Throughout the years that I have been working at The Mariners’ Museum, I have compiled a list of photographs that I love. Photos that catch my eye in terms of their composition, or tone, or, often, their subject matter. One such picture came back to my attention recently when we put together a little popup exhibit for a group of local tattoo artists.
It is an image of a boy no older than 14, topless, and reclining on furs. He wears fringed shorts, ankle-high boots, and tattoos cover the young man’s exposed skin. His eyes pierce through your own while a cocky smile pulls the corners of his mouth. All the while, an older gentleman with a bushy mustache and newsboy cap presses a tattoo needle to the youth’s outer thigh. Above his hip stands a panel of tattoo flash and below that, a small square of the image is deliberately cut away.
How could I not have questions?
Who is this tattooed boy? Why is he covered in these tattoos? Why has he posed as if on public display? How does his face show no hint of the pain he must be feeling in his leg? Who is that tattoo artist at work? What got cut out of the image?
Working for a museum has a lot of benefits. One of the most useful is having access to unbelievably skilled researchers. After I expressed an interest in this image, Patti Hinson, our former Chris-Craft Archivist, was able to find a name: Andrew Stuertz. That name was all it took, and I was off in a flash.
Andrew John Stuertz, most often referred to as Andy, was born on June 4, 1892, to Andrew Sr. and Lizzie Stuertz. He became an orphan by the age of 6 and went to live with his mother’s family in Philadelphia. While in his young teens, he made his way to New York.
A very young, and very poor, Andy then met Charlie Wagner, an up-and-coming tattoo artist.
Wagner was a pioneer in the tattooing industry. At his best-known shop, located on Bowery Street in New York, he offered 10 and 25 cent tattooing even when other shops started charging a dollar for the same designs. It was this location at 223 1/2 Bowery that Wagner created an electric tattoo machine based on a dental plugger and electric bell. For his invention, he received the second American tattooing machine patent on record.
In addition to his innovations, Wagner garnered a reputation as the preferred artist for wannabe tattooed attractions, most of them young boys, who went on to have careers in sideshows and circuses. Wagner had numerous young people that served as living canvases and practice pieces. At the time, no safeguards prevented minors from being tattooed so long as they consented. The only law was to prevent forcing children to receive tattoos. Andy agreed to let Wagner tattoo him from head to toe.
My research into Andy also revealed a completed version of the image from the museum collection, which showed a sign that listed the address for Wagner’s Bowery studio at 223 1/2. Wagner would have likely sold the picture as a promotional item. In other existing versions, the number has been overwritten to be 208 Bowery, which was the location of Wagner’s manufacturing facility and shop. It is likely that the museum’s copy got cut out after the address changed.
Though the dates are a little unclear, records show that Andy went on to work for T.E. Caffrey’s Imperial Dog and Vaudeville Show, Gollmer Brothers Sideshow, Hagenbeck-Wallace Shows, and Barnum & Bailey Circus as The Tattooed Boy. During his time on the sideshow circuit, Andy met a fellow tattooed attraction named August “Cap” Coleman.
During his time with Barnum and Bailey, Andy met a beautiful young woman named Dagmar Franciska Hansen, a fellow performer hailing from Copenhagen. She was known for a 380-pound boa constrictor wrapping itself around her and went by the stage name “Maxine.” Andy and Dagmar married in their early 20s. In 1925 the couple had their one and only child who they named Venetia.
In his mid-to-late-20s, when the novelty of his tattoos had worn off, Andy left the circus life and became a tattoo artist himself. He eventually moved to Norfolk, VA with Dagmar and Venetia. Andy worked, for a time, with his fellow former sideshow performer, Cap Coleman. The pair realized an opportunity for booming business from the newly established Naval Station Norfolk which quickly became one of the largest naval bases in the country.
Andy’s life gradually shifted away from the mainstream tattooing industry.
After Dagmar’s death in 1945, Andy went to live with his daughter and her young family. In an interview with Derin Bray, Andy’s granddaughter, Frances, said that she remembers Andy quite clearly, although they never discussed his days as a tattooed attraction. Over the years she saw some of his tattoos on his arms and legs but never saw them on full display.
Frances noted that Andy most often wore long sleeves and long pants and was a handsome, quiet, and reserved man. He worked for Frances’s father in a jewelry shop in Norfolk. Andy never drove, but his son-in-law would sometimes drive him somewhere early in the day and then pick him up later in the evening. Frances believes he was working as a tattoo artist at this time because he would take his flash designs with him.
Andy, unfortunately, committed suicide in 1962 at the age of 69. He is interred at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Norfolk, VA. The same cemetery where Cap Coleman would rest a decade later.
A Collection of Personal Stories
In researching Andy Stuertz, one of the goals of The Mariners’ Museum fully connected with me. When you take a step back, our collection is just stuff. What makes it extraordinary are the stories behind it. Andy serves as a reminder that this collection represents real people who lived, loved, innovated, explored, and grew. Their stories are what make the museum what it is; a collection of personal stories that we can reach back into and connect. All of this started because I thought a photograph was intriguing. Now I feel like I know Andy and I can carry his memory forward and share his story.