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Lew the Jew and His Circle: Origins of American Tattoo

An exhibition of the work of one of America’s most influential tattoo artists at the beginning of the twentieth century

July 26, 2018–June 9, 2019


(San Francisco, CA, June 1, 2018) In a new, original exhibition presented as part of its tenth anniversary year on Jessie Square, The Contemporary Jewish Museum (The CJM) examines the work of “Lew the Jew” Alberts (born Albert Morton Kurzman, 1880–1954), one of America’s most influential tattoo artists at the beginning of the twentieth century. Drawn in large part from the private collection of San Francisco artist, author, and tattoo legend Don Ed Hardy whose 2015 book “Lew the Jew” Alberts: Early 20th Century Tattoo Drawings inspired the exhibition, Lew the Jew and His Circle includes never before exhibited original tattoo artwork, newly discovered documents and photographs from Alberts’ early life, correspondence with contemporaries, and more.

Alberts, the son of two Jewish immigrants living in New York, learned tattooing as a member of the armed forces overseas during the Spanish-American War and was the original creator of what is now known as tattoo flash, the samples used in tattoo shops. Operating primarily on New York’s lively Bowery where a who’s who of tattoo artists could be found, Alberts constructed some of the earliest electric tattoo machines and was the first to design and market the printed design sheets to other tattooists. His artwork in these flash displays codified the repertoire of American tattooing, and many are still in use today.

Alberts was in a close-knit group of the most prominent American tattoo artists of the first quarter of the twentieth century, who stayed in close communication despite being spread across the country. This included two Bay Area-based tattooists, “Brooklyn Joe” Lieber who lived and worked in Alameda, CA and C.J. “Pop” Eddy of San Francisco. Many examples of correspondence with Lieber and Eddy, containing iconic examples of American flash, will be on display and are a significant early record of tattoo history that shows how these artists influenced each other’s styles and how this American folk-art form was collaboratively brought into being during its earliest years.

The exhibition, curated by The CJM’s Chief Curator Renny Pritikin with assistance from Curatorial Assistant Natasha Matteson, will also include samples of work by other contemporaries of Alberts who were working on the Bowery such as Millie Hull, one of only a very few women working as tattooists in the first part of the twentieth century; Charlie Wagner, Alberts’ business partner and mentor and one the best-known tattoo artists of the era; and Bob Wicks. It includes such rare finds as newsreel footage from the 1930s of Hull working on a tattoo, an oral history of the Bowery pre-WWII from a surviving member of the Moskowitz tattoo family, and a series of pin ups by “Brooklyn Joe,” including a provocative Betty Boop.

“The CJM strives to find unusual stories that reveal Jewish contributions to American culture,” says Renny Pritikin, Chief Curator, The CJM. “Jewish tradition is ambivalent about tattooing, so the discovery that Jewish practitioners were early adopters and shapers of the American tattoo industry over a century ago is an intriguing and little-known story. While tattoo enthusiasts will, naturally, be fascinated by this exhibition, it also conjures the rich life of the Bowery and Lower East Side where so many Jewish immigrants lived and worked more than a century ago and tells a colorful and intriguing story accessible to all.”

Of Alberts’ chosen nickname “Lew the Jew,” Hardy writes in his book, “Many tattooers take on a professional name, partially to avoid embarrassing their families when tattooing was generally looked down upon. It is likely that both Joe Lieber and Charlie Wagner (originally spelled Weigner) were Jewish. At any rate, Kurzman chose a nom du needle that emphasized, rather than disguised, his heritage.”

“Great exhibitions tell great stories,” says Lori Starr, Executive Director, The CJM. “This is a story about an intriguing art form and how Jews like Lew created much of what we recognize as modern tattoos. It’s a story of Jewish American immigration as well and how popular culture evolved in the 20th century.”

Organization and Funding

Lew the Jew and His Circle: Origins of American Tattoo is organized by The Contemporary Jewish Museum. Sponsorship is generously provided by Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt, Joyce Linker, and Pacific Heights Plastic Surgery.

Related Programs


Panel Discussion

The Art of Tattoos with Don Ed Hardy, Mary Joy Scott, Grime, and Taki

Thursday, July 26 | 6:30–8pm

$25 general

In conjunction with the opening of the exhibition, Don Ed Hardy shares his research into the archives of tattoo history and how he uncovered the fascinating story of “Lew the Jew” Alberts. Hardy will be joined on stage by Mary Joy Scott (Tattoo City), Grime (independent artist), and Taki (State of Grace Tattoo) for a discussion about the art of tattooing.


