The Almost Unknown Story of Maud Wagner
By Karly Stilling
MRS GUS WAGNER, THE TATTOOED WOMAN, reads the poster, Who Will Exhibit, Beginning Monday, at The Fair Grounds.
Her expression indicates that she doesn’t tolerate any bullshit. She’s wearing a choker of pearls around her neck, and her strapless dress is dotted with sequins and one large flower.
M STEVENS WAGNER, TATTOOED BY HER HUSBAND, THE ORIGINAL GUS WAGNER.
On her breastbone, a woman lounges with two lions. Butterflies, monkeys and horses adorn her arms. On one bicep, an eagle carries an American flag in its beak under her name: Maud V Stevens.
She’d worked as a performer for all of her adult life, following the carnival and circus circuit wherever it took her. A contortionist, an aerialist, she did whatever she could.
In 1904, she followed the circus to the St Louis World Fair. That’s where she met him: the ‘Tattooed Globetrotter’. Gus Wagner.
The story goes that Gus courted her but she wasn’t interested—at least, not in his romantic advances.
What she was interested in were his tattoos.
The pair struck a bargain: she would go on a date with him and he would give her tattoo lessons.
That date must have gone well, because by 1907 Maud was tattooing not only others but also herself, using the same stick and poke method as Gus.
Pretty soon, she was covered in tattoos—not a bad investment, it turned out. In the travelling circus, ‘Tattooed Ladies’ were still big crowd-pleasers and it helped the business to draw a crowd.
Soon Maud and Gus were married and moved from the circus to smaller vaudeville houses and county fairs where they both worked as tattoo artists and tattooed attractions.
Maud became a skilled tattooist in her own right, and her and Gus are often credited with helping to bring the art of tattooing from coastal communities and cities into mainland America.
Maud’s nature tattoos were typical of the period—author Margo DeMello wrote in her book Inked: Tattoos and Body Art Around the World that Maud “wore patriotic tattoos, tattoos of monkeys, butterflies, lions, horses, snakes, trees, women and had her own name tattooed on her left arm.”
Maude and Gus’ daughter, Lotteva, was inducted into the family business, learning to tattoo using the same stick and poke method as her parents.
Unlike her mother, Lotteva remained uninked. In 1993 she told the Dallas Morning News, “Mama wouldn’t let Papa tattoo me. I never understood why. She relented after he died and said I could get tattoos then, but I said that if Papa couldn’t do them like he had done hers, then nobody would.”
“I said if Papa couldn’t do them like he had done hers, then nobody would. “
It’s hard to imagine now what life must have been like for these woman tattooists in the early days of the popularisation of tattoos, when only men were giving tattoos and mostly men were getting them.
While women still face incredible stigma for getting their skin inked or picking up the needle themselves, the tide is turning: 2012 was the first year the number of tattooed women in America surpassed the number of tattooed men (23%, compared to 19% of men).
We’ve come a long way from the year Maud began to give tattoos, 1907, which was also the year an organisation was formed with the hilariously depressing title ‘The American Society for Keeping Women in Her Proper Sphere’.
Maud died in 1961 as one of the most famous stick and poke artists of her generation. Lotteva carried on the family legacy until her death in 1993; her last tattoo was a rose done on tattooist and Sailor Jerry protégé Don Ed Hardy.
And while the Wagner women undoubtedly paved the way for contemporary female tattoo artists, they remain, unfortunately, best known for their connection to their more famous male counterparts.
A version of this article was first published in Pretty & Inked Magazine.