Tattoo History 11: Tattooed Ladies

Pictures courtesy of Vintage Tattoo Photo Archive.

For over 100 years, “The Tattooed Lady” was an attraction not to be missed at circuses, carnivals, and freak shows all around the world. While men also performed and showed off their tattooed bodies, women were what people wanted to see. Pick a time in history, or modern day, and sex and danger sells. Thus, tattooed women sold tickets wherever they went, and attracted tourists and locals alike.

Some of the most famous tattooed ladies of the 1800’s and 1900’s also had fabricated back stories to make themselves seem more interesting. What’s more interesting (especially given the times); “woman tattooed by force after capture by ‘savages'”, or “woman gets tattooed by her common-law partner?” This was part of the fabrication and later true story of Nora Hildebrandt.

Betty Broadbent April 4th 1938, Australia

Nora Hildebrandt is known as the first professional tattooed lady. She was tattooed by her common-law partner, Martin Hildebrandt (some people refer to them as father and daughter but more evidence points to them being romantic partners rather than father and daughter). Martin Hildebrandt is a hard person to pin down due to the amount of traveling he did. But according to numerous reports it looks like he eventually settled in New York in the 1850’s. Nora Hildebrandt began performing at sideshows in 1882, with over 365 tattoos all over her body. This number helped her fake back story of being captured by “Indian savages” and forcibly tattooed one per day for a year (which she later admitted was false and just helped sell tickets). Nora most famously performed with Barnum and Bailey’s circus in the 1890’s as their main tattooed lady.

Nora Hildebrandt 1880’s

Artoria (Anne) Gibbons is another well known tattooed lady. She worked for over 30 years in circuses and sideshows in the early 1900’s including Barnum and Bailey’s, the Ringling Brothers, and others. She met Charles “Red” Gibbons, an already well known tattooer, and the two eventually married. After being married for 4-5 years, Red started tattooing Anne, and she became almost like a business card or canvas to showcase his work. She was apparently so beautiful, and the tattoos on her body so well done, that she stole the show wherever she went. In an interview in 1934, Anne said that she was often asked if she was born that way (seriously). From medieval times to the mid 1900’s many people believed in the “mark of impression,” that something the mother had done or seen would leave a physical mark on the baby. Doctors legitimately thought that her mother had watched too many movies while she was pregnant with Anne and that’s why she was covered in images.

Artoria Gibbons and her famous last supper tattoo in 1920

A third well known tattooed lady was Betty Broadbent. She was born in the early 1900’s and at the age of 14 went to work for a wealthy family in Atlantic City as a nanny. It was there that she came across the heavily tattooed man, Jack Red Cloud on the famous Atlantic City Boardwalk. He was performing as a Tattooed Man and was happy to talk to her about tattoos and art. Betty started her body suit after being introduced to Jack’s friend, the famous Charlie Wagner. She spent her life savings tot ravel to New York City to and start being tattooed by Wagner. She was also tattooed by another New York artist named Joe Van Hart, and eventually collected pieces from Tony Rhineagear and Red Gibbons. The process took about two years and included 365 individual pieces, varying in theme. They covered her arms, legs, back, and chest. Pieces included historical figures such as Queen Victoria, religious figures such as the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. Though one of her most notable pieces is a huge eagle that spreads from shoulder to shoulder. When asked about it she reportedly said “it hurt something awful, but it was worth it.”She joined the circus in 1927, working with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s. Betty was also one of the few well known Tattooed Ladies who didn’t use a fabricated story about her tattoos.

Betty Broadbent, April 4th in38, Australia

The last Tattooed Lady I looked at is Maud Wagner. Along with being a Tattooed Lady, Maud also performed aerial acrobatics and was an accomplished contortionist who travelled with multiple circuses. She was born in 1877 in Kansas. Maud met her husband, Gus Wagner at the Louisiana World’s fair in 1904, and learned how to do hand-poked tattoos from him. She would become America’s first known female tattooer, along with her work as a performer in the circus industry. The couple had a daughter, Lotteva, who learned the family trade at the age of 9 and continued tattooing throughout her life. Maud’s tattoos included patriotic art, and animals mainly.

