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

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

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. 

The Vorlagealbum (flash book) is an invaluable piece of tattoo history. It was recreated by Stephan Oettermann with the museum’s permission in 1981 and, since then, has become a widely coveted object in the tattoo world. The museum's collection contains hundreds of flash designs, photographs of tattoos, newspaper clippings, handwritten notes, and more. The collection is a veritable treasure trove of information as well as the primary window through which to peer into Warlich’s life.

Warlich’s influence in the iconography of contemporary traditional tattoos is undeniable. Much like Amund Dietzel and his carnivalesque girls, a number of Warlich’s designs are (knowingly and unknowingly) reproduced by tattooists all over the world. Every time you see a tattoo of a butterfly with ornate wings, a devil with a dagger shoved through its head, or a snake coiled around a palm tree, Warlich's ingenuity lingers behind it.

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.

Regardless of the lack of sources, Wittmann’s efforts have resulted in several significant discoveries, the foremost of which is that Warlich went to sea in his mid-20s as a stoker aboard passenger ships. This is an important find because people frequently draw a comparison between Warlich’s flash designs and those of influential New York tattooists like Charlie Wagner. While there is no proof that they crossed paths back in the day, this evidence moves us one step closer to understanding the trans-Atlantic diaspora of body art during the 20th century.

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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. 

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Warlich’s career, however, is that it spanned such a traumatic period of history. Though he was not affiliated with the Third Reich, his body of work shows what the state of tattooing under the NSDAP’s reign was like. “There are a lot of myths around this topic: that tattooing was prohibited in the NS, that Warlich was the only tattooist who had a permission to tattoo during that time, and that tattooers came to concentration camps because they were tattooers, etc.,” Wittmann explains. “The fact is that there is no official decree or law in that time saying that tattooing is prohibited. People with tattoos might have been sent to concentration camps, but for all kinds of reasons that are not necessarily linked to their tattoos.”

Warlich’s career ultimately demonstrates how tattoos were used for more than just numbering the interned at Auschwitz. This negative application of the craft tends to overshadow the growth of the art form in Germany during the time. Warlich is one of the earliest individuals to popularize tattooing, and what’s astonishing is that he was able to do so under a fascist regime that suppressed any form of artistic expression other than propaganda.

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.

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