Written by Michelle Myles
On January 16th, 1890, tattooer Martin Hildebrandt passed away in the New York City Asylum for the Insane on Wards Island. He was 65 years old. Hildebrandt started tattooing in 1846 as a sailor aboard the frigate United States. Through extensive archival research, I found records listing Hildebrandt as tattooing in New York City from as far back as 1859. During the Civil War, Hildebrandt served with the Army of the Potomac, and is quoted as saying of his time in the service:
During war times I never had a moment's idle time. I must have marked thousands of sailors and soldiers [...] I put the names of hundreds of soldiers on their arms or breasts, and many were recognized by these marks after being killed or wounded. (The New York Times: January 16, 1876).
After the war, in 1875, Hildebrandt tattooed at 77 James Street at the corner of Oak, in Lower Manhattan. The New York Times describes it as "a tavern, with a well sanded floor, and on the walls hung pictures..." Beginning in 1880, Hildebrandt tattooed at 36 1/2 Oak Street, described this way in the Times: "Alongside the door of a house in Oak Street is a framed sign bearing an elaborately-executed and vividly-colored Goddess of Liberty, with the equally glaringly-tinted words underneath, 'Tattooing done here by Martin Hildebrandt.'"
Hildebrandt was married to Mary Hildebrandt, the union producing one son named Frank. In 1882, a woman tattooed by Hildebrandt exhibited in Bunnell's dime museum on the Bowery as the first "tattooed lady," and identified by the name Nora Hildebrandt. [Nora took his surname and was assumed to be Hildebrandt's daughter or wife, but was in fact born in England and was neither married nor related to Martin.] Martin is known to have tattooed a handful of other tattooed ladies who worked as attractions in dime museums in New York and worked in shows that traveled the world.
The last mention of Hildebrandt is on June 20th, 1885 in The New York Clipper, under "Circus and Sideshow News": "Martin Hildebrand (sic) the tattooer of this city, whose wife is with a circus, was on June 10 sent to jail for disorderly conduct. His son charges that he is insane and he is to be transferred to an asylum."
Daredevil's location on Division street is just a few blocks from the Bowery and Chatham Square, the birthplace of modern tattooing. The shop includes a museum displaying Brad Fink's collection of antique tattoo memorabilia that he has collected since he began tattooing in the 1980's. Being surrounded by so much tattoo history and working so close to where it all started, I wanted to know more about who was working where, and when. "Tattoo: Secrets of a Strange Art" (1933), was a useful historical resource for beginning my research. It was Parry who mentioned Hildebrandt as the first to open a permanent place of business for tattooing in the United States.
Beyond that, there was very little information about Hildebrandt to be found online, and much of what does appear is contradictory or flat-out inaccurate. Eventually I found articles dating as far back as 1876 in The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe and other publications, but I couldn't immediately discern when he was born, or when he died. I couldn't even determine where Oak Street was, because there is no Oak Street in present-day lower Manhattan. Eventually though, after combing through historic city records, newspaper archives and out-dated maps, I discovered that Oak Street was in the Fourth Ward, a few blocks from the south side of Chatham Square. [Oak, James and other streets were razed in 1947 in order to make way for the construction of public housing.] It was at this point that I finally located Martin's death certificate in the Municipal Archives, which showed that he died in that Wards Island asylum five years after his arrest.
I hate to think of what life was like in New York's Asylum For the Insane back then. Martin might have ended up alone in a very bad place, but I'm honored to remember him now and bring his story back to life so that he can be commemorated as a pioneering figure in our tattoo history.