Maud Wagner 1907

It is often assumed that men dominated the tattoo world, but through research it’s clear to see that women have been just as important in shaping tattoo culture. Tattooed Ladies brought tattoos to the forefront of underground society, and helped make them “more acceptable.” Tattooed Ladies were able to make a name and living for themselves for over 100 years, from the late 1800’s to mid 1990’s through circuses and carnivals, and now are able to through websites and magazines.

Who is your favourite historical tattooed lady?

https://www.cloakanddaggerlondon.co.uk/history-tattooed-attraction-betty-broadbent/

https://www.thevintagenews.com/2017/05/05/maud-wagner-known-as-the-inked-woman-was-the-first-female-tattoo-artist-in-america/

https://www.tattooarchive.com/history/gibbons_artoria.php

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10 Indigenous Tattoo Artists to Support:

Today ( June 21st 2020) is National Indigenous People’s Day. Indigenous people have a rich history of body modification, including tattooing, which is still being practiced today.

Haida inspired pieces by Mikel at https://www.instagram.com/mikel_tattoosangha/?hl=en
Tipi/teepee by Vince at https://www.instagram.com/badboyvince3090/?hl=en

Before colonialism ravaged North America, tattooing and other traditional body modifications such as piercings were practiced widely by different people throughout what is now Canada and The United States.

Hand poked design by Nahaan at https://www.instagram.com/nahaan206/?hl=en
Hand poked and skin stitched by Quill at https://www.instagram.com/raunchykwe/?hl=en

These tattoos were meant to represent family, clan crests, social rank within a clan, their relationship to a specific territory, and even hunting and fishing rights.

Skin stitched blue berries done by Amy Malbeuf at https://www.instagram.com/amy.malbeuf/?hl=en
Hand poked trees by Jaime at https://www.instagram.com/intheforest.tattoo/?hl=en

Tattooing and piercing are just two ceremonial practices that were forbidden by colonists in an attempt to stamp out Indigenous culture, and today, many artists are bringing it back.

Hand poked and skin stitched flowers and fish by https://www.instagram.com/audie.m_/?hl=en

North American Indigenous designs are similar to those of the Maori people of New Zealand. Geometric patterns using black ink, produced generally by tapping or threading the ink into the skin using a natural rod or thread, also called “hand poked” or “skin stitched” tattoos.

Hand poked chin tattoo by https://www.instagram.com/kaniyewna.tsyeyatalu/?hl=en

Placement is also similar between the cultures, often placing important tattoos on faces and hands, among other body parts.

Hand poked chin tattoo by Dion Kaszas at https://www.instagram.com/dionkaszas/?hl=en

Indigenous tattoos traditionally take inspiration from nature, such as animals, plants, and the elements. But of course Indigenous tattooers can and do work in other styles.

American traditional pirate pieces by Cam Von Cook at https://www.instagram.com/camvoncooktat2/?hl=en

To learn more please check out

https://www.earthlinetattoo.com/home

https://www.nationalobserver.com/2018/08/23/these-five-indigenous-tattoo-artists-are-reawakening-cultural-practices

https://www.indigenoustattooing.com

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Feel free to link more artists below, as well as any further readings on Indigenous tattooing and modifications.

Tattoo History 10: George Burchett

Referred to as the “king of tattooists” by himself and others, George Burchett- (Davis) was one of the most famous tattoo artists of his age, particularly in the UK. Notably tattooing in London, marking both the social elite and the hard working class, and even members of the Royal family.

George working on a forearm piece. (photo colourized)
Burchett Devil by Quinn Jordan Campbell.

