As far back as the late 19th century, the tattooed woman was a staple of circuses and sideshows. In an age where a glimpse of a lady’s ankle was enough to cause outrage, countless men and women flocked to see barely-clothed women covered with drawings and quotations.

Olive Oatman — who some consider the first Caucasian tattooed woman in America — fell into the trade of being paraded before eager audiences by circumstances beyond her control. In 1851, at the age of 14, Oatman and her family were ambushed by Yavapai Indians in remote Arizona. She later ended up with the friendly Mohave Indians, who tattooed her chin as was the custom of the tribe. Eventually handed over to the U. S. Army, Oatman later toured the country with largely false tales of a harsh life among the Indians. 

Other women followed in her footsteps, regaling audiences with tall tales of forced tattooing at the hands of Indians or pirates. In reality, these women voluntarily tattooed themselves to make a living in an age when earning a decent wage, especially if you were a single woman, was rare.

Eventually the concept of forced tattooing was dropped and tattooed women took their place alongside men as performers in their own right. 

But it wouldn’t be until 1907 that women took up tattooing as a trade.

Maug Wagner's tattooed arms

Detail of Maud Stevens' arms. (Photo: Creative Commons)

On the other side of the needle

Maud Stevens was a young aerialist and contortionist who worked the circus and state fair circuit at the dawn of the 20th century. While working at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, she met tattooist Gus Wagner.

Wagner wanted a romantic relationship with Stevens, but she wasn’t interested. Wagner continued his pursuit until she agreed to date him on the condition that he teach her the art of tattooing. Wagner agreed. He could afford to take on a protégé, as he reportedly had tattooed nearly 2,000 people during the duration of the fair. 

Stevens was a quick learner and not only became a new canvas for Wagner’s art but began working as a tattooist on other circus performers and the public. She used only hand-held needles in her work, despite the fact that tattoo machines were widely available and used by most of her contemporaries. 

Stevens and Wagner eventually married, and her work became popular. The couple had one child, a daughter named Lotteva, who reportedly inked her first tattoo on a sideshow performer at the age of 9. Family lore says that Maud refused to let her husband tattoo their daughter, making Lotteva somewhat of a rarity: a tattooist who didn't have tattoos. 

Lotteva was not the only woman to follow in her mother’s footsteps. By the 1920s, tattoos had grown in popularity outside the military, as more civilian men and women began to undergo the pen as a status symbol and as a permanent form of adornment. 

Author and journalist Margot Mifflin researched female tattoo artists for her book “Bodies of Subversion,” which chronicles a steady growth of women tattooists beginning in the 1920s and 1930s. Mifflin cites such early luminaries as Stella Grassman, who worked with her husband at three parlors along the Eastern Seaboard; Mildred Hull, who was unique in that she designed and inked some of the tattoos appearing on her own body; and Jessie Knight of England, who learned the art of tattooing in the 1920s from her sailor father. 

Of course female tattooists (and tattooed females) are no longer a rarity. A 2012 Harris Poll found that more females (23 percent) have tattoos than their male counterparts (19 percent). And a growing number of those with tattoos, male or female, have had their art inked by women — all following in the footsteps of Maud Stevens.

Related on MNN:

Maud Stevens and the rise of the female tattoo artist
It wasn't that long ago that women were forced to wear ink. My how things have changed.