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

Build your own blog using the link below!

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