In Burchett’s “Memoirs of a Tattooist” he states that “I have tattooed the subjects of six sovereigns, starting with portraits of Queen Victoria. The tradition has been maintained and still seemed to be strong when I prepared the designs for the coronation of 1953.” He also reminisces about tattooing The Duke of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, one of Queen Victoria’s favorite nephews, Prince Christian Victor, a grandson of Queen Victoria, and King GeorgeV. Along with English royalty he also tattooed King Alfonso XIII of Spain, and King Frederick IX of Denmark.

Burchett was born in Brighton in 1872, and had a very early introduction to tattooing. He practiced tattooing on his five year old brother, Charles, who apparently traded candy for some scratched designs in his skin. George also tattooed his classmates until he was expelled for doing so at the age of twelve.

Burchett doing a full back. Found thanks to vintage tattoo archive, linked at the end of article.
Burchett tiger head done by Mike C Davies.

After being expelled, George joined the Royal Navy and sailed as a deckhand all over the British Empire, including stops in the West Indies, the Mediterranean, Africa, India, and East Asia. This was also where he fell farther in love with tattooing, as he was able to see marvellous styles and designs from all over the world. He was able to develop his own skill and style by tattooing other sailors.

Life at sea proved to not be for George, so he left the navy while on leave in Israel, and set up his first shop in Jerusalem. This only lasted a short time as he feared being caught by authorities for deserting the navy. This led to him boarding a Spanish merchant ship. He was able to avoid persecution for twelve years, but missed England. It was at this point that he dropped the “Davis” in his last name to make it harder to catch him, and set up shop in London, but this time as a cobbler. Though he did continue to tattoo on the side whenever the opportunity arose. During this time he was fortunate enough to meet two other legendary artists, Tom Riley and Sutherland MacDonald. MacDonald took George under his wing and taught him more about techniques and designs of tattooing.

Burchett black trad design by Coque Sin Amo.
George’s shop. Found on vintage tattoo archive.

During his time as a cobbler/tattooer he grew more and more popular with the working class as a top tattoo artist, working mainly on sailors, dock workers, and transients that happened through London from all around the world. In 1900 George was able to start tattooing full time and give up cobbling. He opened a proper shop on Mile End Road where he could easily catch soldiers on their way to the front lines in World War One.

As his shop grew in clientele, so did his reputation, leading him to tattoo more wealthy Londoners, and even royals. Though Riley and MacDonald tattooed more royals than he.

King Frederick IX of Denmark, dragon on the chest tattooed by Burchett in London.
George tattooing “The Great Omi.”

Another of his more famous clients was “The Great Omi,” (Horace Ridler) who was a well known circus performer. George was paid several thousand dollars to tattoo a full body suit that turned The Great Omi into a human zebra.

George is also one of (if not the) first artists to use tattooing as a cosmetic procedure, tattooing women lips and eyebrows (though he also tattooed many flowers and lovers initials on his female clientele).

George tattooing a woman’s eyebrows.
Colourized photo of Burchett tattooing a woman’s leg.

George Burchett was undeniable a classic American traditional artist, though like many historical and modern tattooers, drew influence from African and Asian art that he had the good fortune to see during his travels at sea.

He tried to retire at the age of 70 in 1942, but because of World War Two, tattoos were at an all time high demand, essentially forcing him and his two sons to tattoo the immense amount of soldiers and sailors walking through the door.

Another shot of “The Great Omi.”
Burchett battle piece done by Nick Roses.

Because he never retired, George worked until Good Friday of 1953 when he died suddenly at the age of 81. His work is still highly influential today with people still getting his designs, or variations of them, tattooed in large numbers.

To read more on Burchett’s life and legacy check out the links below: https://www.tattoolife.com/tattoo-portraits-george-burchett-king-tattooists/

https://www.tattooarchive.com/history/burchett_george_charles.php

As well as the books “King of Tattooists: The Life and Work of George Burchett” and “Memoirs of a Tattooist

Check out https://www.instagram.com/vintagetattoophotoarchive/ for more vintage tattoo photos

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Tattoo History 9: Lyle Tuttle

Lyle Tuttle was known as the father of modern tattooing, working in the industry from the late 1940’s until his death ( March 2019).

