Bob Baxter’s 101 Most Influential People in Tattoo (No. 20)—Bowery Stan Moskowitz
Now that we’re winding down, I thought it would be more informative, interesting and respectful to post the final twenty, one at a time. And who would be better to kick things off than Bowery Stan Moskowtiz, the feisty icon of the tattoo community for the last sixty-plus years? No longer the full-time tattooist who, along with his late brother Walter, pretty much dominated the East Coast tattoo scene back in the ’50s, Bowery Stan continues his outspoken ways (he is quick to remind us of his significant contributions to the technical aspects of the art form) and, as an energetic elder of the tattoo community, is still going strong by making celebrity guest appearances at various conventions and even creating a new line of Bowery Stan series Intenze tattoo inks in colors such as “Black,” “Brown,” “Yellow,” “Red,” “Blue,” “White,” “Green” and “Irish Green.” Names as straight and to the point as Bowery Stan himself. At Mario Barth’s tattoo extravaganza in Las Vegas, Stan was at his booth showcasing a limited edition collection of these inks, complete with a wooden display case, a tattoo machine and a ball-peen hammer. Once more, another example of the no B.S. approach to tattooing that has made the man a legend.
20. Bowery Stan Moskowitz worked in New York since the ’40s. A second-generation tattooer, Stanley’s family thrived in the crazy days and nights on the Bowery, an adult fun zone that boasted sideshow attractions, penny arcades and bars loaded with working girls. Stan and his brother, Walter, carved out a 60-year career in this rough and tumble playground. Their battles are epic, and all the old-time tattooers, including Huck Spaulding and Crazy Eddie Funk, who worked nearby, have vivid memories of the Moskowitz’s blood bucket of a tattoo shop. And when New York City banned tattooing in the early ’60s, forcing Stan and Walter to open shop in Long Island, the Bowery brothers fought the Board of Health to keep tattoos from being outlawed in the rest of New York State. The following, in his own words, is Stan’s story:
“I’ve been tattooing before every one here was even alive. I’m almost 75, which is a miracle in itself. My family had been in New York since 1908. My dad was originally a barber in Chinatown. Charlie Wagner taught him how to tattoo in the ’20, but he owned a barber shop. He would leave a guy with half a shave. You know, a guy falls asleep dead drunk, he’d leave him there and tattoo three or four guys and come back and shave the other side.
“Bill Jones, Jonesy, taught me to tattoo, when I was 12. It was 1946. I had wanderlust. The fact is, I had run away and went to jail in South Carolina for wanderlust. I was gone a couple of weeks. Me and four other guys, we just wanted to get jobs in the South. We thought it was warm there. But it was cold as hell, and rainy, and we ran out of money. These farmers picked us up and pulled shotguns on us. They dropped us off at jail. My father sent the money and I went home. So Jonesy says to my father, ‘Hey, he doesn’t want to go to school, he’s just going to get in trouble. Lets teach him to tattoo.’ I only went to the fifth grade in school. In those days, people wanted to work more. My dad was sick. He had typhoid fever, when he came over from Russia, and he was sick all the time since then. So, I would go down and help him out. He died at 33. He worked in the basement on the Bowery for years, where there was no windows, no air. They heated the place with kerosene. It caused lung problems working all those hours down there. My father eventually got a spot on the ground floor, where there was fresh air. I don’t know if I was stronger than regular people, but I had a lot of stamina, so I could stay with him from early morning to four the next morning. I could tattoo day and night. There were tons and tons of guys, all drunks. I’m not born to be a fighter. I like animals and dogs, and I thought the whole world was beautiful. But, working over there, I had all the scum of the earth, guys who ran away from different places, perverts.
“I remember once, two guys come in when I was about to close, and they were probably Muslim, because they wore that hat, you know? They were young and drunk, and one guy says, ‘I’m going to kill him,’ and points in my direction. Then, he goes over and gets a razor. Holy shit, there I am in the dead of winter. He slashed my hand, so I grabbed a razor, too. When they saw that, they lost their courage. I broke one guy’s nose and I cut the other guy from the top of his head, his neck, right down to his ass. I split him wide open with a razor. That stuff happened all the time. I can tell you stories that would curl your hair. It ain’t like tattooing now. When I was a little kid, I hit a guy on the head with a hammer. His teeth got knocked out. I pulled a scalp off a guy for hitting my father for no reason. There were a lot of battles I could tell you about on the Bowery and in Chinatown. There’s always savages coming into your shop.
“Huck Spaulding couldn’t tattoo real good, so my old man let him tattoo in the back of our shop on the Bowery. He’d just come down on the weekend. Huck practiced on his own wife. And when he screwed his wife’s arm up, I took him to a dermatologist I knew who would fix scars in trade for tattoo machines. He was kind of a charlatan. Norman Orentreich was his name. They struck a deal. Huck was just starting out, and the guy took off his wife, Josie’s, tattoos with dermabrasion in trade for machines. Her skin was on my face. It flew up in the air. I was watching, so, man, some of it shot into my face. I used to take tattoos off with a machine. Tannic acid, a cauterizing agent, and silver nitrate, you know? My father taught me, and Jonesy. Huck’s still alive, but I heard he had a stroke. He sued me for ten million. He said we stole the pictures of flash that were in our supply catalog from him, but he really stole from us. He took them right off the wall of our tattoo shop. But it was for anyone to take, really. Nobody copyrighted anything. It was mostly Jonesy’s stuff. He took Walter and me to his lawyers, and we ran him right out of the office.
“There weren’t places to get tattoo equipment back then. Jonesy would sit down and make thousands of machines for $3 apiece. I used to get them three for $10. I make Jonesy machines now. I do it because of Jonesy, it keeps his name up. He was the linchpin of all this tattooing. Nobody had any equipment, and when Zeis and all of those suppliers went into business, they would contract Jonesy. You know, those Bakelite machines that Zeis had? Jonesy cut out those frames.
