Maud Wagner

History Uncovered Episode 19:
Maud Wagner, The Taboo-Defying Tattoo Pioneer

Published September 29, 2023

The first-known female tattoo artist in U.S. history, Maud Wagner rewrote the rulebook for what women could do in turn-of-the-century America.

During the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, a tattoo artist named Gus Wagner approached an aerialist named Maud Stevens and asked her to go on a date with him.

She had caught his eye even though Gus was certainly the more eye-catching of the two of them. He was known as the “Tattooed Globetrotter” and claimed to be “the most artistically marked-up man in America.” When Maud and Gus met, he likely had about 300 tattoos. By the end of his life, he would have around 800. They certainly ensured that he stood out in a crowd.

Maud said yes to Gus on one condition: She would only go out with him if he taught her about tattooing. Gus agreed, and before long, Maud’s skin began to blossom with colorful designs of trees and animals and flowers. She was hooked — on tattoos and on the man. A few months later, on October 3, 1904, Maud and Gus were married.

The tattoos that Maud began to collect — up and down her arms and across her chest, up to her collarbone — were typical of the period: monkeys, butterflies, lions, horses, patriotic symbols, and her own name. Maude even had a tattoo of a snake climbing a tree, perhaps a nod to the Garden of Eden.

But there was nothing typical about Maud.

She and Gus were completely covered in tattoos. They would stand out even today, when tattoos are more socially acceptable — and they definitely stood out at the beginning of the 20th century.

Maud Wagner Tattooing

YouTubeGus Wagner tattooing Maud Wagner.

The couple was aware of this, and they used it to their advantage. Maud and Gus displayed their inked bodies to awestruck crowds. They might have earned as much as $200 to $2,000 in today’s money for showing off their tattoos during circus performances.

Together, they traveled across the United States, giving tattoos to all who wanted them. Their daughter Lotteva, who was born in 1907, later recalled that most people wanted a tattoo of an animal. She said that people generally asked for “tattoos of their pet dogs, cats, lovers hearts, butterflies, and birds.”

Though their business was unconventional, it was lucrative. Lotteva noted that on a good week, her father made as much as “a bank president.”

Soon, Maud Wagner became the first-known female tattoo artist in the United States. She is remembered today as a woman who defied convention in the most colorful way possible and took ownership of her body at a time when women weren’t even allowed to vote.

Delve into the rebellious life of Maud Wagner, the mold-breaking female tattoo artist.

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