The first tattooed exhibitions were primarily native people or sailors who returned with various tattoos received while on expedition either in foreign ports or by their own shipmates. Jean Baptiste Cabri, a French deserter who had been extensively tattooed while living in the Marquesas Islands was one the first heavily tattooed Europeans to exhibit himself in 1804.
Setting the standard for the ‘civilized’ tattooed exhibition act Cabri told exaggerated stories of his life and exhibited himself throughout Europe. He would be followed by men like John Rutherford and “Prince” Constantine who perpetuated the myths of the “tortured white man” in order to awe the crowds who at that time were mostly unfamiliar with the art.
When Phineas T. Barnum organized the first “group exhibitions of unique individuals” in 1842, a principal attraction was James F. O’Connell, the first tattooed man ever exhibited in the United States. But by the 1910s most traveling sideshows had tattooed performers on their rosters to appeal to American audiences’ taste for the exotic and unusual, even if it was manufactured.
Once the railway connected the east and west coasts of the United Sates in 1869 the circus entered a period of growth and prosperity that resulted in employment opportunities for many tattooed people and tattoo artists. Although tattooed men began performing about eighty years before women realized the potential of permanent body decoration, the appearance of tattooed women brought a sexual allure to the sideshow that a tattooed man never could. The most commonly used story by most early male tattooed performers was that of the captivity narrative; a man was captured by South Seas Islanders and forced to submit to tattooing against his will. When tattooed women took the stage, they adapted this narrative to their needs; now women were being captured by “savages” in the American West and tattooed against their will. The men could never hope to compete with these tantalizing stories of women’s abduction and forced tattooing especially when combined with seeing an almost nude woman on display. Although tattooed men did continue performing into the twentieth century, women eventually edged them off the stage.
Tattooed ladies had become a staple of the American sideshow by the mid 1890’s: the first performing tattooed women, Nora Hildebrandt and Irene Woodward, appeared on sideshow stages beginning in the 1880s and the act continues (albeit in a less spectacular manner) until today. Of course ” polite society” disapproved of them; women were expected to dress and behave modestly and that certainly didn’t include appearing partially nude on a stage. Still, many adventurous working class women saw the circus life as an acceptable career option in an era when many had little chance for highly paid work or travel. Joining the circus could be seen as a chance for a more dynamic and certainly more stable economic life.
Tattooed ladies were paid very well; a female tattooed performer could expect to make $100-$200 a week depending on her popularity, the crowds, and the success of the show or museum she worked in. In a 1909 article about circus women Hugh Weir reported:
Tattooed women were not only paid substantially more than many other circus employees, they were also paid much more than contemporary working-class men could hope to make.
Generally the tattooed lady’s act was simply to stand on a stage, displaying her decorated body for the spectators while giving a short speech about her life which was more often than not concocted. The tales of forced tattooing by “savages” had gone out of favor by the early twentieth century, but performers were still just as likely to make up wild stories. As many of the designs themselves were relatively mundane images with patriotic or religious motifs something still had to be done to add an exotic element: drunken lovers, vicious fathers and other tales of woe played on the sympathetic ears of male crowds.
Nora Hildebrandt (1857–1893) was possibly America’s first professional tattooed lady. Born in London, she emigrated to the US and married Martin Hildebrandt, America’s first professional tattoo artist who operated in New York in 1846. Nora stood in as a canvas for her husband when he was not tattooing sailors and soldiers from both sides of the Civil War.
Nora began to exhibit herself in 1882; by that time she was covered in a reported 365 tattooed designs. Touring with the Barnum & Bailey Circus in the early 1890’s she initially claimed that she and her father were forcibly tattooed by American Indians, but as time wore on she discounted the tale and instead regaled audiences with the details of the designs themselves. Nora proved a very popular attraction among men, but her fame was rather short lived and Nora’s exact fate is lost to history. Martin was committed to an asylum in 1885.
“La Belle Irene” (Irene Woodward, 1863-1915) had her official debut as announced in the New York Times on March 19, 1882 when she appeared at the Sinclair House Hotel. She stood on a platform for roughly three hours, turning and taking questions. Afterward she exhibited at the George B. Bunnell dime museum: considering the times her outfit was bordering on scandalous. Irene later tells that this was the first time she had ever dressed in such a way before strange men.
Irene made her London debut in 1890, claiming to be the first completely tattooed woman ever exhibited in a circus although in fact she had been tattooed by Martin Hildebrandt, Nora’s husband and had worked together with Nora in one of the New York dime museums in 1887.
Annie Howard gained notoriety in 1882 when she was arrested for assault while traveling from Manhattan to Bunnell’s Museum in Brooklyn for a job interview. Apparently she slapped a man who insulted her for having tattooed arms, then proceeded to attack the police who attempted to restrain her. She got 10 days in jail, but Bunnell was so pleased with the publicity that he immediately hired her.