Lyle outside his San Francisco shop

He got his first tattoo at the young age of 14 for the cheap price of $3.50 and was hooked immediately.

Lyle’s front done by Bert Grimm

Lyle’s most well known tattoos on himself were done by the famous Bert Grimm back in 1957 and 1958 at the very shop he would then work at for a number of years, known affectionately as “The Pike”.

Lyle’s back done by Bert Grimm

After working for Bert Grimm, and a couple of smaller shops, Lyle opened his own shop in San Fransisco in 1960. He worked at the shop for 29 years before an earthquake damaged it. After tattooing for years he officially retired in the 90’s, but did small pieces for friends and dedicated fans. He also taught courses on building proper tattoo machines and tattoo etiquette and hygiene.

Lyle tattooing a customer

Lyle was one of the most outspoken male tattoo artists who were pro tattooing women, and women becoming tattoo artists. When asked about what helped tattooing gain such rapid popularity he said “Women’s liberation! One hundred percent women’s liberation! That put tattooing back on the map. With women getting a new found freedom, they could get tattooed if they so desired. It increased and opened the market by 50% of the population — half of the human race! For three years, I tattooed almost nothing but women. Most women got tattooed for the entertainment value…circus side show attractions and so forth. Self-made freaks, that sort of stuff. The women made tattooing a softer and kinder art form.”

Lyle was also a huge advocate for the normalization of tattooing and is famous for saying “Tattoos aren’t meant for everybody, and they’re too goddamn good for some people.”

Lyle’s famous business card

Another of my favourite quotes of his reads thus, “Tattoos are travel marks, stickers on your luggage. Tattoos are special, you have to go off and earn them. You can go into a jewelry store and buy a big diamond and slip it on your finger and walk out. It’s not like that when you go into a tattoo shop and pick a big tattoo and pay for it. Now you got to sit down and take it.”

Old school Lyle flash

This is something I strongly believe in. When people ask me why I get them if they hurt so much, I say it’s part of the experience. And if someone says “just use a numbing cream”, I say you have to earn that tattoo. If you can’t take it, don’t get one.

Old school Lyle flash

Lyle will be greatly missed by his friends, family, and those in the tattoo community. Do yourself a favour and get yourself a piece from his flash in the near future to keep his work alive.

Old school Lyle flash

Tattoo History 8: Myanmar’s Tattooed Chin Women

All pictures are by Eric Lafforgue, not myself.

There are 135 different ethnic groups in Myanmar. One of them is called Chin, after the Chin state that they live in. Each of these groups has rich cultural traditions. The Chin people are known for their remarkable face tattoos. The women of Chin state have been getting face tattoos since the eleventh century according to legend.

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The tradition of tattooing the faces of girls started when a Burmese king visited the area. Becoming enthralled with the young women he kidnapped one young girl to be his bride. The elders then decided to tattoo their young girls faces to dissuade other men from stealing them. It is also said to make them more beautiful, and to be able to tell them apart from the women in other tribes. The third legend of the beginning of face tattooing is that local pastors told them only those with face tattoos would get into heaven. This being after the area was colonized by British missionaries.

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There are different tattoo patterns for different groups within the Chin state. For example, the M’uun women have more sloping, curved shapes, the Yin Du have long vertical lines that cross the entire face, and the Uppriu have their entire face tattooed full of dots.

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As with most of these ancient tattoo traditions, it is extremely painful to get them done. The tattoos are made using leaves, grass, and soot. The leaves are used to make colour, the soot is sued as a disinfectant and binding agent, and the grass shoots are later used to wrap the tattoo, giving a natural bandage. The tattoo is given using long, sharp cane thorns. The face would stay swollen for 5-7 days, but it was all worth it for the beauty and tradition!

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The government banned getting these tattoos in the 60’s, but some women still practise this ancient tradition since they are so far from the capital.

