King of Tattooists: Christian Warlich's legendary body art
A new tattoo for Christmas? Get inspired by the classics: Christian Warlich was a pioneering artist in Germany. His work, which remains influential to this day, is on show at the Hamburg Museum for History.
Beers and tattoos
In 1919, Christian Warlich opened a pub in Hamburg's St. Pauli neighborhood, the city's infamous red-light district, where sailors went out to have fun during their stay in the port city. Warlich had a separate space in his bar where he did his tattoos. He is shown here with customers looking at his famous flash book, featuring ideas for tattoos.
Born in 1890, Warlich left the family house at the age of 14 and first worked as a stoker on steamships early in the 20th century. He might have come in contact with other pioneering tattoo artists in the US, such as Charlie Wagner, influencing his own work. Above are some of Warlich's trademark flashes.
The King of Tattooists
His promotional material touted him as the "King of Tattooists." Warlich is believed to be the first tattoo artist to use an electric tattoo machine in Germany. With the tool, patented by NY tattoo artist Samuel O'Reilly in 1891, Warlich offered a professionalized service. Previously, tattoos were done in public spaces, in parks or on the street, presumably with needles attached to wooden sticks.
From butterflies to dagger-and-skull pieces, people are still getting Warlich-inspired tattoos, whether they realize it or not. On Instagram, #InspiredByWarlich shows how his flashes remain popular to this day. His drawings were based on traditional tattoo motifs; he was also influenced by US pop culture and European art, creating for instance pieces based on Botticelli or Dürer's works.
Anything, but not on the face
"I tattoo everything the male body should express: politics, eroticism, athleticism, aesthetics, religion, in all colors and locations. Strictly real!" claims a Warlich ad. However, during a 1951 court case concerning a man with a snake tattooed on his face, Warlich testified against the accused, specifying that "A decent tattooist doesn't tattoo in the face, and above all not a drunk man."
An immemorial practice
Captain James Cook came back from the South Pacific in 1770s with the word "tattoo," but he wasn't the one who introduced the practice to the Western world. Tattoos were found on the 5,300-year-old mummy of Ötzi the Iceman, and 17th-century pilgrims often got a cross tattooed. There was a time when it was also fashionable for the upper class to get a tattoo, from King Edward VII to Empress Sisi.
A sailor's code
The connection between tattoos and sailors did increase following Captain Cook's travels. Sisi, the Empress of Austria (1837-1898), had a tattoo of an anchor done on her arm at the age of 51 as she traveled around the world. The body art was a way for sailors to show they belonged to the social group and record their travels. Many pieces had a symbolic meaning or were linked to a superstition.
A lasting name
Unlike many artists of the time, Christian Warlich regularly updated his designs and added more flashes to his repertoire. Warlich, who died in 1964, spent over 40 years working as a tattooist, adding art to the bodies of more than 50,000 customers, including Prince Axel and Prince Viggo from the Danish Royal family.
A new edition of Warlich's flash book
After Warlich's death, his estate, including his famous flash book, was sold to the Museum for Hamburg History. Different editions of the book were printed, but the quality of the images didn't do justice to the original work. Now a new book, edited by art historian and tattoo research expert Ole Wittmann, has been published.
On the traces of tattoo legends
The exhibition "Christian Warlich: King of tattoists" is on show at the Hamburg Museum for History until May 25, 2020. Demonstrating Warlich's enduring influence, the show also looks into the city's history of tattooing, featuring the work of other St. Pauli district pioneers as well, and connects the Hamburg scene to the international network of tattooists of that era.