Annie toured the dime museums, where she met and married met Frank Howard, another tattoo artist and performer. Nine months later, Annie gave birth to a daughter named Ivy. In 1897 Annie and Frank left the United States for Barnum & Bailey’s London show, but the circus only allowed working family members to travel and Ivy remained in the US until she was 8 when she joined her parents as a snake charmer. When she became older, Ivy put away her snakes, and took on the role of Moss Haired-Girl. Ivy also was a skilled contortionist and performed as a solo act in vaudeville shows.
After the family returned to the U.S. in 1903, Ivy and Annie disappeared. Frank Howard remarried and set up a tattoo shop in Boston. Frank died in November of 1925: there are no records indicating the fate of Ivy and Annie.
With the invention of the electric tattooing machine in 1891 many individuals were attracted to the opportunity of making an easy living in the circus, which enjoyed an unprecedented period of growth and prosperity. As circuses prospered, the demand for tattooed people increased and the competition became intense as circus owners competed to come up with more extravagant tattooed shows. There were tattooed sword swallowers, fire eaters, dwarves, jugglers, mind readers, strong men, fat ladies, wrestlers, knife throwers and even circus animals.
Artoria Gibbons (Anna Mae Burlingston, 1893-1985) met Charles “Red” Gibbons, one of the most famous tattoo artists in America while working as a domestic servant in Spokane, Washington. They were soon married and by the early 1920s she was touring as a tattooed lady while Red worked as a tattooist on the side. Artoria worked for 35 years in circus and carnival sideshows, including the Ringling, Barnum & Bailey Circus from 1921 to 1923 and the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus in 1924. Anna was a deeply devout member of the Episcopal Church and the art she chose represented her relationship with God. She retired from show business in 1981.
Betty Broadbent (Sue Lillian Brown, 1909-1983) started her tattoo career in 1927 after receiving a full body suit from Charlie Wagner and Joe Van Hart. Her first job was with Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey Circus and she spent the next 40 years in and around show business. Betty was an attraction at the 1939 New York World’s Fair with the John Hix “Strange as it Seems” sideshow; she was also a rider in Harry Carey’s Wild West Show, and during the off-season she could often be found in San Francisco tattooing at one of the many arcades.
Betty retired from the circus world in 1967 and settled near Tampa Florida. In 1981 she became the first person to be honored by the Tattoo Hall of Fame. Commenting on her retirement, she said, “Boy, do I miss the people and the travel.” Betty died in her sleep in 1983
Lady Viola (Ethel Vangi, 1898-1977) was tattooed by Frank Graf in the 1920s. Often being billed as “The Most Beautiful Tattooed Woman in the World”, she had patriotic themes including the United States Capitol on her back and the Statue of Liberty on her leg. During the early 1930’s she spent the outdoor season with companies like the Ringling Bros. Circus and the winter months found her in dime museums like Gorman’s in Philadelphia. Lady Viola spent decades in the show business world and was still working with the Thomas Joyland Show in 1971. Although Lady Viola made her name as a tattoo attraction, like many other tattooed ladies she also did actual tattooing on the side and ran something of a studio in winter months.
Cindy Ray, born Bev Robinson, was talked into her first tattoo at 19 by a photographer named Harry Bartram. As a young single mother working in a factory in 1959 Sydney, Australia she was looking for some way of earning extra money and when Bertram offered to get her tattooed and afterwards market line of books, tattoo products and more she took the chance. Although she certainly did become a tattoo celebrity, she unfortunately had little to no input in the endorsement of “her” products and the bulk of the benefit and profit from her images and products went to Bartam. She eventually became a tattooist herself and opened her own shop in her native Australia.
Jean Furella Carson was a genuine bearded lady (most are gaffs) who traded her natural abnormality for a man-made one. At the urging of a friend she shaved off her beard and became a tattooed lady.
It is estimated that by 1920, over 300 completely tattooed people were employed in circuses and sideshows. Some earned as much as $200 a week. But after WW2 the popularity of the sideshow and dime museums were waning and tattooed people were no longer novelties; only a few of the larger circuses still included them. By the 1970s they were primarily limited to the carnival circuit and modern audiences viewed most sideshows and the performers with suspicion and skepticism. Some exceptions remained such as the famous Coney Island Sideshow, and today modern versions of the sideshow are making a comeback incorporating many of the original acts from the early 20th century. However the popularity of tattoos has become such that they’re hardly seen as exotic anymore, and the tattooed lady has literally joined mainstream society.
Above, La Bella Angora “The Queen of Tattoos” , a German circus performer in 1920’s.
“Carlotta”, tattooed by “Serpentina”, presumably a circus colleague.
Miss Celly d’ Astra, circa. 1860
Irma Senta, circa 1910’s
“Maude Arizona”, early 1920’s
“Djita Salome” about 1915, “tattooed in 14 colors in over 100,000,000 punctures”.