The First Victorian Tattoo Queen Cloaked In Ink: The Story of Maud Wagner.

Maud Wagner

If you think tattoos are an art form well you can thank Maud Wagner for that.

For a certain period of time, it became very hip to think of classic tattoo artist Norman “Sailor Jerry” Collins as the epitome of WWII era retro cool. His name has become a prominent brand, and a household name in tattooed households—or those that watch tattoo-themed reality shows. But I submit to you another name for your consideration to represent the height of vintage rebellion: Maud Wagner (1877-1961).

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.

1904 World's Fair in St. Louis

“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.

Rose Tattoo Maud Wagner

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.


Can You Read These Tattoo History Facts Without Wanting to Get Inked?

Cristian Petru Panaite was always intrigued by his grandfather’s tattoo.It was a fairly small depiction of a woman and – although his grandfather didn’t like to discuss it – Panaite knew it must have been hard to get in 1950s communist Romania.

With this as his only window into the tattooing world, the New York Historical Society’s assistant curator grew up with little understanding of the traditions and culture surrounding the art of getting inked.

Now, after a year of careful preparation for the museum’s “Tattooed New York” exhibit, which opened at the beginning of February, Panaite has an entirely new appreciation for what is perhaps the world’s most personal art genre.

With a centuries-old plot featuring sailors, Native American kidnapping, presidents, sideshow acts, and possibly some Hepatitis B –- the history of tattoos is a story that even people who already have tattoos probably don’t know the half of.

It’s such an inspiring tale, in fact, that after only one month of tracing it, Panaite was in a studio getting a tattoo of his own — a tribute to his mother. Then, with a few more months of tattoo education, the previously skeptical curator added a second. He says he’s already got ideas for his third, and maybe fourth.

So, here we’ve compiled the ten most interesting tidbits from 300 years of tattooing in New York. Fair warning, this content has been proven to inspire tattoo addiction.



Tattoos were once used as a form of identification.

Native Americans who couldn’t read English would sometimes draw pictures of their tattoos in lieu of signing their names.

Drunken sailors would also rely on tattoos to prove their identity, since they often failed to keep track of physical documents.

Then, with the 1936 invention of social security numbers, all kinds of people were going to parlors to get the eight digits permanently painted into their skin.

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You’ve definitely heard of the person whose breakthroughs allowed for the invention of the tattoo gun.

The electric pen – which revolutionized the art of tattooing by making it quicker, cheaper, and accessible to everyone – was actually invented by Thomas Edison.

Though the famous mind behind the lightbulb had intended the creation to reproduce handwritten manuscripts, he accidentally ended up giving himself a few tattoo dots as he was testing it out.

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They used to be a symbol of “high class” in America.

After the Prince of Wales got tatted up on an 1862 visit to Jerusalem, many other royals around Europe quickly followed suit.

By the 1890s, members of American high society were desperate to get in on the trend.

New York locals offered the artist behind some of the royal ink $12,000 to open a shop in the city.

By 1900, 75 percent of the Big Apple’s most fashionable women sported designs ranging from birds to butterflies to calligraphy.

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some tattoos needed wardrobe upgrades.

During wartime, soldiers keenly missed the company of women. But with tattoos of naked or scantily clad ladies, they never had to feel so alone again.

Eventually, the Navy banned the ever-present porn. So soldiers hoping to make it into that prestigious class needed their tattoos to clean up their act. A booming “cover-up” business began with soldiers paying tattoo artists to put some clothes on their lady friends.

When one artist was charged with spreading disease due to unclean needles, he argued that he was doing “essential war work.” His fine was reduced and he was told to carry on.

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Not all of the early tattoos were fashionable.

Olive Oatman never wanted the face tattoo that made her famous. But when she was captured by Native Americans in 1851, her chin was permanently marked with a blue tribal design.

After killing most of her family, the tribe enslaved Olive and her younger sister.

Though Oatman later claimed that the tattoo was meant to mark her as a slave, scholars suspect it was actually intended as a symbol of belonging, meant to help Olive enter the after-life.

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Having tattoos was once a full-time job.

Sailors were the first to realize that their heavily inked bodies were so intriguing to the general public that people would pay to get a closer look.

Eventually, sideshow acts began popping up all over the city.

Nora Hildebrandt (pictured) holds a legacy as “the first professional tattooed lady.”

Trying to cash in on the fame of Olive Oatman, she spread rumors that she had been kidnapped, tied to a tree, and forcibly tattooed once every day for a year.

In reality, she was mostly inked by her own father – America’s first tattoo artist.

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Tattoos were banned in New York from 1961 until 1997.

Though the ban was reportedly a response to outbreaks of Hepatitis B, undercover shops persisted and were rarely shut down by police.

Pictured: Tattoo designs were drawn on this window shade in the 1960s so they could be easily hidden in case of a raid.

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Women and tattoos go way back.

The idea that ink is a sign of promiscuity, which is still commonly held today, began in the mid 1900s.

There were even several instances when New York courts ruled against a woman plaintiff seeking harassment charges solely because of her body art.

Eventually though, women reclaimed the use of ink as a sign of power and independence – with many of the gallery’s portraits featuring survivors of breast cancer who have tattooed over their scars.

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