Lew the Jew & The Origins of American Tattooing at CJM is Fascinating
Now on display at Contemporary Jewish Museum, Lew The Jew And His Circle: Origins Of American Tattoo looks back upon one of New York’s earliest tattoo artists and his contemporaries. The exhibition will remain up through June 9.
Albert Morton Kurzman, aka Lew The Jew, was born in New York City in 1880. He spent three years at the Hebrew Technical Institute, where he studied drawing, mechanical drawing, metal and woodworking. It is believed that his specialty was wallpaper design, which may have influenced his later work as a tattoo artist.
Kurzman joined the army in 1899 and served in the Philippines during the Spanish American War. It was there that he was first exposed to the art of tattoo, which he brought back with him to New York. Lew The Jew became his professional name at a time when easily remembered monikers were an essential marketing tool.
Lew The Jew became a well known tattoo artist in New York. He dedicated his life to his craft and died in 1954.
Lew The Jew And His Circle: Origins Of American Tattoo begins with preserved letters which Lew sent to fellow tattooists C.J. “Pop” Eddy, and “Brooklyn” Joe Lieber, both of whom worked in the Bay Area. Included in his personal papers is an American citizenship application for a relative of Lew’s, who signed the document as a supporting witness.
The majority of the exhibition are displays of Lew’s artwork, and the artwork of his contemporaries. Some of the drawings are quite striking, such as a demonic looking skull with a snake. There’s also a frame filled with Lew’s images of women’s faces.
As the exhibition continues, more of Lew’s impressive artwork is seen: snakes, flowers, blades, a leg with a snake wrapped around it–the imagery is mesmerizing and quite beautiful.
In order to provide more background information on Lew and his work, the CJM included a blow-up of a Jewish Daily Forward profile of Lew, written by Albert Parry, published in 1927. There’s also a blow-up of Lew’s New York storefront: The Chatham Electric Tattooing And Barber Shop.
More artwork follows: a drawing of an eagle fighting with a snake, a very creepy looking clown and various types of birds and animals.
A section of the exhibition is dedicated to three of Lew’s contemporaries: Millie Hull, Charlie Wagner and Bob Wicks. Sheets of their own unusual designs are displayed. A small television screen runs a 1937 film clip of Hull tattooing her husband. There are also photos of Wagner at work in his shop over a century ago – a Mechanix Illustrated article on Wagner from 1947 is also displayed.
Some of Brooklyn Joe’s works might have been considered a little “naughty” back in the day–there’s a frame filled with his sexy pin-up girl drawings, some of them topless.
These are but some of the impressive works on display in Lew The Jew And His Circle: Origins Of American Tattoo. The exhibition offers a comprehensive history of the tattoo art form. The exhibition also touches upon the Orthodox Jewish community’s discomfort with tattooing, with many Orthodox rabbis claiming that the practice is a sin. As the Book of Leviticus states: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves, I am The Lord.”
And yet, as the introduction to the exhibition points out, descendants of Holocaust survivors have had the numbers of their relatives tattooed on their own arms.
With Lew The Jew And His Circle: Origins Of American Tattoo, tattooing is elevated to a political statement.
Contemporary Jewish Museum is located at 736 Mission Street, between 3rd and 4th Streets. The museum is open most days from 11am-5pm, but is closed on Wednesdays.