The First Female Tattoo Artist in the US Who Made It for a Living

The First Female Tattoo Artist in the US Who Made It for a Living



Okay. Picture this: trained animals, clowns, illusionists
doing tricks, acrobats flying up in the air… and of course, women showing off their tattoos. That’s right, it’s America’s Got Talent! Nope, actually it’s how a circus looked
just a century ago. But thanks to one brave lady, tattoos became
something more than a strange attraction. Her name was Maud Wagner. She was born in a small county in Kansas in
1877. Her parents lived on a farm, and when she
got older, she decided to leave the quiet life behind. She joined a traveling circus and started
out as a contortionist. It was a twist of fate. She didn’t know it then, but this bold move
would change the course of her entire life. And I’ll get to that later. For a while, Maud toured the United States,
working in various sideshows and circus acts as an aerialist at the time. And that’s how she ended up at the St. Louis
World’s Fair, held in 1904 in St. Louis, Missouri. It celebrated the acquisition of Louisiana
which had happened a century earlier. The fair was so large that it lasted over
7 months. Delegations from practically every American
state, along with many other countries, gathered there to present their recent findings and
inventions. Troupes, and also individual performers, flocked
there to demonstrate their talents. One of them was Gus Wagner. He was a former seaman, and a few years before,
he’d found his true calling in between his journeys. During his stay in Java and Borneo, he picked
up the skill of creating tattoos from the natives. That’s when he made it his life’s mission
to propagate this unique art. Wagner began traveling with circuses just
like Maud did. He tattooed other people and flaunted his
own tattooed body. Little by little, he had over 260 designs
on his own skin. It’s no wonder that at the time, he became
known as “the most artistically marked-up man in America”. By that time, electric tattoo machines already
existed. Tattooist Samuel O’Reilly patented the first
one in 1891. As a matter of fact, it was based on one of
Thomas Edison’s early inventions. O’Reilly was the one who discovered his
electric pen design and simply adopted it to hold a tattoo needle. The resulting device made it possible for
tattoo artists to work much faster. Though the machine was widely used by his
colleagues, Wagner preferred the good old stick and poke technique that the tribesmen
taught him. To create a picture, he would take a sharp
stick or a needle dipped in ink and poke the skin by hand. He followed this method all his life, becoming
one of the last tattoo artists in the US who worked in this old-school way. So when Maud and Gus met each other at the
fair, he was already a fairly established artist. People called him the Tattooed Globetrotter. They liked each other, and as the legend goes,
he asked Maud to go on a date with him. But not for nothing, because in exchange,
he agreed to teach her how to make a tattoo. I guess he was a true romantic. One painful lesson followed another, until
Maud was so good at it that she could tattoo both herself and others. She became Wagner’s finest apprentice, as
well as his canvas. In no time, she was covered with almost as
many symbols as he was. Her tattoos looked pretty different from the
ones we’re used to. Butterflies, birds, trees, women, and lions
on her chest and limbs, looked like something out of an old fairy tale. She also had her name written on her left
arm. From today’s perspective, these drawings
may look simple or even childish. Actually, they were quite typical for that
time. What was definitely not common in the early
20th century was women with body modifications. Truth be told, even tattoos on men were still
highly associated with the criminal world. Marked up girls were especially rare, and
as a result, the public considered them weirdos and even freaks. People paid to see them in dime museums and
spectacles the same way they paid to see exotic animals or magicians. It’s no surprise that many marked up women
did so just to earn a living. Some of them made up extravagant backstories,
claiming that Native Americans had captured and branded them. That, of course, was for a reason. In the 1850s, the story of a teenage girl
with mysterious marks on her face shocked America. Olive Oatman was kidnapped by the Natives,
and ended up living among the Mojave people. After a few years, she managed to escape. But by that time she had tattooos on her chin
that were typical for the tribe, but very unusual for everyone else. After that, she traveled through the US, telling
stories of her misfortunes. The book written about her was a bestseller. Decades later, circus workers used Oatman’s
adventures as a starting point for their own narratives. But that wasn't the case for Maud. She dedicated herself to this art because
she fell in love with it. And as it happened, she fell in love with
her teacher Gus at the same time. The two of them got married a couple of years
after they met. Their union may have been really unusual,
but they were partners in every sense of the word. They lived and worked together and of course,
they also tattooed each other. Together, they drifted from one corner of
the States to another, working in circuses and later in vaudeville shows. Surely, because of the era they lived in,
they initially had to perform as living attractions, entertaining the crowds at fairs and festivals. But their most passionate job was creating
tattoos. Maud was the first female tattoo artist in
America. Unlike many other masters of her time who
switched to special devices, she’s always remained true to the hand-poke approach that
she learned from her husband. She started with inking her friends from the
circus. Pretty soon, she had new clients who desperately
wanted to have one of Maud’s works on their skin. The art of tattoo in the US originally emerged
along the East Coast and West Coast when the first tattoed sailors returned from their
journeys. Maud and Gus were the ones who brought this
craft to the parts of their country where people had hardly ever seen an inked person. Tattooing, which was once treated as something
shameful and offensive, became an art form, thanks in large part to the Wagners. And it’s not only because they were artists
themselves. In fact, they did their best to make sure
they had someone to take over the family business. In 1910, their daughter Lotteva was born. Since she’s definitely seen far more tattoos
than any other child of her time would see in their entire life, there was no doubt what
her future job would be. One might even say that she was a little too
eager to follow in her parents’ footsteps. She made her first tat when she was just 9
years old! What’s even more amazing is that in her
long life, she never did a single tattoo on her own body. At first, it was because of her mom. This may come as a surprise to you, but Maud,
for some reason, forbade Gus to ink their own daughter. I guess Lotteva was a really loyal kid, because
after that, she decided that if her own dad couldn’t tattoo her, no one else would. And, like her parents, Lotteva never used
a tattoo machine in her work, choosing the more traditional style instead. After all, that’s how her family made history. Eventually, Maud paved the way for many other
bold women who became tattoo artists despite the prejudices. During the 1930s, Millie Hull was the one
who rocked the tattoo world. It’s even more interesting that their stories
had some curious similarities. For starters, Hull also began her working
life in a circus, but as a dancer. Soon she heard she could make way more money
if she was tattooed. It didn’t take very long before she was
covered all over. And the man who marked her skin for the first
time was… Charlie Wagner. First let me say that, no, unfortunately,
he and Maud’s family weren’t related, so the last name was just a coincedence. But Charlie was a legend in his own right. Remember Samuel O’Reilly, who invented the
tattoo machine? In 1904, Wagner patented its modified version. Later he actually occupied the same studio
that O’Reilly had previously owned. So it does seem like everything’s connected
in this industry, right? After he introduced Hull to tattooing, she
became a tattoo artist herself. In 1936, an article about her appeared in
the Family Circle magazine. There she was, in all her glory, demonstrating
her extraordinary talents among the celebrity news and housekeeping tips. I guess that must have been pretty inspiring
for other women whose lives were far from the stereotypes. By the end of the 1930s, Millie had her own
tattoo shop, the “Tattoo Emporium”. It was located in a small barbershop in the
Bowery in New York City. She was one of the few women who worked in
this area, which, by the way, had been crucial for tattoo masters and fans for decades. These days, highly decorated women wouldn't
shock anyone. And the number of female tattoo artists isn't
getting any smaller. Body modification’s become not only an art
in itself, but also a way of empowerment. Tattoos help many girls feel free and strong. And that’s all thanks to that gutsy acrobat
who wasn't afraid to see her body as a piece of art. So what other female artists inspire you? Let me know down in the comments! If you learned something new today, then give
this video a like and share it with a friend. But – hey! – don’t go get highly decorated
just yet! We have over 2,000 cool videos for you to
check out. All you have to do is pick the left or right
video, click on it, and enjoy! Stay on the Bright Side of life!

