Martin Hildebrandt opened a tattoo shop on the Bowery in the post Civil War era and is considered to be the first tattooist in New York City. Little to no evidence exists today of Martin’s incredible canon of artistry. There are no samples or flash of Martin Hildebrant’s creations that have been found… yet.
In short, the most relevant tattoo artist in history and his exquisite body of work is fundamentally unknown to the modern world.
Michelle Myles of Daredevil Tattoo did extensive research on Martin Hildebrandt and discovered that “…there was very little information about Hildebrandt to be found online, and much of what does appear is contradictory or flat-out inaccurate.”
An elusive historical figure was Martin.
Take Nora Hildebrandt, the first tattooed lady who became well-known as a sideshow act in the late 19th Century – there are conflicting reports on her relationship with Martin. She could have been his wife, his daughter, or a complete stranger that Martin practiced his craft on and assumed his surname as a stage moniker. The details are lost in the fog of the spotty and unreliable record-keeping practices of her time. The identity of Jacob Hildebrandt is equally murky. Amelia Klem Osterud, Author of “The Tattooed Lady: A History” notes that Jacob Hildebrandt “…was listed as her brother in a NY Clipper ad, though I did find a listing for a marriage between Nora Hildebrandt and Jacob Gunther in 1889.” The mystery endures.
Jacob Hildebrandt’s tattoos in the photo below are assumed to be Martin’s handiwork. It may be the last remaining evidence of Hildebrandt’s pioneering artwork and breathtaking talent for utilizing the human body to create his canvas; a talent that launched the tattoo industry in the city, and continues to inspire generations of tattoo artists over a century later.