While many people believe that American tattoo history started with Sailor Jerry, this simply isn't the case. Long before Norman Collins began inking sailors after WWII, tattooers set up shop on the Bowery in the Lower East Side of New York City. From the late 19th and throughout the early 20th century, tattooers like Charles Wagner and Martin Hildebrandt paved the way for tattooers in North America. And one of the most prolific artists to be influenced by both Wagner and Hildebrandt was Albert Morton Kurzman, better known as Lew the Jew.
While this may be your first introduction to Lew, let us tell you that he's an extremely important figure in tattoo history. Born in 1880 to Jewish immigrants, Lew grew up in New York City. As a teenager, Lew attended a technical school in the Lower East Side and in 1899, he enlisted in the army, fighting in the Spanish-American War in the Phillippines. It's believed that he became exposed to tattooing and began inking fellow soldiers while at war. Upon returning home to New York, Lew began redesigning tattoo flash and for several years, worked alongside Wagner on the Bowery. In 1905, Lew made his flash sheets available for sale and was instrumental in designing the electric tattoo machine still used by artists today.
Although Lew was admired and appreciated by many tattooers, it's argued that he made the biggest impact on Ed Hardy. In 2015, Hardy published a book featuring 150 of Lew's original drawings as well as never before seen letters and photographs of the NY tattooer. Hardy helped to bring Lew's story to light and gave the world a greater appreciation for the true pioneers of American tattooing.
What do you think of this unsung tattoo hero? Were you already familiar with Lew the Jew? Let us know your thoughts on this story in the comments section.