Numbered (2012; 55 min)

Tuesday, Aug 7 | 1–2pm

Free with First Free Tuesday

Auschwitz prisoners, both Jewish and non-Jewish, were tattooed with serial numbers. Numbered is an explosive, highly visual, and emotionally cinematic journey, guided by testimonies and portraits of these survivors (2012; 55min). Followed by a facilitated discussion with Alexis Herr (JFCS Holocaust Center).

Gallery Chats

Tattoo Talks in the Gallery

Fridays, Aug 10 & 24, Sep 7  | 12:30–1pm

Free with Museum admission

Join tattoo mavens and fans in the Lew the Jew exhibition for lively discussions.


Porchlight: Tattoo Tales

Thursday, Aug 16 | 7–8:30pm

$15 general

Porchlight returns with a night of revealing stories about tattoos and those who love them, with hosts Arlene Klatte and Beth Lisick. Storytellers include Karen Roze of Sacred Rose Tattoo in Berkeley, Penelope Starr of Odyssey Storytelling, and more.


Night at the Jewseum: Adornment

Thursday, Sep 13 | 6–9pm

Free with Museum admission; $5 after 5pm

The party for the after-work crowd celebrates the Days of Awe with an unexpected twist.  Delve into the Lew the Jew exhibition with flash art, temp tats, music, photo booths, snacks, cocktails, and more.

Gallery Chat

The Jewish Taboo on Tattoos

Friday, Nov 2 | 12:30–1pm

Free with Museum admission

Merissa Nathan Gerson speaks on the changing conversation among generations about the taboo against tattoos.

About Don Ed Hardy

Don Ed Hardy is an internationally known tattoo artist and printmaker. A Southern California native born in 1945, Hardy revived a childhood determination to become a tattoo artist and underwent a tattoo apprenticeship while simultaneously receiving a BFA degree in printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1967. Tattooing professionally, he developed the fine art potential of the medium with emphasis on its Asian heritage, and maintains the studio Tattoo City in San Francisco, with younger artists continuing to evolve and carry on his unique work format. In 1982, he and his wife, Francesca Passalacqua, formed Hardy Marks Publications and have written, edited, and published over twenty-five books on alternative art.

In addition to showing his own works, Hardy has curated a number of exhibitions for both galleries and nonprofit spaces and frequently lectures at museums and universities. In 2000, he was appointed by Oakland mayor Jerry Brown to that city’s Cultural Arts Commission and awarded an Honorary Doctorate by the San Francisco Art Institute. In 2004 “Ed Hardy,” a major fashion line featuring his artwork, was launched internationally.

About The Contemporary Jewish Museum

With the opening of its new building on June 8, 2008, The Contemporary Jewish Museum ushered in a new chapter in its twenty-plus year history of engaging audiences and artists in exploring contemporary perspectives on Jewish culture, history, art, and ideas. The facility, designed by internationally renowned architect Daniel Libeskind, is a lively center where people of all ages and backgrounds can gather to experience art, share diverse perspectives, and engage in hands-on activities. Inspired by the Hebrew phrase L’Chaim (To Life), the building is a physical embodiment of The CJM’s mission to bring together tradition and innovation in an exploration of the Jewish experience in the twenty-first century.

Major support for The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s exhibitions and Jewish Peoplehood Programs comes from the Koret Foundation. The Museum also thanks the Jim Joseph Foundation for its major support of innovative strategies for educating and engaging audiences in Jewish learning. Additional major support is provided by two Anonymous donors; Alyse and Nathan Mason Brill; Carbon Five; Gaia Fund; the Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; Grants for the Arts; Walter and Elise Haas Fund; Suzanne and Elliott Felson; Wendy Kesser; Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt; Nellie and Max Levchin; Millennium Partners, the Bernard Osher Jewish Philanthropies Foundation of the Jewish Community Federation and Endowment Fund; The Lisa and John Pritzker Family Fund; Dorothy R. Saxe; Seiger Family Foundation; Taube Philanthropies for Jewish Life and Culture; and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Thank you to the Helen Diller Family Foundation for their support of the Helen Diller Institute at The Contemporary Jewish Museum.

For more information about The Contemporary Jewish Museum, visit The Museum’s website at

General Information

The Museum is open daily (except Wednesday) 11am–5pm and Thursday, 11am–8pm. Museum admission is $14 for adults, $12 for students and senior citizens with a valid ID, and $5 on Thursdays after 5pm. Youth 18 and under always get in free. For general information on The Contemporary Jewish Museum, the public may visit The Museum’s website at or call 415.655.7800. The Contemporary Jewish Museum is located at 736 Mission Street (between Third & Fourth streets), San Francisco. 

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