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The women who still have their face tattoos love them and see them as a beautiful addition to their bodies. The younger generations don’t seem to like how they look for the most part, but the older women stick together and still admire each others art.

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Artist of the Month: Jimmy Ho

Jimmy Ho is a tattoo artist in Hong Kong. Jimmy has had his own shop since he was 14, and was tattooing before that, thanks to his father, James. His father opened Hong Kong’s first tattoo shop in 1946 called “The Rose Tattoo”, and by 1950 the shop was working non-stop to fill the demands of American soldiers getting tattooed. Jimmy has had his own shop since 1958.

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An in progress pic of chest panels and half sleeves done in traditional Chinese style.
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Jimmy tattooing a dragon onto Chinese movie star Michael Chan in the 1970’s.

Jimmy started tattooing sailors at night before he was 14, when his fathers shop was technically closed. He wanted to help out and make some money so he started doing them himself, and has been tattooing ever since.

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Three Chinese dragons.
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Tiger flash from 1983

During the Korean war he and the other artists at his father’s shop would tattoo 30-40 men per day due to the high demand. Jimmy would tattoo soldiers everyday from 11am until 4am, non stop.

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Chinese dragon as a full back piece.
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Raijin and dragons done in 1984 or 85.

Jimmy has his own style, modelled after his fathers. A mix of traditional Chinese and American traditional, but specializing in dragons.

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Dragon and lady done in 1975.
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Beautiful forearm dragon piece.

Jimmy still tattoos, but most of the pictures on his Instagram are from the 70s-90s if you’re trying to find a portfolio.

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Chinese movie star Andy Lau in 1997.
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Sign for Jimmy’s tattoos in Hong Kong.

There are some differences between Chinese and Japanese dragons, as you’ll see in Jimmy’s work. His dragons usually have 4 claws, which was used in ancient Chinese history for high ranking officials and nobility, while the 3 toed dragons were for common people, as well as the Japanese.

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Eagle and mudan flower from 1982 or 83.

If you can’t make it all the way to Hong Kong for a tattoo you can always get some of Jimmy’s flash off of big cartel here.   tattooflash.bigcartel.com

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Jimmy with some of his flash that you can buy on big cartel.

Baphomet Tattoos:

Baphomet today is regarded as a Satanic figure, but for a long time Baphomet was actually a word for the prophet Mohammed in Islam, and worshipping a Muslim god or prophet was seen as idolatry. The Knights of Templar were accused of worshipping Baphomet the false idol in Medieval France, and were tortured under King Philip.

baphomet Daniel Baczewski
Baphomet head by Daniel Baczewski.
baphomet Róbert A Borbás
Brilliant back of the head and neck piece by Róbert A Borbás.
JASON OZ in Denver Colorado
Majestic Baphomet head done on the skull by Jason Oz in Denver Colorado.
Matthew Murray, Black Veil Tattoo, Salem Massechusetts
Amazing long bearded Baphomet head by Matthew Murray, Black Veil Tattoo, Salem Massachusetts.

Over the next 500 years, Baphomet changed from Mohammed the prophet, to a hermaphroditic stone figure borrowed from Egypt or the Gnostic Christian Ophites. This was after both scholars and mystics studied the Knights of Templar, writing that the Knights brought back ancient magical knowledge from the middle East and North Africa. The idol in question was called Baphomet in 1818, and were most likely just misidentified artifacts from other cultures and religions.

Patrick Toussaint Melbourne
Fantastic blackwork/linework full bodied Baphomet by Patrick Toussaint in Melbourne.
Anka Lavriv at Black Iris Tattoo in New York
Blackwork goat head by Anka Lavriv at Black Iris Tattoo in New York.
baphomet Brooke Ashliegh at Binx Tattoo
Pentagram, goat skull, and flowers by Brooke Ashliegh at Binx Tattoo.
Frederico Rabelo in Portugal
Large Black Philip torso piece by Frederico Rabelo in Portugal.

