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A man named Martin Hildebrandt was a true tattoo pioneer in the USA. He is the first tattooist in New York City in the post Civil War era. Hildebrandt is also the first man to open a dedicated tattoo shop in the US.

Seems like very early tattoo history can be a little hard to learn. Lost artifacts, forgotten stories. In conclusion, common knowledge about the pioneers of the early tattoo art is sometimes fundamentally unknown to the modern world.

Martin Hildebrandt
Martin Hildebrandt; Source: Tattoo History

Today, little to no evidence exists of Martin’s artistry. Almost no information can be certain about many aspects that should matter. Most of all, there are also no portfolio samples or tattoo flash of Martin Hildebrant’s creations.

Tattooed man, circa 1890
Tattooed man, circa 1890; Source: Pinterest

Martin Hildebrandt – What We Know About The First Tattooist in the USA

Hildebrandt was exposed to tattoos and started tattooing himself in 1846. At the time he was a sailor aboard the frigate United States. One of the first found records listing Hildebrandt as a tattooer in New York City comes from as far back as 1859. During the Civil War, Hildebrandt served with the Army of the Potomac.

He said about his time in the service: “During the war times, I have never had a moment of idle time. I marked thousands of sailors and soldiers, put the names of hundreds of soldiers on their arms or breasts. Also, many were recognized by these marks after being killed or wounded.” (New York Times, Jan. 16th, 1876)

In 1875, after the war, Martin Hildebrandt worked in Lower Manhattan, at 77 James Street and the corner of Oak. As of the beginning of 1880, Hildebrandt tattooed at 36 1/2 Oak Street. The shop sign, therefore, said, “Tattooing done here by Martin Hildebrandt”.

Martin Hildebrandt had a marriage with Mary and as a result, had one son named Frank.

Nora Hildebrandt – The “Tattooed Lady”

In 1882, a woman tattooed by Hildebrandt exhibited in Bunnell’s dime museum on the Bowery. Seems like she was the first lady with tattoos in America – Nora Hildebrandt.

Nora Hildebrandt is known as America’s very first professionally tattooed lady. She had maybe more than 365 separate tattoos all over her body. The (obviously made up, from a modern perspective) story went that she received them after Sitting Bull and his tribe captured her. They tied her to a tree and gave her a tattoo every single day for an entire year.

Nora Hildebrandt
Nora Hildebrandt; Source: Yorokobu

Many speculated that she was either sister or daughter of Martin. However, there isn’t any family connection between her and Martin Hildebrandt.

Nora was in fact originally from England and neither had a marriage with nor was a relative of  Martin. In fact, he has also tattooed a handful of other “inked ladies”. Almost all of them worked as attractions in sideshows and dime museums in New York and around the world.

In short, some of the most intriguing and relevant artist figures in early American tattoo history yet is fundamentally unknown to us today.

However, a few researchers have provided and confirmed various details about the life and art of Hildebrandt.

For example, Daredevil Tattoo’s own Michelle Myles did extensive research on Martin Hildebrandt. She discovered that very little information about Hildebrandt is available online. Most noteworthy, much of it appears to be either contradictory or most of all flat-out inaccurate.

Tattooed woman, late 1880s
Tattooed woman, late 1880s; Source: Tattoo History

Lost in the Fog of History

In conclusion, many especially relevant details are hard to confirm. Many are lost in the fog of the spotty and unreliable record-keeping practices of the time.

The identity of one Jacob Hildebrandt is also raising some questions. Amelia Klem Osterud, Author of “The Tattooed Lady: A History” therefore notes that Jacob Hildebrandt appears as Nora Hildebrandt’s brother in an NY Clipper ad. However, Osterud did find a listing for a marriage between Nora Hildebrandt and a certain Jacob Gunther from the year 1889.

Tattooed Woman

Photo Evidence

At least we have the rare evidence of a real photograph of Jacob Hildebrandt’s tattoos. Researchers assume that these tattoos are Martin’s. This might as well be the very last remaining evidence of Hildebrandt’s pioneering artwork.

More than a hundred and twenty-five years ago, on January 16th, 1890, tattooist Martin Hildebrandt passed away. He was 65 years old. The place of his death? No other than the New York City Asylum for the Insane, found on Wards Island.

The last mention of Hildebrandt in any archive dates back to June 20th, 1885:

“Martin Hildebrand, the tattooer of this city, whose wife is with a circus, was on June 10 sent to jail for disorderly conduct. His son charges that he is insane and he is to be transferred to an asylum.” (The New York Clipper)

Tattooed man, circa 1890
Tattooed man, circa 1890; Source: Pinterest
Nora Hildebrandt
Nora Hildebrandt; Source: Tattooed History
The Tattooed Woman - N. Hildebrandt
The Tattooed Woman – N. Hildebrandt; Photo: Tattoo Archive
Jacob Hildebrandt
Jacob Hildebrandt Artifact, Source: The Tattoo Archive
Ruth Sylva Postcard
Circus Sideshow Tattoo Lady Ruth Sylva; Source: Pinterest
tattooed lady
Tattooed lady, circa the 1900s; Source: Tumblr
1875, Portrait of a bare chested Frank Howard, the American Tattooed Man
1875, Portrait of a bare-chested Frank Howard, the American Tattooed Man; Source: Syracuse University Library

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