A pearl choker, a sequined strapless dress, and a body swallowed up in tattoos. Above the neck she’s perfectly Victorian, but the rest of her could fit right into our 21st world. Meet Maud Wagner, the first-known female tattoo artist in the United States. Here she is, pictured in 1907, covered in her husband’s tattoo work, designs heavily influenced by the faraway lands he’d ventured to as a merchant seaman. For the Mr and Mrs. Wagner, tattooing was a family affair and together, they blazed a trail for an unfamiliar art form that would one day become a part of mainstream American culture.
A midwestern girl, Maud was born in Kansas in 1877 but found her calling among the “freaks” of circus culture. Before becoming a tattoo maven, Maud started her career as an aerialist and contortionist for traveling circus’ around the states. It was through her nomadic circus lifestyle that she met her beau, and was introduced to tattooing.
He was Gus Wagner, a midwestern man himself who had been sailing the world in the late 1800s and returned home covered in nearly 300 tattoos. He claimed to have learned his tattoo technique from tribesmen in Java and Borneo.
Maud getting a hand tattoo by her husband Gus. Early 1900s.
Wagner met Maud at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, where she was working as an aerialist. At the time, Gus was also traveling in circuses and doing sideshows, amazing audiences with his intricate and extreme ink work. In exchange for a date, Gus offered to give Maud a lesson in tattooing. She obliged, and the rest was history.
A few years later, they would be married and have a daughter, Lotteva, who would also follow in her parents footsteps and become a tattoo artist, starting as early as 9 years old.
Gus was introduced to tattoos at the age of twelve when he first laid eyes on a circus performer known as “Captain Costentenus the Greek Albanian”. He marvelled at the man who was tattooed over his entire body and claimed to have been kidnapped by Chinese Tartars and tattooed against his will.
However, it wouldn’t be until years later, after traveling as a sea merchant that Gus would learn his trade from natives of Java and Borneo by using handmade tools. When he returned, he was ready to make his mark on America’s burgeoning tattoo culture.
Being an apprentice of her husband, Maud was taught the traditional art of hand-poked tattoos. Preferring to use the old-fashioned technique over the new machinery that had become available, she soon became a distinguished tattoo artist herself.
Most, if not all of her tattoos were given to her by her husband; wild and mythical animals from faraway lands, exotic plants, indigenous women, and words including her own name on her left arm.
The Wagners are credited with spreading the art of tattooing across America in the early 1900s. They were also among two of the last tattoo artists to operate strictly by hand without modern technology, making their pieces more detailed and hard-earned and they’re. Though there is no verified record of Maud’s work, her style is said to have rivalled that of her husbands.
Before Maud came onto the scene, America had never seen a female in the male-dominated métier. Only two Caucasian women before her had even been publicly known to have tattoos, and both women claimed they were tattooed in circumstances beyond their control.
The first was Olivia Oatman, the first tattooed white woman in the US. After her family was killed by Yavapais Indians, she was taken in and raised by Mohave Indians, who gave her a traditional tribal tattoo on her face. At the age of 19, she returned to society and fell into the trade of being paraded before eager audiences.
Nora Hildebrandt, who also claimed to have been forced into her tattoos by Native Americans, was the first tattooed circus attraction in the United States. She later married Martin Hildebrant, owner of the first tattoo parlour in New York City.
Unlike Olivia and Nora, in these few photographs we have of our acrobatic tattooist, mother and wife, you can recognise the free spirit and rebel in Maud Wagner, if not a bit of mystery too. At a time when tattoos were seen as a savage and appalling form of art, she embraced it, broke barriers and paved the way for future tattoo aficionados.
Once the Wagner’s decided to wrap up their careers as circus acts, the couple continued to travel around the US, both working as tattoo artists in vaudeville houses or taking up stalls at county fairs and amusement arcades. In early 1961, Maud passed away in Oklahoma. Her daughter Lotteva survived her and became a legendary tattooist in her own right, although she herself never had tattoos.
When she was born, Maud forbid her husband to tattoo their daughter. When her father died in 1941, Lotteva decided that if she could not be tattooed by her father, she didn’t want to be tattooed at all. Perhaps for Maud it was all about the choice and the power over her own body. Perhaps she wanted the same for her daughter. Oh, the questions we would have for Maud at a dream dinner party.