Quote and Credit

Quote and Credit


Apache Harry will Tattoo your Social Security Number on your Skin on the Bowery

The color photographs of Apache Harry which ran in Life Magazine in 1936 are fascinating, as color photos of tattoo artists from before World War Two are scarce indeed. I do not think the picture here has ever been shown (at least since 1940) and while not identified by photographer name, it ran in the Volitant publication Laff, an early Life wannabee copycat.

Apache Harry's studio in the 1930s and 1940s was way at the south end of the Bowery.  Today 22 Bowery, at the corner of Pell Street and Bowery in Lower Manhattan is part of Chinatown…which continues to spread north and has eclipsed Little Italy.   He didn't have much space there.  In 1938 he was interviewed by Joseph Adams for the North American Newspaper Alliance (an early wire service) who reported "Hour by Hour, he sits in his little two by six cubicle…" as he lamented the loss of interest in folks asking for tats.  At the time, he was making most his money tattooing social security numbers on folks.

Apache Harry's Dump Today
Harry gives the reporter the business, telling him he's giving up the tattoo business and becoming a coin collector…but he was joking about paying top dollar for a buffalo nickel which "nobody can keep long enough to find out if it has a hump."  Adams sarcastically calls Apache Harry the "tattoo tycoon" and reports on the declining business.

Why would folks pay Apache Harry to tattoo their social security number on them?  Because at the time the "Social Security Law" was new…and for a time it became fashionable for folks hoping to receive their reward in their golden years to be ready with their number inked on them for good.  They did it to prevent amnesia from taking away their claim!  Today, of course, that number is hidden so scammers don't steal your identity, but back then crime was more physical.  Like with a sap in the head.

In 1938, Coronet Magazine picked up the story and ran an article titled "Apache Harry: Who Has Reaped Social Security's Most Generous Dividend."  You see, the naysayers in the ruling class back then never thought the system would work…and they lampooned it using Apache Harry as their shill.  Screw them…it's been seventy five years and the system is still solvent, despite what you'll hear Republican scare-mongers say.

Harry charged from fifty cents to ten dollars a tat.  Presumably, the numbers were the cheapest.  Harry says the late night crowd is still his big money customers, but the social security folks come in during daylight.  They want the simple designs…a small bit of embellishment, not the flourish Harry was capable of.

IN 1936, Apache Harry is reported to "put beauty spots and initials on about a dozen women a day, but still my mail clientele is soldiers and sailors" in the Milwaukee  Journal.  He is also mentioned in the book New York City Tattoo by Hardy Marks which came out in 1997.

Later, Apache Harry did a better business in tattoo removal than in tattoos  According to Laff magazine in 1940, which I cribbed the photo here from, he also specialized in doing make-up to cover black eyes.

I am afraid I do not know who ended up with Apache Harry's original flash.  It looks great.  I also do not know Apache Harry's real name, but I am inclined to think he was no more Apache than the white dudes from Brooklyn who dressed up like Indians for early silent pictures.  He did have some long hair though.

Apache Harry was  rendered by master printmaker Eli Jacobi, the study for the portrait is shown HERE on the Child's Galllery.


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