But the final Baphomet that we picture today was created in 1854 by occultist Eliphas Levi for his book “Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie” (“Dogmas and Rituals of High Magic“).  Levi describes Baphomet in detail in his book.”The goat on the frontispiece carries the sign of the pentagram on the forehead, with one point at the top, a symbol of light, his two hands forming the sign of hermetism, the one pointing up to the white moon of Chesed, the other pointing down to the black one of Geburah. This sign expresses the perfect harmony of mercy with justice. His one arm is female, the other male like the ones of the androgyn of Khunrath, the attributes of which we had to unite with those of our goat because he is one and the same symbol. The flame of intelligence shining between his horns is the magic light of the universal balance, the image of the soul elevated above matter, as the flame, whilst being tied to matter, shines above it. The beast’s head expresses the horror of the sinner, whose materially acting, solely responsible part has to bear the punishment exclusively; because the soul is insensitive according to its nature and can only suffer when it materializes. The rod standing instead of genitals symbolizes eternal life, the body covered with scales the water, the semi-circle above it the atmosphere, the feathers following above the volatile. Humanity is represented by the two breasts and the androgyn arms of this sphinx of the occult sciences.”

baphomet alex tabuns
Large goat head on the torso by Alex Tabuns.
baphomet sakari
Full bodied Baphomet in a fantastic blackwork backpiece by Sakari.
Matthew Kaufmann Drunken Monkey Tattoo, Mixhigan
Bright neo traditional Baphomet head and skulls by Matthew Kaufmann at Drunken Monkey Tattoo in Michigan.
Rodrigo Lopez
Three eyed Baphomet by Rodrigo Lopez.

As a tattoo, people often get the full bodied Baphomet, or a goats head, as goats are often also related to Satanism as well as witchcraft and paganism. Full bodied goats and goat heads are also popular in part thanks to the film The Witch, and the Satanic goat named Black philip. Generally these tattoos are done in blackwork or black and grey but also realism, neo traditional, and American traditional.

baphomet ant walsh
Three eyed goat head and quote by Ant Walsh in a neo traditional style.
forest ink tattoo, South Korea
Baphomet head and snake done at forest ink tattoo, South Korea.
Vince Genois Panthere Noire Limoilou:Quebec
American traditional take on Baphomet by Vince Genois Panthère at Noire Limoilou, Québec.
Nestor Gonzalez at Sailor's grave in Costa Rica
Huge American traditional stomach Baphomet and dagger by Nestor Gonzalez at Sailor’s grave in Costa Rica.
Tatiana Esmeralda Marcum Tattooer at Iron Rite
Full bodied Baphomet with a little bit of colour done by Tatiana Esmeralda Marcum Tattooer at Iron Rite.

Which style is your favorite?

Tattoo History 7: China’s Hainan Province’s Tattooed Li Women

The Li people live in Hainan Province, China’s most southern point. Tattoos in Hainan can be traced as far back as 3000 years ago. Hainan is often referred to as “The Tail of the Dragon”, as it is the most southern point of China, though also used to be called one of the eyeballs of China (along with Taiwan when it was a part of China) as it is an island province.

Li face tattoo 1980
Li woman’s face tattoo, taken in the 1980’s.

According to one German ethnologist (branch of anthropology that compares and analyzes the characteristics of different peoples and the relationship between them), Hans Stübel, the origin of their tattooing came from a story about a descendant of the original Li. This descendant of Li had a daughter whose mother died early in the child’s life. When this happened, a colourful native bird called the hoopoe fed the child with grains to keep her alive. In remembrance of this, the Li women tattoo themselves to look more like the birds, both in their colour and the patterns of their wings.

Li geometric tattoos of a Basaadung Li woman from 1930
More geometric face tattoos, specifically of a Basaadung Li woman from the 1930’s.

Others still believe that the women tattooed themselves in order to be recognized in the afterlife.

