Martin Hildebrandt

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Martin Hildebrandt
DiedJanuary 16, 1890
OccupationTattoo artist

Martin Hildebrandt (1825–1890) was an early American tattoo artist, nicknamed "Old Martin".[1]

Military service[edit]

Hildebrandt immigrated to the United States from Germany. He enlisted in the United States Navy and served aboard the USS United States from 1846 to 1849, where he learned tattooing from another sailor.[2] Sailors tattooing each other at sea was common in the mid-19th century.[3] In the 1850s, Hildebrandt traveled to Japan as part of the Perry Expedition.[2]

In the American Civil War, he served as a soldier in the Army of the Potomac.[4] He traveled from camp to camp tattooing other soldiers and sailors.[5] Another Civil War veteran, Wilbur F. Hinman, wrote that many regiments at the time had tattooers who applied "flags, muskets, cannons, sabers and an infinite variety of patriotic emblems and warlike and grotesque devices."[5] Soldiers often asked for tattoos of their names and initials, which served as identification if they were killed in action.[4] While Hildebrandt was a Union soldier, some claim he tattooed Confederate soldiers as well, but a tattoo historian who researched this story could not find any evidence for it.[4]


After the end of the Civil War, Hildebrandt made tattooing his full-time profession.[2] He opened a tattoo parlor in a tavern on Oak Street in Manhattan, New York City, in 1870 or 1872.[6] This was probably the first American tattoo shop.[7] He tattooed a wide range of people, including mechanics, farmers, and ladies and gentlemen.[4] His work was in black and red, using India ink and vermilion.[4] He may have mentored Samuel O'Reilly, who opened another tattoo shop in New York City in the 1880s and patented the first electric tattoo machine in 1891.[8][9]

In 1882, Hildebrandt tattooed Nora Hildebrandt, one of the first "tattooed ladies" to perform in the US.[10] She was often presented as his daughter, but she was actually his common-law wife.[10]

In 1885, after Nora had left to go on tour, Hildebrandt was arrested for disorderly conduct and transferred to the New York City Asylum for the Insane.[11] He died in 1890.[1]


  1. ^ a b c Nyssen, Carmen. "Birth of the Tattoo Trade: New York Bowery". Buzzworthy Tattoo History. Retrieved June 5, 2022.
  2. ^ a b c "The Tattooing Artist". The Sun. New York. December 18, 1872. p. 1. Retrieved June 5, 2022.
  3. ^ Churchwell, Megan (April 1, 2016). "Skin deep: The nautical roots of tattoo culture". The Sextant: The Official Blog of Naval History and Heritage Command. Archived from the original on October 23, 2016.
  4. ^ a b c d e Amer, Aïda; Laskow, Sarah (August 13, 2018). "Tattooing in the Civil War Was a Hedge Against Anonymous Death". Atlas Obscura. Retrieved June 5, 2022.
  5. ^ a b Gibson, Kelly (August 17, 2016). "A Short History of Military Tattoos: The tradition is a mainstay in American military history". VFW Magazine. Retrieved May 25, 2022.
  6. ^ Nyssen, Carmen. "New York City's 1800s Tattoo Shops". Buzzworthy Tattoo History. Retrieved June 6, 2022.
  7. ^ Pollak, Michael (July 10, 2015). "Tattooing Embraced Long Ago by New Yorkers". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved June 5, 2022.
  8. ^ Nyssen, Carmen Forquer (October 5, 2015). "Early Tinkerers of Electric Tattooing". Buzzworthy Tattoo History. Retrieved June 5, 2022.
  9. ^ Nyssen, Carmen. "Samuel F. O'Reilly". Buzzworthy Tattoo History. Retrieved June 5, 2022.
  10. ^ a b Klem Osterud, Amelia (2014). The Tattooed Lady. Maryland: Taylor Trade Publishing. p. 42.
  11. ^ Myles, Michelle (January 11, 2016). "New York's First Professional Tattooer". Daredevil Tattoo. Retrieved June 6, 2022.