Marvin Moskowitz is a third generation Jewish tattoo artist. That statement alone makes this interview cool.
His grandfather was a Russian immigrant who owned a barber shop. After befriending local tattoo artist Charlie Wagner, Marvin’s grandfather realized that he’d rather get fifty cents for a tattoo than twenty five cents for a haircut. What started as a financial need grew into a family business with Marvin’s father and uncle taking on the trade.
Today’s tattoo artist wannabes go through a lengthy process of apprenticeship (aka “shop bitch”) to learn the craft. For Marvin, it involved sitting down and “just tattooing”. But despite that, Marvin says, “in my day, you had to make your own needles, tool your own machines up…its a lot easier for people who tattoo today.” Unlike a few “old-timer” tattoo artists I’ve spoken with, Marvin insists that today’s artists are a lot better than the ones from his childhood in the family shop. “Until the mid 1980’s, you did whatever the stencil was…you didn’t have to be Michaelangelo or Van Gough. I just do the traditional stuff and that’s good enough for me and my customers. Today, you got real trained artists.”
The legacy of Jewish tattoo artists stops at Marvin. While his uncle Stanley still “goes on the convention circuit”, Marvin feels good that his family has professional jobs. “You tell people you’re a tattoo artist, they look at you like, ‘oh, you’re one of those.” The industry has also gotten a lot safer, according to Marvin. “In my fathers day, they used to get in three…four…five fights a day. Guys from the fifties…they were scumbags!”
Marvin defends the Jew Tattoo trend saying that tattoos have existed “throughout history”. Marvin recalled a time when a girl came in with a group of friends but said she couldn’t get a tattoo because she is Jewish. “Even people today people have misconceptions about what Jews are and are supposed to be.” And how can he be a Jew with tattoos? “I consider myself a Reform Jew….[but] I never gave it a second thought. That’s how I grew up. I grew up in that shop. I grew up without prejudices.” Marvin has a star of David tattoo, and I asked him about what kinds of tattoos Jewish people get. “You’ll get some Jewish people getting tattoos to show that they’re Jewish, but for the most part [people] always get the same things. Jewish girls will get tattoos that have a Jewish meanings. The guys, not so much.”
I asked Marvin for some advice on anything, life, tattoos, whatever he wanted to share. This was the smartest question I could have asked. “Don’t take anyone’s word as an absolute. Open up your own mind. You’ll find that the people you listen to are prejudice. As a Jew, you should be more open.”
Amen, Rebbe Marvin!