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.
One such sideshow performer was a woman named Maud Wagner, who would go on to become the first recorded female tattoo artist in U.S. history.
Born Maud Stevens in 1877, the Lyon County, this Kansas native began her career in the arts as a performer, working as an aerialist, acrobat, and contortionist along the carnival and world fair circuit.
While stationed in St. Louis, where she worked at the 1904 World’s Fair, young Maud Stevens met a tattooist named Gus Wagner, otherwise known as “The Tattooed Globetrotter”.
As the story goes, Wagner allegedly offered to teach Stevens 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 a fine attention to patience and detail.
In addition to inking lessons, Wagner also decorated Stevens’ 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.”
When not attracting crowds of her own, Stevens 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.
The pair were later married and Maud Stevens became Maud Wagner, as she is still remembered today, more than a half century after her death in 1961. Together, Gus and Maud Wagner had a daughter named Lovetta who would 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.
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.”