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Flash from the Past: The King of Tattoos, Christian Warlich

Flash from the Past: The King of Tattoos, Christian Warlich

Tattoo Artists3 min Read

This tattoo pioneer operated out of a pub, removed body art by peeling people’s skin off, and left behind a legacy that lives on today.

Christian Warlich — aka the König der Tätowierer or “King of Tattoos” — was one of Germany’s earliest tattooists. He operated out of a pub in Hamburg, creating body art alongside steins full of beer. Early on his clientele primarily consisted of Nazi soldiers before the dissolution of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (NSDAP) in 1945, and English servicemen after the city became part of the British Zone of Occupation. Though his reputation preceded him in his heyday, many of the details of his are now obscured, which makes it difficult to fully appreciate the legacy that he left behind.

Christian Warlich getting ready to tattoo. Photo courtesy of Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte. #ChristianWarlich #Germany #Hamburg #tattoopioneer #traditional

Fortunately, several parties — including collectors, museums, and Warlich’s descendants — have preserved the majority of his estate after his death in 1964. Over the last two years, Ole Wittmann, a historian with a passion for body art, has been working with the Museum für Hamburgische Geschichte — which is in possession of a priceless artifact, Warlich’s sketchbook — on an ambitious research project to find out more about the now legendary tattooist. 

Aside from the flash book and other private collections, much of the documentation surrounding Warlich is misleading. His tombstone even has the wrong birthdate engraved into it, stating he was born in 1890 when he actually was born a year later, according to his birth certificate. The main reason that there’s a disparity of evidence about Warlich is that most of the archival was destroyed near the end of World War II.

Wittmann uncovered some other fascinating details about Warlich, too, including that he performed one of the earliest forms of tattoo removal. He coated unwanted body art in several layers of an acidic tincture and then peeled the swaths of skin off with forceps. He even displayed this grim handiwork by hanging the removed flesh in a frame on the pub’s wall. 

A mini-documentary about the project is in the final stages of completion, and alongside showcasing the Warlich estate at the Hamburg Museum, Wittman plans on republishing Warlich’s Vorlagealbum in both German and English, so that more people can learn about his influence on the tattoo industry and continue to draw inspiration from his designs. If you want to keep up with the project, follow it on Instagram or check out its website.

Ross Howerton
Written byRoss Howerton

BA in Literary Studies from The New School. MFA in Creative Writing from NMSU. Staff Writer for Tattoodo. I love art, books, movies, music, and video games. Hit me up on Twitter @Powertonium

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