If you’ve been following the history of the tattoo industry, you’re well aware who Samuel O’Reilly is – the man who patented the first electric tattoo machine, thus kick starting the modern tattoo industry. But, have you heard of a man named Charlie Wagner?
Wagner was equally, if not more important than O’Reilly. He made just as many advances to the practice and carried on O’Reilly’s work after his death, including the operation of O’Reilly’s famed tattoo parlor located at 11 Chatham Square in New York City.
This tattoo maverick started his love affair with the practice after seeing Prince Constantine, a famous Albanian-Greek man covered head to toe in complex tattoos and travelled with Barnum, in a museum as a young child. He was so enamored with the art in fact, that in 1902, he was arrested for tattooing children on The Bowery. Why was he doing this? Due to him being an amateur, no paying customer would pay him for his work, so it is said that he turned to children, who were less picky, instead.
As an adult, he supposedly became an apprentice to O’Reilly in the Chatham location. While some websites and historians say there is no proof to this fact – no documentation or written evidence that O’Reilly and Wagner worked in the same space at all – this is the tale Wagner spun when he was interviewed by Albert Parry for a book entitled Tattoo: Secrets of the strange art as practiced by the natives of the United States which was published in 1933.
Just two years after his arrest for tattooing children illegally, Wagner filed for a patent on an updated tattoo machine. Based on O’Reilly’s original design, Wagner modified the machine by adding upright coils in line with the original tube assembly. Two years after his patent was approved, in 1906, Wagner was hauled off to jail again for reoffending – tattooing children again in his location on The Bowery.
In 1953, Wagner’s supposed mentor passed away. Shortly after, O’Reilly’s ex-wife, who inherited the property upon his death, sold 11 Chatham Square to Wagner, and he continued to tattoo from this famed location. During his years, Wagner also dabbled in tattoo supply – competing in a very small industry with only approximately four other players.
While Wagner was a tattoo superstar in his own right, due in part to his continuing O’Reilly’s work and his impressive improvements on the tattoo machine, one of his biggest blips in history occurred in 1943. As the war ravaged across the world and many, many men were called to join the ranks, Wagner found himself swamped with requests to tattoo clothing onto the popular nude pin-up tattoos on men called off to service. He was so busy in fact, that he was arrested (yet again!) for violating the city’s Sanitary Code, due to not keeping his needles clean! This was the first legal documentation against the practice, although it was certainly not to be the last.
Although Wagner had managed to keep O’Reilly’s work and tattoo parlor alive and kicking for many years after his passing, upon his own death in 1953 the shop was not so lucky. Everything in the studio was emptied, including his documents, samples, flash art, and more – and was taken to the dump. That’s right, a major part of tattoo history wound up in the trash! Despite this massive misfortune, Wagner’s contributions to the tattoo industry were fairly well documented and researchers to this day continue to rustle through historic documents, newspapers, and more to determine exactly what his contributions truly entailed.