Tattooed women might be found everywhere today, but without Maud Wagner, that may never have been possible.
Tattoos are often dismissed as the product of poor decision-making or bad taste, but their relationship with the feminist movement has always been important, if overlooked. As woman vied for the right to vote, choose, and earn equal pay throughout the 20th century, tattoos presented themselves as a visible symbol of growing self-determination and empowerment.
As permanent inking suggests, women’s right to do with their bodies what they pleased was something that simply could not be taken from them.
Even today, tattoo culture remains an important part of female empowerment. In 2012, more women than men got inked for the first time and the numbers are growing by the day.
Of course, there was a time when tattooing was taboo, especially among young women. It was only thanks to those who chose to break down the barriers and experiment with such expression that tattoos became so commonplace.
One of those bold, tattooed women responsible for breaking down barriers was Maud Wagner.
Maud Wagner’s Early Life
At the turn of the 20th century, traveling circuses wowed viewers from coast to coast. From highly trained animals to elaborate trapeze acts, there was no shortage of entertainment for a crowd to catch. But for many show-goers, it was the sideshow performances that kept them coming back for more.
Maud Wagner was one such sideshow performer.
Born Maud Stevens in 1877, the Lyon County, Kansas native began her career in the arts as a performer, working as an aerialist, acrobat, and contortionist along the carnival circuit.
Throughout her youth, Wagner traveled with local circus acts and sideshows. Eventually, she graduated to working with traveling circuses, which led her to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition.
Known informally as the St. Louis World’s Fair, the Louisiana Purchase Exposition served as an internal exhibition for the world’s performers and inventors. People from around the globe traveled to St. Louis to see the brightest and best newfangled inventions and experience the greatest shows on earth.
Among those who traveled to the fair was a young tattoo artist named Gus Wagner, otherwise known as “The Tattooed Globetrotter”.
As the story goes, Gus allegedly offered to teach Maud the art of tattooing in exchange for a single date with the circus star. He schooled her in the “hand-poked,” or “stick-and-poke” method of body modification, which requires little more than a sharp needle, some ink, and fine attention to patience and detail.
In addition to inking lessons, Gus also decorated Maud’s body with his own works of art – so frequently, in fact, that before long she was covered up to her neck in blackwork designs, which only added to the spectacle created by her sideshow performances.
“Maud’s tattoos were typical of the period,” writes Margo DeMello in her book Inked: Tattoos and Body Art Around the World. “She wore patriotic tattoos, tattoos of monkeys, butterflies, lions, horses, snakes, trees, women, and had her own name tattooed on her left arm.”
From Contortionist To Tattooist
When not attracting crowds of her own, Maud began tattooing her circus coworkers, eventually picking up public clients, always opting to stay true to her hand-poked roots despite the fact that electric tattoo machines were widely used by other artists in the industry.
Shortly after their meeting in 1904, Gus and Maud were married and Maud Stevens became Maud Wagner, as she is still remembered today. Together, Gus and Maud Wagner had a daughter named Lovetta who would also go on to make a name for herself in the world of tattooing as she grew. Despite working as an artist like her parents, Lovetta was denied ever becoming inked by her father — at Maud’s insistence.
A loyal apprentice if there ever was one, Lovetta refused the talents of her fellow artists, permanently renouncing her candidacy as a client with the passing of her beloved dad. If he couldn’t tattoo her, no one would.
Lovetta’s final work of art can still be seen on the skin of legendary California artist Don Ed Hardy, whom she adorned with a rose shortly before her death in 1983.
The Legacy Of Tattooed Women
Of course, tattooed skin on North American women didn’t start with Maud Wagner. Native cultures, including Inuit tribes living in what is now Alaska and Canada, have been tattooing female members since at least 1576 according to an instance recorded by Sir Martin Frobisher, an English privateer exploring the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage.
A tattooed and mummified princess found buried in Siberia pushes the date of the first known tattooed woman back even further to the fifth century BC.
Although Maud Wagner certainly didn’t invent the practice of tattooing women — nor did she claim to — her achievements helped pave the way for countless women, whatever side of the needle they may find themselves on, to assert control over their bodies.
As author Margot Mifflin writes in Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo:
“Tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies—and why.”
Intrigued by this look at Maud Wagner, the first female tattoo artist in modern America? Think you know all the ins and outs of tattoos? These tattoo facts as well as these photos of vintage tattoos may make you think again.