A more practical reason that these women tattooed themselves, particularly on their faces, is the fact that their villages would be attacked often by many of their neighbors. In order to appear unattractive to the invading men, the Li women tattooed quite intricate designs on their faces and down their necks. Making themselves appear less attractive protected them from violence and rape.

Li married and un married women with leg and hand tattoos from 1930
Married and unmarried women, all with leg tattoos, and some with hand tattoos. Taken in the 1930’s.

Later on in history though, these women saw the tattoos as an enhancement to their beauty. When a girl turned 13 or 14, an older woman would tattoo her, first on the nape of her neck, then her face and throat over the course of 5-7 days. Then, over the next 3 years, she would continue to be tattooed along her arms and legs. The only thing that interrupted this would be the death of a family member. Once a woman married, her hand would also be tattooed, marking her as a married woman.

Li old woman
More beautiful geometric face tattoos, taken in the 1980’s.

Like many ancient cultures, the Li used a bamboo rod, with rattan needles to hand tap the designs into the skin. The patterns used did vary from tribe to tribe, but all used motifs taken from nature, such as plants, animals, and totemic symbols passed down through generations.

Li progress tattoo
Geometric face tattoo in progress. The old tattooing the young.

Information taken from:

-Carrie E. Reed. “Tattoo in Early China.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 120, no. 3, 2000, pp. 360–376.Liu, H. (1939).

-“Hainan: The Island and the People.” The China Journal 29(5-6): 236-246; 302-314.

-McCabe, M. [and Q.Y. Wang] (2008). “Tattooed Women of Yunnan, China.” Skin and Ink Magazine (11): 64-74.

-Stϋbel, H. (1937). Die Li Stämme der Insel Hainan: Ein Betrag zur Volkskunde Sϋdchinas. Berlin: Klinkhardt & Bierman.
 

Tattoo History 6: The Circus/Sideshow and Tattoos

Tattoos were an important part of the sideshow in circuses and carnivals from the end of the 1800’s and into the early 1900’s. Though tattoos didn’t become an integral part of the circus until this later time, tattoos in the circus originated around 1804 (approximately) when Jean Baptiste Cabri (also seen as Kabri) who had been tattooed by the Marquesas in the Pacifics joined a carnival. Jean was a French deserter who fled to the Pacific Islands and lived there with his wife whom he met and married there. He acquired a large number of tattoos while there, all of which had a specific meaning. His tattoos were a mark of entering manhood, and meant that he had been fully accepted as one of the islanders. Jean was discovered on the island by Russian explorers, and after some convincing, went back with them to Europe to tour in a carnival as a heavily tattooed man.

tattoo Jean Baptiste Cabri
Jean Baptiste Cabri

The first tattooed man to be apart of the circus in America was named James F. O’Connell. James was an important part of Barnum’s circus in 1842, specifically in the “freak show”. James was tattooed head to toe in tribal Polynesian style during his time as a prisoner on the Caroline Islands in the South Pacific. James became shipwrecked on the islands and lived apparently by dancing Irish jigs to entertain the local islanders. He was then forcibly tattooed over a period of eight days, and even forced to marry one of the women who tattooed him. After about 5 years on the island another ship finally landed and brought him back to America where he started life in the circus as the first tattooed man in America to be part of the show.

tattoo James F. O'Connell
James F. O’Connell

After O’Connell, a Greek man nicknamed Prince Constantine, and also Captain Constentenus quickly became immensely popular in 1873 due to his extremely heavily tattooed body which at this time was rarely seen. His tattoos covered his hands, neck and face.He reportedly had 388 tattoos. He may have been the most popular and wealthy tattooed circus member of this time, bringing in around one hundred dollar US a week, which was a lot of money for this time. His tattoos included hundreds of animals and small filler pieces all over his body, tattooed over a period of three months with three hours of tattooing being done every morning.

