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A Touch of Tattoo History

Stephan Wagner and his older brother Professor Charlie Wagner

By Paul Davis

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Wrenching on Harley-Davidsons over the years has been more of a journey for me than anything else. It has been my good fortune to meet all kinds of people over the years while riding and working on bikes. I want to pass on a conversation that I had with one of my Bros.

I once worked with a guy who was from New York. Keith Wagner was a service writer at the dealership I worked at in North Carolina. We bullshited about bikes, travels, and other stuff. One overcast day we started talking about tattoos. Keith asked me about the Seabee tattoo on my right arm and where I had it done. I told him that Old Doc Webb, in Dago during my old Navy days, did it.

Doc Webb.
Doc Webb.

Then what he began to tell me in a quiet southern drawl just blew me away. Keith started unraveling a story about his grandfather Stephan Wagner. His grandfather was the brother of the famous tattooist Professor Charlie Wagner. Suddenly, I was all ears, as I have a great interest in Tattooing History.

Recent shot of Doc Webb.
Recent shot of Doc Webb.

The story got even better. He began telling me that his grandfather Stephan use to work in the Ringling Bro’s circus. This is before the Barnum & Bailey merger in 1919. Keith said he did a high-wire act and worked the "Slack Rope." His brother the famous Professor Charlie Wagner crafted his tattoos.

Stephan Wagner also worked with his brother at the tattoo studio doing Flash and artwork. Keith told me that his grandfather Stephan was better than Charlie at all the artwork side of the business.

For years, Charlie wore long sleeve shirts buttoned up, all the time, even in the summer to hide his tattoos. Even after swimming at the beach, when he got out of the water, he would cover himself up right away so know body would see that he was tattooed.

Stephan met his future wife and she didn’t like what he was doing, tattooing, and he eventually went to work in the Brooklyn Navy shipyard. Keith told me that he didn’t even know his grandfather was tattooed till his death in 1976. He never saw his tattoos till then!

Charlie Wagner
Charlie Wagner

If you don't know about Charlie Wagner, he is the Man, when it comes to tattooing history. He is one of America's great tattoo legends. Wagner tattooed in New York City from the 1890s up until his death in 1953. Wagner did his apprenticeship with Samuel O’Reilly working on the Bowery in lower Manhattan. Wagner took over the shop space at 11 Chatham Square from Samuel O‘Reilly when O’Reilly died in 1908.

The first patent for a tattooing machine was in 1891 by Samuel O'Reilly (patent #464,801). Charlie Wagner improved the design and received his own patent in 1904 (768,413).

Wagner was 78 years old when he died in 1953. He was a professional tattoo artist for over sixty years. After he died all of his tattooing supplies, original artwork, etc. were taken to the city dump and destroyed!!

Times have changed since the early days of tattooing. Tattooing is considered a true art form in today’s world. Would have been cool if Charlie and Stephan Wagner were around to see the current world of tattooing.

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Reader Comments

Worked with Keith in NY. He told me His grandfather Stephen was the guy that always wore the long sleeve shirts not Charlie. I got Keith a copy of Lyle Tuttles Tattoo Historian on Charlie Wagner, I'm sure he still has it. Keith is a great guy and a pleasure to know & work with, Small world, enjoyed your story.

Best LOU.

Monday, June 1, 2015
Got my first tattoo there during my Navy days, May 1974. I still have the business card with the cleaning instructions on the back

Ken Johnson
Rosemount, MN
Wednesday, January 7, 2015
Editor Response Send us a shot of the biz card, both sides.
When I fifteen yrs old..I was tattooed by Charlie wanger down on the boualy NYC, four tattoos at twenty-five cents apiece..the first one that all the teenagers got was double heart with an arrow through the hearts and a bander with mom and dad on it. Red and black were the only colors..if you want to hear me

smithtown, NY
Friday, May 30, 2014
Editor Response Sure, tell us the story. My first tat was at Bert Grimes in Long Beach, 1971. Ride to Live, Live to Ride, natch.
I own the Doc Webb collection and thanks to your story I have confirmed the Chas. Wagner flash that is contained within that collection. I am working on a book about Old Doc . I just released a book on Paul Rogers .

Check it out at Great work

Thanks , you made my day! Doc Don

Doc Don Lucas
Metairie . La, LA
Wednesday, April 23, 2014
Editor Response Hey Doc,

Send us press about your books for the news. And/or send us a copy for a review.
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