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May 9, 2014

Meet Maud Wagner, the United States’ First Known Female Tattoo Artist

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.

Maud Wagner in 1907.

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.

According to the book Inked: Tattoos and Body Art Around the World, Wagner initially tattooed Stevens in order to get a date and from then on, he insisted on teaching her how to tattoo herself and others. Eventually, almost her entire body was tattooed, which made her a carnival spectacle of her own.

Although many women before her had been tattooed, starting with ancient native populations as well as Olive Oatman in the 1850s, who was abducted by the Mohave people and tattooed by them and became a star, Wagner was the first woman on record to learn the art of tattooing herself, paving the way for many female tattoo artists today.

"She wore patriotic tattoos, tattoos of monkeys, butterflies, lions, horses, snakes, trees, women and had her own name tattooed on her left arm," Inked author Margo DeMello wrote. "Because she was extensively tattooed by her husband, she also worked as a tattooed attraction garnering considerable fame for herself."

Stevens and Wagner eventually married, and her work became popular. They had a daughter, given the endearing name Lovetta, who also became a tattoo artist. Unlike her mother, however, Lovetta did not become a canvas for her father’s work or anyone else’s.

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.

After Gus died, Lovetta decided that if she could not be tattooed by her father she would not be tattooed by anyone.

Lotteva Wagner - Davis with portrait of her mother, aerialist and tattooed woman, Maude Wagner. Texas, 1993.

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.


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