heavily marginalized. So, it’s been a long road to get to where we are today.
The history of tattooing in New York City dates back over 300 years and it began in the 1700s with the Native American tribes. It’s a rich history and we thought it was important to visit it today. So, here’s a brief timeline of the history of tattooing in New York before we move onto today’s star, Millie Hull.
A New York City Tattoo History Timeline
- 1710: John Simon, a printmaker, produces an early depiction of tattooed Native Americans, “The Four Indian Kings”. The images portray three Mohawk tribe members and one Mahican tribesman before their travels to England to meet Queen Anne.
- 1870: The first tattoo shop in the US is opened by Martin Hildebrandt, New York’s first tattoo artist. His daughter Nora is considered to be the first lady to get tattooed and she had around 350 tattoos on her body. Later, she joined the Barnum & Bailey circus as an exhibitionist.
- 1876: Thomas Edison patents an electric pen for stencils and puncturing paper, which is the precursor of the modern tattoo machine.
- 1891: The first tattoo machine is patented by Sam O’Reilly, which allowed tattoo parlors to rise. Specifically in Coney Island and Vinegar Hill. Patriotic and religious tattoos became popular and the average cost was a nickel.
- Up to 1935: Charlie Wagner joins O’Reilly’s tattoo studio, eventually taking it over. He improved the design of the tattoo machine and patented it in 1904, helping him become one of the most famous tattoo artists in Bowery.
- 1916 to 1917: The youngest tattoo artist in America, Bob Wicks, who was 19 at the time, developed a style that will grow to be popular all over the US, which combined patriotic iconography and cartoon characters.
- The 1930s: Russian immigrant Willie Moskowitz begins tattooing in his building’s basement. He learned the craft from Charlie Wagner and taught his sons as well. He eventually opened a shop in Chatham Square. The Moskowitz brothers were the last of this historic crew to tattoo in NYC until they banned the practice in 1961. They also created Bowery Ink, a line of colors.
- 1939: Millie Hull becomes New York’s original woman tattoo artist. Formerly a burlesque dancer, she opened her own tattoo shop in Lower Manhattan, called “Tattoo Emporium”. She also learned the craft from Charlie Wagner, who tattooed her entire body, and she’s an icon even today, known as the Queen of the Bowery. But more on her later!
- 1961 to 1997: Tattoos are banned as a result of a hepatitis B outbreak. Still, some artists found a way to continue working underground. Artists like Brooklyn Blackie, Tony D’Annessa, and Thom deVita. This period also saw the rise of new artists in NYC in the 70s and 80s, such as Coney Island Freddie, Ron Lopez, Mike Perfetto, Tattoo Al, and Tony Polito.
- 1998: The first annual tattoo convention takes place in New York City at the Roseland Ballroom, which is now defunct.
- Today: Tattoos are more popular than ever and there are over 3,000 tattoo shops in the city where you can get all different kinds of tattoo styles with some of the best artists of the century.
Millie Hull’s Story, From Burlesque Dancer to Tattoo Artist
New York City was a tattooing Mecca, even when tattooing was banned until 1997. The list of tattoo artists who worked in the city is remarkable. Many tattooers were just passing through, but they made their home in the city. What stands out, though, is that the scene was entirely dominated by men. That is, until Mildred Hull, known as Millie Hull, came into the scene.
She was New York’s very first woman tattoo artist and she became the biggest exception. She worked on the Bowery and learned from Charlie Wagner himself, which is an incredible accomplishment for the time. But what is it about her that allowed her to make her way into an industry that had never welcomed a woman? Well, perhaps her own words will paint a picture of the type of person she was:
“Ushered into the world 37 years ago on April 23, on a tough, tenement-choked Hamilton Street, not far from my present establishment, I was a sturdy little urchin from the word go. School never made a hit with me. After attending Transfiguration R. C. Parochial School and Public School 117, I quit cold at the age of 13. I don’t think the authorities shed many tears. They saw very little of me anyway. My resignation made my absence official.”
A Remarkable Tattooed Lady
She was born in 1897 and before she became the first woman tattoo artist in NYC, she was a tattooed lady at the circus. But first, her circus career began as a burlesque dancer. She was tattooed by Charlie Wagner, about which, she says:
“The operator of the tattoo parlor saw an opportunity to bleed me dry financially. I had a few weak spells as a result of the tattooing, but mainly I suffered anemia of the bankroll. The sideshow tout told me I was a sap to be like the other girls. Why, if I’d get tattooed all over I could make $80 a week with the circus, and that would be only the start. The figures made me a trifle dizzy.”
