Daredevil Tattoo co-owners Brad Fink and Michelle Myles recently came to the realization that that their collection of tattoo memorabilia was world-class. Fink had been collecting artifacts for decades, even before he and his partner opened their first shop on Ludlow Street in 1997. When a 50 percent rent increase forced them to relocate their beloved shop last year, they moved south to Division Street and found the store a permanent home—with more room and more space to show off their collection.
They also ended up closer to the birthplace of modern tattooing in America. The Chatham Square section of the Bowery is considered to be the world’s most historically significant area for tattooing. It’s where, over 150 years ago, a sailor named Martin Hildebrandt opened the first tattoo parlor in the United States. Hildebrandt’s “atelier” was a few blocks southeast of the Bowery and Chatham Square, where early tattoo artist Samuel O’Reilly later patented the first electric tattoo machine, and other Bowery legends worked until tattooing was banned in NYC in 1961.
Fink and Myles had often wondered what it would take to create a proper “tattoo museum.” On June 10th, they took action and launched a Kickstarter campaign for “Daredevil Tattoo’s NYC Museum of Tattoo History.” The goal is to raise $30,000 to properly present the collection.
Michelle Myles, who has spent her entire career tattooing on the Lower East Side, says the campaign has earned an enthusiastic response so far, with messages of support and wonderful tattoo stories pouring in from customers all over the world. “It’s been very touching, how supportive people have been,” she said. “People really want this to be here and want to be a part of this. It’s needed.”
The collection includes photos of Millie Hull (at top), who advertised as “New York’s Only Lady Tattooer,” as well as the infamous inker Charlie Wagner (below), tattooing on the Bowery while wearing his top hat. In fact, a whole collection of artifacts from Wagner’s shop, including some of his handwritten notes, is one of the jewels in the pair’s collection.
“He tattooed on the Bowery for 50 years,” Myles explained. “He was known as ‘25 Cent Charlie Wagner.’ He undercut all the competition and did tattoos for a quarter, but the tradeoff was, if he was doing eagles that day, that’s what you got. You didn’t get to pick what you wanted.” Back then sailors came in from the harbor and headed to the Bowery to stir up trouble.
Myles and Fink have been doing extensive archival research to document the earliest New York tattooers in the area. Myles is hand drawing a map of famous tattooers who worked on the Bowery. They hope to create a catalog of archival articles with a timeline that corresponds to the collection.
If they reach their goal, Daredevil will be able to showcase its antique machines in proper storage cases. The collection includes a Thomas Edison engraving pen, considered to be the first electric tattoo machine, and the first mechanical device that Edison ever patented.
The team notes on its Kickstarter page, “We’ve managed to secure a forever home for our shop and the collection but we need help to finish a few more things. Getting to where we are now was the hardest thing we’ve ever accomplished but we feel we have something important… to contribute to the heritage of the Lower East Side.
“We’re really hoping to be a global destination for the tattoo community and anybody else who is interested in the history of the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the Bowery,” Myles said.
You can contribute to the Daredevil Tattoo Museum Kickstarter campaign (through July 10, and you can check out this quirky and historic collection (141 Division St., just at the triangle between Canal and Ludlow) during regular business hours from noon–8:00 p.m. daily.