“In Chinatown, we moved to 52 Bowery and started making a machine called the Black Beauty. Most of the guys cut their teeth on that one. It was the machine that started a lot of tattooists. It wasn’t like a lot of guys were making machines, like they had a machinist family member, you know what I mean? We started up and thought, Let’s make a supply company. We were the first, and had our supply company for like ten years. There was Zeis, and he was building up like Spaulding, but he died. Huck started around the same time as us, but we never stuck to it like Huck. We were more interested in tattooing. But, that’s what he wanted to do. He tried tattooing, but you had to be tough to take the drunks and sit all day and in the middle of the night and in snowstorms waiting for customers. His name isn’t really Spaulding, it’s Darwin Rosse, but he Americanized it to Rose in school. He’s a multi-millionaire. I remember when I was helping him out in his first house. The water was coming in the basement and it was all messed up. I got a lot of stories, but he’s sue-happy, so it’s better to write about him later on.
“I never had a problem with Huck, but my brother did. Huck would say, “Don’t use this name or this stuff in your catalog. He did that to everybody and was suing everybody. He knew he couldn’t win, but he’d give you trouble because he had all the money. He could sue you and you’d have to get a lawyer and that would cost you money. He’d just give you trouble so you couldn’t pick on his business, but he’s screwed now. But nobody could beat Huck. He had a wild animal show and he would sell the animal scents for hunters. He was into that business, mail-order. You now, give you a little bit for a lot of money.
“We were the very last of the old-timers left on the Bowery. That’s how we came to be called the Bowery Boys. My brother and I moved from the Bowery some time around ’58. We went to Amityville, Long Island. We wanted to get out of the city, because they were starting to mess with tattooers, sending inspectors and changing building zones. We opened a shop called S&W Tattoo on Sunrise Highway. It was a dirt road when we got there. We worked day and night and never gave up. I invested in a few things, a building and a farm. No big deal, but enough to keep me in good shape. Most guys squander their money away, but not everybody. Some people have good work ethics. Nowadays, they all want to travel and work conventions. But we didn’t do that. We loved our families and we worked hard for them. We’re like mother hens. First they come, then we come. It’s the old fashioned way. My father was like that. He didn’t even have to teach it to us, we just knew it.
“In the early ’60s, the Board of Health guys were getting together to eliminate the tattoo business in the state of New York. There was an outbreak of hepatitis that they blamed it on the tattooers. There weren’t that many tattooers at that time, but they wanted to put us all out of work. I got together with my brother-in-law, who was a dentist named Stanley Nussbaum. I said, ‘What do you do?’ ‘Well, we got autoclaves and use new instruments,’ he says. So I said, ‘If we can sterilize our tubes and use single service needles on them, how are they going to get us?’ He says, ‘They can’t.’
“The Board of Health guys came from different states, where they had it in for the tattooers. They didn’t like people marking people up. It had nothing to do with the health thing. They figure there weren’t too many tattooers, so they thought they could just kick ’em in the ass and they’d go down the road. But they forgot about us. That was our business. They were out in Riverhead, Long Island, and they already had the bill written to eliminate the tattoo business in New York. Other states were going to be following after New York. My brother-in-law came down with me to see what they had to say. I mean, doctors have to sterilize equipment, right? We have a good lawyer who cost $20,000. That’s like $100,000 now. Nobody wanted to cough up any money, because there were just a handful of tattooers. My brother-in-law wrote a whole set of rules and he showed the regulations to the Board. One doctor says to another, ‘I thought you said they didn’t use single-service needles and autoclaves?’ So they start to fight with each other, because one guy is telling the rest something that isn’t true. They raised their hands, for and against, and we won. My brother-in-law wrote the first regulations for tattooing in America. It was a good thing that they did this, because tattooers didn’t do anything. They would use the inks till there was none there, and they would top it off and put some alcohol in it. And if you had a set of good needles that were doing what you wanted, you’re not going to change ’em. Now tattooers are cleaner than some doctors.
“We worked in Amityville for years and years, then we retired. This guy Mike from Body Design, another shop in town, bought our place in 1997. After that, I went up to Maine for three summers and worked at Bar Harbor Tattoo. I won a trophy. I tattooed a big geisha girl on a guy’s side and he invited me up there. He had a room in his house. He and his wife ran the place. I tattooed fishermen. They brought me lobsters and haddock. I had a helluva time. I never left my tattoo shop. It was a different way of working, too. Not one after another, full speed ahead. You got to take your time, do a little better job and be more artistic. I got along good up there. I had a lot of customers.
“I tattooed this guy at a convention. I put one on his leg. It’s the best tattoo he ever had, old-style, nice, solid. Then I tattooed this girl from a shop in Titusville. Old Time Tattooing is the name of the shop. I put a big sailor girl with a patch on her eye, and a web and wings. You know, old-time, new-time. She wanted a little one, but it was like a foot long. Now I’m going to tattoo in the girl’s show, you know with Deana Lippens. I’m hooked up with Erica Trubonis and her partner who have a booth. It’s like Sadie Hawkins day or whatever. I had a couple seminars there, teaching people how to put together machines.
“It’s not old fashioned tattooing at all, anymore. That’s gone. That only came once. Now, its entrepreneurs and everyone selling something, trying to make a buck. Whoever says that they do it for love is full of shit. You could do it for love, but when that bill comes along, you better have the money to pay it, or they kick your ass out.”
I would like to thank Danielle Oberosler of The Tattoo Room in Simi Valley, California, for allowing me to publish her “Spotlight” article on Bowery Stan, from back in 2007.