Since biblical times, tattoos and Judaism have had a relationship that might be diplomatically described as uneasy. Yet one of the pioneers of tattooing in the United States was a Jew who proudly stamped his religion on his professional name: “Lew the Jew” Alberts.
Alberts, who lived from 1880 to 1954, helped develop American tattooing from an obscure practice into a wider phenomenon. But even as it has become a lucrative business, with millions of tattooed Americans today, the Jewish pioneer who paved the way has been largely forgotten.
Now Lew the Jew is back in the spotlight, thanks to a new exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) in San Francisco: “Lew the Jew and His Circle: Origins of American Tattoo.”
A collaboration with renowned tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy, the exhibit showcases around 250 objects — some of which have never been previously seen. Visitors can even walk into a recreated version of Lew the Jew’s tattoo parlor, which once attracted sailors in New York’s raucous Bowery neighborhood.
While the Bowery was crammed with similar artists in the early 20th century, Lew the Jew stood out. CJM chief curator Renny Pritikin calls him “part of the approximately half-dozen, one dozen people who really invented the American tattoo industry in the years between 1900 and World War I.”
He was also unique because of his religion. Yet the exhibit suggests two of his contemporaries were also Jewish: business partner Charlie Wagner and colleague Brooklyn Joe Lieber. Collectively, Pritikin said, they represent “three names out of one dozen” who helped establish tattooing in America.
“It was not dominated by Jews, but there was definitely a Jewish presence,” Pritikin said.
This may come as a surprise given the ban on tattoos in the Book of Leviticus, and the purported denial of burial in a Jewish cemetery to anyone with a tattoo. Exhibit organizers are ready to discuss these prohibitions, as well as a more recent reason contributing to Jewish discomfort with tattoos — the serial numbers of concentration camp inmates in the Holocaust.
Lew the Jew’s revival can be credited to Hardy, himself a legend in tattooing and the name behind the Ed Hardy line of clothing inspired by classic tattoos.
Ten years ago, Hardy acquired what he called a “large collection” of Lew the Jew memorabilia, and in 2015 he published a biography, “Lew the Jew Alberts: Early 20th Century Tattoo Drawings.”
“I’m always eager to document people who have come before and done important work,” Hardy explained. “I thought it would be great to do a book about that.”
Pritikin said that he was “tremendously absorbed” by the book, and thought the subject appropriate for the CJM.
Sketching Jewish immigration
The exhibit is a complex story of Jewish immigration to the US — a story of East and West, high art and street art, Judaism and assimilation — coalescing in Lew the Jew, born Albert Morton Kurzman to immigrants from Germany in the late 19th century.
Kurzman’s early years in Lower Manhattan were marked by poverty. But like fellow children of immigrants, he found new opportunities in America — including an education at what Pritikin called “a very interesting school,” the Hebrew Technical Institute, which “was supported by Jewish philanthropists for poorer immigrants. Jewish boys would learn a skill, a trade.”
Kurzman studied wallpaper design and mechanical and electrical engineering. Then, still in his late teens, he joined the US Army to fight in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War of 1898. There he likely encountering Filipino natives who practiced an indigenous form of tattooing — a centuries-old, even prehistoric practice that had largely disappeared in the West.
Sailors voyaging in the Pacific reintroduced tattooing to England and America. In the Philippines, New Zealand, Samoa and Hawaii, these sailors met natives with tattoos, got tattoos themselves, and returned to their home ports. But, Pritikin said, “for most of the 19th century, it was considered kind of blue-collar, looked down upon,” something done by “only marginal people — sailors, criminals.”
However, the young US Army member serving in the Philippines was sufficiently intrigued to take up the profession. He entered into a business partnership with Charlie Wagner — “an established tattoo impresario,” Pritikin said, one whom “we believe was Jewish as well. His name was originally Weigner. He changed it to Wagner.”
‘Lew the Jew’ is born
Wagner’s partner would change his name, too.
“Tattoo guys always want memorable, catchy names so people remember and refer them to friends,” Pritikin explained. “Lew the Jew picked the ‘Lew’ part because it rhymed with ‘Jew.’ I don’t think he was particularly religious.”
But, Pritikin added, “I think he was also proud and unashamed to be Jewish at that point in history.”
Lew the Jew could also take pride in the innovations he introduced to tattooing. According to Pritikin, his wallpaper design training inspired him to invent “flash” — sample tattoo design prototypes on the wall that clients could select from. Hardy called flash “crucial to the development” of the industry.
