Tattooed Ladies! Even though we missed the circus sideshows that ran from the 1800’s well into the twentieth century, the name itself conjures up images of exotic lives, lived on the edge by fascinating women.
Tattoos on women aren’t new to us, and they really weren’t new to the ladies of the circus sideshows either. Tattooing and women have a long history, which twists and turns with changing ideals about adornment, modesty, independence, and function.
The earliest proven tattooed ladies were Egyptian: many female mummies have net-like patterns of dots over their abdomens, thighs and chests. Early explorers assumed that these women – ancient Egyptian men didn’t have tattoos – were prostitutes, echoing the biases of the time. But newer interpretations (and understanding of diverse tattooing practices) suggest that these tattoos were probably given as talismans to assist women in pregnancy and childbirth.
The ancient Greeks learned tattooing from the Thracians in what is now Turkey, and they used the technique to tattoo the faces of criminals and slaves with such charming inscriptions as “stop me, I’m a runaway”. That you wouldn’t want one of these tattoos lives on in the word “stigma”-the ancient Greek word for tattoo was “stig”, meaning “prick” or “stitch”.
In northern Europe, the pre-Celts tattooed themselves for decorative purposes, with moons, stars, and animals as favorite motifs for women. And despite periodic bans on tattoos from religious authorities, Medieval Christians were returning from crusades and religious pilgrimages with tattoos of religious and alchemical symbols – souvenirs from and proof of their adventures.
When Captain James Cook returned from the Pacific Islands in 1769 with accounts of “tatau-ing”, the word “tattoo”, which was also used to describe military drumming, came into the lexicon. A new craze for tattoos arose in England, starting with sailors, working up to the officers, then to royalty. And women got tattoos as well – even Lady Randolph Churchill, Winston’s mother, got a tattoo of a snake around her wrist. But while women were flirting with raciness by getting tattoos, they were still subject to the demands of Victorian society, and made sure those tattoos were easily coverable – to be safe from overly judgmental eyes. The trend for ornamental tattoos spread to the United States as well: in 1876, The New York Times was reporting on it. But in 1882, something strange happened: several women decided that they would become tattooed ladies.
We don’t know whether the first tattooed lady was Nora Hildebrandt or Irene Woodward, but both contenders for the honor decided to become tattooed ladies in 1882, allowing Martin Hildebrandt, the most prominent tattoo artist of the time, to help them recreate themselves and an industry. And their success was immediate – although there had been plenty of tattooed men in circuses for over 80 years, once tattooed ladies began working the circuit, the combination of exotic stories and showing of skin was too strong a force to be resisted. Nora was given a tragic story of capture by the Lakota Sioux and enforced tattooing by her poor father, who finally opted for an early death rather than continue torturing his daughter. Irene’s exotic story told of her father tattooing her to pass the time in their rural cabin before he was killed by Native Americans, who – frightened by her tattoos – released her unharmed.
Others followed in Nora and Irene’s footsteps: a tattooed lady could make between $35-100 a week at a time when skilled clerical workers made about $22 a week, and domestic workers made a whole lot less. And even though we think of women as staying home then, lots of working-class women had to work for wages as well. One of these women, Anna Mae Burlingston, had been helping support her mother as a domestic servant when she met her husband, a tattooist named “Red” Gibbons. Soon after they were married, she decided to change her game: she let Red tattoo her (with religious imagery – she was a devout Christian), and by 1919 she was performing as Miss Artoria, traveling with her husband in sideshows that featured her on stage – and him working as well. And she worked a long time: even with the rise of television (and the reduction in need for “freaks” in live entertainment), Artoria worked in carnival sideshows until 1981.
There’s no denying that part of the appeal of a tattooed lady is her sex appeal. The stories of danger and pain, along with the opportunity to look at more skin than ordinary society might allow, were irresistible. But female audiences were also drawn to the ladies – who were, after all, a lot like them. Most tales included obvious references to the ladylike behavior and good morals of these women. After all, tattoos were still regarded as racy – as late as 1955, an editor of a sociology anthology wrote that “most tattooed women are prostitutes.” Not that they were: most were like the rest of the working women, taking care of husbands and children as well.
But tattooed ladies had obviously taken control over their bodies, and that came with some risk of isolation. Lady Viola (born Ethel Martin in 1898) got herself tattooed(with images of people she admired) when her first marriage ended. She worked – as “The Most Beautiful Tattooed Lady in the World” – until she retired in 1932 to raise nine children with her second husband. When he died in 1969, she went back out on the road, both to raise money and to not be lonely. But later, when she died, there was no mention in her obituary of her career as a famous tattooed lady – her fellow churchgoers never knew. Not only was tattooing still taboo, but working in a circus sideshow would have seemed seedy by then.
Tattoos also carried connotations of class – they were seen as adornments of the working class. Even if society ladies had them (and they did), the stigma(!) of tattoos was that they were vulgar. While the tattooed ladies were given exotic stories that often included noble birth, they were really working-class girls who decided to take a chance – a big one – and get paid more than their conservative sisters. One tattooed lady – Betty Broadbent – was quoted as saying she regretted getting her first tattoo. Now I’m sure she didn’t regret everything – she was one of the more successful tattooed ladies – but once they went in, there was no going back.
And it’s not entirely different today, even if lots more women are getting tattoos: there’s a definite class divide within the tattooed world between who has good work and who doesn’t. And while industry legend Lyle Tuttle credits women’s liberation with the latest renaissance in tattoo art, there’s still some divide between those women who who have a discreet surprise (or more) and those who’ve gone full-force into decoration. The opportunity to be a professional tattooed lady may have ended because so many women are getting designs inked into their skin now, but today’s full-on tattooed ladies still work in creative jobs. So even if we can’t imagine their being abducted to the islands of the South Seas to get all that ink, we know they won’t be going straight anytime soon.
The Tattooed Lady: A History by Amelia Klem Osterud.