tattoo captain Costentenus
Captain Constentenus/ Prince Constantine

Women also had their place in the circus world of tattoos. Nora Hildebrandt is known as the first tattooed woman to earn a living based on her ink. Nora had an elaborate (but untrue) story of how she got her tattoos. To attract more attention, she claimed that her tattoos were forcibly done on her by “savage Lakota Indians” when in reality she was born in London, and tattooed by her common law husband Martin Hildebrandt. Some thought Martin was her father or her actual husband, but according to numerous sources it looks as though Nora was not actually related to Martin. Martin was one of the first (if not the first) permanent tattoo artist in America, tattooing in New York after tattooing soldiers in the civil war and travelling with the Navy. At just 25 years old Nora was able to make a career for herself in the circus business starting in 1882. Nora is most famous for being in the Barnum and Bailey’s Circus in New York.

tattoo Nora Hildebrandt
Nora Hildebrandt

Women quickly became the more popular option of viewing when it came to seeing tattooed people, as seeing a woman showing skin at this time was scandalous and unheard of. Naturally this alone drew crowds. In the 1920’s one of the more head-turning women in the circus was a woman called Lady Viola. Lady Viola was very popular in part due to her often being known as “The most beautiful tattooed woman in the world” as well as her unique tattoos, some of which were early portrait work of well known people such as Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix, and presidents Wilson, Washington, and Lincoln across her chest.

tattoo lady viola
Lady Viola

For around 70 years or so, every big circus employed tattooed people as part of the act, showcasing them as freaks or acts just because of their ink, and as part of other acts such as juggling, feats of strength, sword swallowing, fire breathing, and more. Tattooed people made good money travelling with a circus as different circuses had rivalries with each other, so these people could get the best pay from those who wanted them badly enough. Tattoo artists could also make a good living by either travelling with a circus or setting up shop in a location where lots of circuses stopped.

tattoo sideshow banner by Fred G. Johnson
Circus banner by Fred G. Johnson

While tattoos in the circus remained a popular staple in this form of entertainment (even today), they did lose some of their mystery and novelty around the early 1900’s with the invention of the modern electric tattoo machine. Thanks to this machine more and more people were getting tattooed. In order to keep people interested circuses had to step it up a notch. This was done by presenting whole families of tattooed people, tattooed dwarves, motorcycle riders, and even tattooed animals.

tattoo tattooed family
Tattooed family

Popular circus tattoo artists include Stoney St. Claire, who along with being a tattoo artist, was also a sword swallower.

tattoo Stoney St. Claire
Stoney St. Claire

Another artist was Jack Dracula, an artist most famous for working out of Coney Island. Jack was also heavily tattooed himself, and is famous for his facial tattoos, some of which he at least partially did on himself before he realized tattooing his own face would prove a too daunting task.

tattoo Jack Dracula
Jack Dracula

Charles Wagner was another famous artist responsible for tattooing over 50 people who were, or went on to be tattoo attractions. Charles worked out of New York and is also famous for patenting a tattoo machine, improving upon the new design Samuel O’Reilly had created to make tattooing faster and less painful, as well as more sterile.

tattoo Charles Wagner
Charles Wagner and a number of his clients

Samuel O’Reilly patented the first “modern” tattoo machine, and also fully tattooed up to 12 ladies in the late 1800’s.

tattoo o'reilly
O’Reilly’s machine

Many of the tattooed people were also at least part time artists themselves, giving them a chance to earn more money.

Tattooing was an extremely important part of the circus world (and still is), and is also in part responsible for how quickly tattooing became popular in North America and some parts of Europe.

Information taken from books:

-Circus Age : Culture and Society under the American Big Top
by Janet M. Davis

– The Life and Adventures of James F. O’Connell, the Tattooed Man by James F. O’Connell

-Twelve Days at Nuku Hiva : Russian Encounters and Mutiny in the South Pacific
by Elena Govor

-Tattooed : The Sociogenesis of a Body Art
by Michael M. Atkinson

-The Greatest Shows on Earth : A History of the Circus
by Linda Simon

and websites:

http://www.thehumanmarvels.com

http://www.vanishingtattoo.com

http://www.tattooarchive.com