Area's are constantly changing in the city. The poet James Merrill once wrote "As usual in New York, everything is torn down before you have had time to care for it." These words ring true for so many parts of this ever changing city and The Bowery, New York City's oldest thoroughfare is no different. The Bowery has seen many changes through it's rich and diverse history. In the early 18 century, before there was even a Broadway or a Lafayette, there was the Bowery and it was the very symbol of wealth and elegance. From the Bowery Theater and it's neighbor the Bowery Amphitheater, to it's strip of mansions and opulently designed banks, (like the Bowery Savings Bank and the Domed Citizens Savings Bank which still stand today,) the Bowery catered to the rich and powerful. In a city that would become the gateway to the world, the Bowery was it's crown jewel.
It wasn't until the Civil War that the Bowery began it's transformation. The expensive shops and opulent mansions were replaced with common man concert halls, brothels, bars and flophouses. The Bowery was beginning to look and feel more like the area it would be known for, all the way into the late 1990's. It was becoming a home for the counter culture and less fortunate. In 1880 the Bowery Mission was founded, and in 1909 it moved to it's new location on 227-229 Bowery were it stands today. It was also at this time that the Third Avenue El ran above the Bowery, darkening the streets and making it a perfect home for it's prostitutes, gambling houses, tattoo studios and the sailors that flocked to them (many of which would stay for good). The Century Magazine wrote in 1919 "Here, too, by the thousands come sailors on shore leave, notice the studios of the tattoo artists, and here most in evidence are the down and outs."
The Bow’ry, The Bow’ry!
They say such things, and they do strange things on the Bow’ry
—Harry Conor, from the musical A Trip to Chinatown, 1891
As time went on from the 1900s all the way into the 70's the Bowery was New York's skid row, but it was not just the impoverished that lived here. The Bowery was also home to a growing art culture. Miner's Bowery theater often featured performers like Harry Houdini, Al Jolson and W.C. Fields. Modern artists, Roy Lichtenste and Mark Rothko called the Bowery home. Poet Walt Whitman often said he loved what he called "Bowery slang" and would often use it in his work and Allen Ginsberg's masterpiece Howl was partly inspired by life on the Bowery, the words as raw as the streets themselves. In the 70's the Bowery would also be home to the legendary CBGBs which saw the beginnings of rock greats, like the Ramones, Patti Smith and the Talking Heads. With such a spirit of originality it only makes sense that tattooing also was a large part of the Bowery's history. Legends and innovators in the field such as Samuel J. O'Reiley, Charlie Wagner, Bill "Jonsey" Jones and Willy Moskowitz all called the Bowery home. O'Reilly opened up Black Eye Barbershop at 11 Chatham Square and it is where he first patented the "modern-day" electric tattoo machine. He worked there with his apprentice Charlie Wagner, who after O'Reilly's death in 1908 purchased the shop and along with his good friend Bill Jones carried on the legacy, and they were not alone. Another good friend of Charlie Wagner's was Willie Moskowitz and they quickly learned that they could make a living in tattooing. Charlie taught his friend what he knew and shortly after Willie opened up his own tattoo studio in the basement of his barbershop at 4 Bowery. These men were pioneers in our industry and their stories remain things of legend to this day. The late night fights, drunken brawls and rough and ready clientèle were at the very essence of the Bowery. It was these men's dedication, innovation and exploits that helped to make our industry, art form and livelihood what it is today and it was the Bowery that provided the perfect backdrop. For this we are forever grateful.
Things continue to change all over this great city and the Bowery is no different. All of us at Kings Avenue Tattoo are proud to be on such a legendary street. We feel it everyday when we walk down the street and see the history just outside our window. We are glad to be here doing what we love, and following in the foot steps of the great men that have come before us. So things may change but if we continue to respect history and those who made it, we can keep the very soul of the Bowery alive and well. It is not just a skid, a row, it was not just a home for the homeless, it was a place for people who wanted to be free, take chances and think outside of societies norm. It is at the very core of what made this city great and for that matter tattooing also. For a city that sets the bar and makes the trends, at it's heart is the Bowery and we can think of no better place to call home.
Written by..John Foscante