28 thoughts on “The First Female Tattoo Artist in the US Who Made It for a Living

  1. I have tattoos, but if I would have known how popular they'd be one day with the modern "yuppie" crowd, I never would have gotten any tats. As a personal preference, I don't find face, neck, hands or feet tattoos attractive.

  2. I have two tats – I lived most of my life on Maui and danced hula in a local halau. Both of my tattoos relate to hula, and I just love them.

  3. I have one~a crescent moon with 4 colored stars. One for each of my kiddos, soon to add one for my first grand, a boy.💛💜💗💙

  4. Turn This Blue If You Love BRIGHT SIDE ❤️🤞🏼
    👇🏼 (I’m gifting my next 10 $übśçrïbèrš) 🤩

  5. I used to want to get a couple of tattoos when I was younger. But I am so very glad I didn't. Now I totally condemned them. Ever since going back to my Christian religion 10 years ago. I learn that the human body is God's temple. And why in the world do you want to put graffiti on God's temple? And that is how I see tattoos now.

  6. Hey bright siders…..this video was amazing….must be pretty tough for women to start something new..
    and yet inspiring the world…keep rocking all the female tattoo artists 👏👏👏👏👏👏

  7. TIMESTAMPS:
    Maud meets “the most artistically marked-up man in America” 0:30
    Why she agreed to go on a date with him 1:50
    What her tattoos looked like 3:19
    A teenage girl with mysterious marks on her face 4:08
    9-year-old tattoo artist 6:22
    Millie Hull who rocked the tattoo world 7:53

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