There is a tiny, weird pocket of Chinatown in lower Manhattan that at first glance one might write off as just another dirty, old corner of the city, when in reality it was the birthplace of modern tattooing in America. In 1891, 11 Chatham Square was home to Samuel O’Reilly — who patented the first electric tattoo machine based off of an electric pen invented by Thomas Edison. From then on, the neighborhood would become the epicenter of the tattoo community, attracting names like Charlie Wagner and Millie Hull, key players in what would later be known as the formative years of American tattooing.
We’d like to think that if you had told any of the founding fathers of tattooing back then that their seedy little corner of the world would later become the home to one of New York’s premier tattoo museums and shops citing their work as the foundation for the entire American tattoo community, they’d stare at you in utter disbelief, but low and behold there she sits — right at 141 Division Street, home of Daredevil Tattoo and Museum.
Brad Fink, co-owner of Daredevil, artist, and collector of tattoo artifacts, has been building his collection since he was given his first Earl Brown machine by his mentor at 18. “I can’t really explain why I’m drawn to this stuff, other than the fact that it embodies and empowers our lives and what we do,” Fink explains. Daredevil wasn’t always part museum, in fact, until four years ago, Fink says that none of his vast collection was on display, but rather collecting dust in his house. With the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign, a museum was born.
Of the hundreds of artifacts lining the walls there is one that has a special place in the heart of Fink’s co-owner and fellow artist Michelle Myles — the original Bert Grimm Sundancer, an iconic piece of flash depicting a dancing native American woman in a traditional war bonnet. “People come from all over the world to check her out. I always say it’s like we live with a celebrity. Some people come in here, and don’t really realize what they’re looking at,” says Fink. “I’ll ask them, ‘oh, have you seen the Sundancer?’ and they’ll say, ‘oh ya, so and so has that at their shop.’ I’m like, ‘no, no. That’s the original.’”
Recently acquiring their official status as a museum and nonprofit, Fink has been surprised by the feedback they’ve received — particularly from those that aren’t necessarily integrated in the community. “We’ve had several high school classes come in, and for a teacher to bring their class here,to me, that’s huge,” Fink explains. “When I was in high school that was never even an option.”
Part of what makes the museum so unique, is its devotion to providing a written history of the evolution of tattooing. Up until quite recently tattoos weren’t particularly accepted by society, let alone something that would incite a museum. “There’s not a written history of this. When these guys and gals that did this in the early 1900’s, they weren’t considering themselves these artistes. They were basically just tradesmen, and with that there isn’t a lot of written history,” explains Fink. “It really is sort of like our love letter [to the tattoo community], because it epitomizes us and our foundation, and I think it’s important to sort of put on a pedestal where this crazy art came from, because tattooing is like no other. It’s permanent, but it’s not permanent because it only lasts as long as you will, and when you’re dead — it’s gone.”
While some of the museum’s more prominent pieces, like the Edison pen and several original Samuel O’Reilly sketches, are on display right now at either the New York Historical Society exhibition or at the Gus Wagner exhibit at the South Street Seaport Museum, the rest of the collection can be seen any day of the week at Daredevil during normal shop hours, the best part being that it’s absolutely free. While the collection on display at Daredevil is enormous, Fink assures us that it’s just the tip of the iceberg. “I think there’s a lot yet to be uncovered. I think that everything that we know is sort of common knowledge, and has been uncovered previously, but I think there’s still stuff out there.”
Regardless of whether or not you’re heavily integrated into the community, particularly fascinated by the history of New York City, or just a general museum aficionado, there’s a little bit of something for everyone at Daredevil. Around the turn of the century an establishment like this would have never been possible, but with the help of Fink and Myles, the rich history behind the tattoo community is finally having its moment in the sun.