“They started with my arms. Two more treatments disposed of my legs as low as my instep. Spaced by days, there followed two applications on my thighs, the operation feeling like a mild burn as long as the needles made contact with my flesh. Then there were four more treatments, delicate, painstaking, on my sides and back. And finally color ran riot on my chest. Was I embarrassed to have these men treat my body? What does a woman do when she visits a doctor?”
So, according to Millie, a sideshow spotter told her she would make as much as $80 a week if she became a tattooed lady. She ten met Charles Wagner to begin the painful process, which took several weeks. Reading her words, it seems like she felt forced into getting all those tattoos. It sounds like she was definitely convinced because she wanted to make more money, but she was aware they were also making money off of her. However, she has an amazing sense of humor about it.
That’s how she became one of Wagner’s tattooed ladies, just as Mae Navermark and Betty Broatbent. It’s safe to say Millie Hull was definitely a badass, a super tough broad. She soon ditched the circus and when she first started learning the craft, she worked on her own body.
She learned from the same guy who introduced her to tattoos, Charlie Wagner, the most skilled and revolutionary tattoo artist in New York. And she practiced until she struck out on her own and opened her tattoo shop, the famous “Tattoo Emporium”, a business that would be successful for 25 years.
The Tattoo Emporium
It’s important to note that the tattoo Mecca moved to the Bowery by the late 19th century and became a depraved haven for soldiers and sailors. This area is now New York’s Chinatown, so it has changed quite a lot in the last century, but it’s where modern tattooing was born. Many of the men considered to be the founding fathers of tattooing built a community in Bowery that was very influential in the tattoo scene.
It was there Millie Hull opened her own tattoo shop, the first and one of the few ladies to ever do that back then. At the time, men were used to grabbing a haircut and some ink while they were at it. So her tattoo shop was located in a barbershop, something many tattooers did, because barbershops had a corner for rent for this purpose.
In fact, old-time tattoo artists were known for setting up shop is small, unusual locations such as arcades, under stairways, and even horse-drawn wagons. But barbershops were clean spaces with a male customer base, a no-brainer for tattoo artists. It was in one of those barbershops that Millie Hull became the mother of modern tattooing.
An Unprecedented Lady
She made her career during the height of New York’s tattoo boomed, which occurred in the early 20th century and she was a very talented lady. By 1936, her tattooed self was gracing the cover of Family Circle, an unprecedented moment in history that not many people know or care about today.
But it’s important to remember that Family Circle, at the time, was a magazine that provided economic tips for women. To be on that cover, covered in tattoos as New York’s first woman tattoo artists is an incredible achievement, especially at a time like that. It’s one of the many incredible things she accomplished that laid the groundwork for women tattoo artists.
The very fact that she had her own tattoo business was an incredible achievement at the time and she worked in a very rough area, dominated entirely by men. It’s safe to say Millie Hull had everything against her, and she didn’t mind. She still became a successful tattoo artist who sat at the heart of the tattoo revolution. She also created traditional bright and bold styles that are so popular even today.
Millie Hull’s Untimely Death
Sadly, Millie Hull’s life had a tragic end. She fought depression throughout her life, but she lost the battle in 1947 when she committed suicide by poisoning. She was only 50 years old and she took her life in a Bowery restaurant. However untimely her death was, her legacy lives on and she holds the firm position of being the founding mother of tattooing as we know it today.
Unfortunately, there’s no written history of her life and what she accomplished in the tattooing world. However, her story certainly lives on in the community and industry she helped cement. Her story is not widely taught and her famous and historic tattoo shop has faded into New York’s Chinatown, but to those who come across with her story, her legacy will live forever as a fearless, tough, and radical woman who made her way through a male-dominated industry and impacted it forever.
There’s a lot to be said about New York’s tattoo history and the many incredible artists that worked in this city. But no history of the New York tattoo Mecca is complete without a look into Mildred Hull’s career and her incredible story. She refused to be a sideshow and she decided to become a tattoo artist, which at the time, was a very daring thing to do. Even so, she became one of the best tattooers to grace Bowery, which is not something many people might have seen coming.
Whether you already are a female tattoo artist or aspire to be one, it’s important to know who Millie Hull was and what she did for you within the industry. Her story is not just inspiring because she was fearless and determined, but also because she dared to do something no woman was doing before her. She did something unique and created a place for herself unapologetically, in a scene that was all about men. And she went above and beyond, becoming the modern of modern tattooing!