"Lew The Jew" and Other Early Pioneers of Tattooing at The Contemporary Jewish Museum

Jul 26, 2018 - Jun 09, 2019The Contemporary Jewish Museum, San Francisco

In a new, original exhibition presented as part of its tenth anniversary year on Jessie Square, The Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) examines the work of “Lew the Jew” Alberts (born Albert Morton Kurzman, 1880–1954), one of America’s most influential tattoo artists at the beginning of the twentieth century. Drawn in large part from the private collection of San Francisco artist, author, and tattoo legend Don Ed Hardy whose 2015 book “Lew the Jew” Alberts: Early 20th Century Tattoo Drawings inspired the exhibition, Lew the Jew and His Circle includes never before exhibited original tattoo artwork, newly discovered documents, and photographs from Alberts’ early life, correspondence with contemporaries, and more.

Alberts, the son of two Jewish immigrants living in New York, learned tattooing as a member of the armed forces overseas during the Spanish-American War and was the original creator of what is now known as tattoo flash, the samples used in tattoo shops. Operating primarily on New York’s lively Bowery where a who’s who of tattoo artists could be found, Alberts constructed some of the earliest electric tattoo machines and was the first to design and market the printed design sheets to other tattooists. His artwork in these flash displays codified the repertoire of American tattooing, and many are still in use today. 

Alberts was in a close-knit group of the most prominent American tattoo artists of the first quarter of the twentieth century, who stayed in close communication despite being spread across the country. This included two Bay Area-based tattooists, “Brooklyn Joe” Lieber who lived and worked in Alameda, CA and C.J. “Pop” Eddy of San Francisco. Many examples of correspondence with Lieber and Eddy, containing iconic examples of American flash, will be on display and are a significant early record of tattoo history that shows how these artists influenced each other’s styles and how this American folk-art form was collaboratively brought into being during its earliest years.

The exhibition, curated by The CJM’s Chief Curator Renny Pritikin with assistance from Curatorial Assistant Natasha Matteson, will also include samples of work by other contemporaries of Alberts who were working on the Bowery such as Millie Hull, one of only a very few women working as tattooists in the first part of the twentieth century; Charlie Wagner, Alberts’ business partner and mentor and one the best-known tattoo artists of the era; and Bob Wicks. It includes such rare finds as newsreel footage from the 1930s of Hull working on a tattoo, an oral history of the Bowery pre-WWII from a surviving member of the Moskowitz tattoo family, and a series of pin ups by “Brooklyn Joe,” including a provocative Betty Boop.

“The CJM strives to find unusual stories that reveal Jewish contributions to American culture,” says Renny Pritikin, Chief Curator, The CJM. “Jewish tradition is ambivalent about tattooing, so the discovery that Jewish practitioners were early adopters and shapers of the American tattoo industry over a century ago is an intriguing and little-known story. While tattoo enthusiasts will, naturally, be fascinated by this exhibition, it also conjures the rich life of the Bowery and Lower East Side where so many Jewish immigrants lived and worked more than a century ago and tells a colorful and intriguing story accessible to all.”

Of Alberts’ chosen nickname “Lew the Jew,” Hardy writes in his book, “Many tattooers take on a professional name, partially to avoid embarrassing their families when tattooing was generally looked down upon. It is likely that both Joe Lieber and Charlie Wagner (originally spelled Weigner) were Jewish. At any rate, Kurzman chose a nom du needle that emphasized, rather than disguised, his heritage.”

“Great exhibitions tell great stories,” says Lori Starr, Executive Director, The CJM. “This is a story about an intriguing art form and how Jews like Lew created much of what we recognize as modern tattoos. It’s a story of Jewish American immigration as well and how popular culture evolved in the 20th century.”

Writeup and images provided by The Contemporary Jewish Museum