With Wagner, Lew the Jew also patented an electric tattoo machine — only the second such patent in the US. While the patent is in Wagner’s name, Lew the Jew’s signature appears first on the form, which is displayed in the exhibit. The machine represented “a radical change,” Hardy said.
“Originally [tattooing] was done by hand tools, a needle to force the skin.”
As he tattooed eagles, anchors, ships and women onto his growing list of clients, Lew the Jew acquired a measure of fame: a profile in The Forward in 1927 — which called him the only Jewish tattooer in the US — and a respectful mention in “one of the very few books about tattooing in the 1930s,” Hardy said.
Lew the Jew never married and never made much money from tattooing, according to Pritikin; he lived with his siblings and their children. Exhibit organizers located a surviving family member, grandniece Jane Kurzman, a New York attorney who had met him when she was a child.
In the Bowery no more
Ironically, after his death, tattooing finally began gaining respectability in the US.
“Fast-forward to people like Don Ed Hardy in the 1950s and 1960s who started getting involved, and a San Francisco guy, Lyle Tuttle, who tattooed Janis Joplin, the Rolling Stones here,” Pritikin said.
Today, an estimated 20 percent of Americans have tattoos, including 40% of millennials. Among Jews, tattooing remains controversial.
“We’re trying our best to talk about a difficult subject in an open, non-judgmental context of a museum,” Pritikin said. “In our guestbook the first day, someone wrote, ‘This is a beautiful show, but it violates the Talmud.’”
Lew the Jew was aware of this.
“Lew was very conscientious toward his co-religionists as his customers,” reporter Albert Parry wrote in the 1927 Forward profile. “He warned many a Jew who bared his skin before Lew’s needles of the Mosaic law that forbids the sons of Israel to be tattooed” — a reference to Leviticus 19:28.
The ban “has had, historically, a very strong impact on the Jewish people,” Pritikin said. “But a rabbi in San Francisco has tattoos, and he said [the ban is] like the kosher laws — intended to keep Jews separate from non-Jews. He believes it’s an ahistorical understanding.
In biblical times, “everyone was being tattooed and non-Jewish pagans would put the names of the dead, their religions, images of gods on their skin. The admonition was for Jews not to do that. There are implications in the way we read it that they could be tattooed, and were tattooed,” Pritikin said.
Pritikin said another assumption — that someone with a tattoo cannot be buried in a Jewish cemetery — lacks factual basis.
“There’s perhaps one Jewish cemetery that did that, or claimed to,” Pritikin said. “It became mythologized, used by parents to warn children not to get tattooed.”
Branded by the Holocaust
Arguably the most difficult tension is the serial numbers tattooed onto concentration camp inmates — both Jews and non-Jews.
“That’s definitely something that clouds the issue,” Pritikin said. “It had to be dealt with.
“The reality is that Jews, like other millennials, are doing tattoos. There’s a story that’s true in Israel and to some extent in [the US] that the grandchildren of survivors are getting the same tattoo their grandparents got in the camps, a Gen-X statement of solidarity. Even out of the terrible history and tragedy, something tattoo-related and positive has come out,” he said.
An exhibit-related program in September will feature Jewish San Francisco tattoo artist Jill Bonny (born Jill Mandelbaum), who is in a unique position to discuss tattoos and Judaism. She grew up in a Conservative family; her paternal grandparents survived the Holocaust but “lost a ton of family,” she said. When she visits her grandmother, she covers up her own tattoos.
Bonny recalls attending Holocaust remembrance events when younger, and seeing numbers forcibly tattooed onto survivors “really does send chills up your spine,” she said.
But tattooing can also be something that people choose to do freely — as Bonny did while in college at the prestigious Cooper Union. Working in circus sideshows in her spare time, she gradually learned about the historic Japanese-style full-body tattoo art populated with mythological creatures such as dragons. She became a pioneer in this field — the first non-Japanese woman to receive a title from a Japanese tattoo master. And, she said, there’s a place for tattooing in Judaism.
“Jewish culture is very extensive, from the most Reform to the most conservative,” she said. “There’s a lot of personal interpretation.”
“I know it’s not really accepted, but I think having this exhibit shows it may open minds,” she said. “I hope people see it, maybe with no preconceptions, really see the beautiful art of it, give it a chance.”