The 8th of March and Iconic Women in Tattooing

With March 8th and the International Women’s Day around the corner, we can ascertain that there are still many fights remaining in the battle for true gender equality. And tattooing is still very much a male-dominated sphere – in artists, if not any longer the clientele. 

When the women we are about to highlight in this post got into the game though, tattoos were definitely not widespread among members of the ‘fairer sex,’ and feminism was still an uknown concept. While getting tattoed is today something close to mainstream, these ladies were true rebels, going against the grain and not letting societal norms dictate what they could or could not do with their bodies or as a profession. Here is to strong women; may we know them, may we be them, may we raise them. 

Maud Wagner – the first American female tattoo artist

Maud Wagner was the first American female tattoo artist. She was born in 1877 in Kansas and decided rather early on in life to run off and join the circus. While touring as a contortionist and aerialist, she met her future husband – Gus Wagner. Gus was already covered in tattoos and an artist himself. Legend has it that Maud agreed to go on a date with him in exchange for tattooing lessons. Hand-poked, of course, a technique that Maud remained faithful to until the end of her life.

The couple had a daughter, Lotteva, who began tattooing at the age of nine. However, her mother forbade her father to tattoo her and refused to do it herself. As Lotteva did not want anyone else to tattoo her other than her dad, she is one of the few career tattoo artists to have had completely bare skin. 

The Queen of the Bowery – Millie Hull

Remaining in the States, we have the iconic artist of Mildred ‘Millie’ Hull. During her active years, she was known as the only female tattoo artist in New York City. The Queen of the Bowery also came to the industry by way of performance arts. Before she opened her shop ‘Tattoo Emporium’ she worked as a burlesque dancer. She was covered in tattoos by the legendary Charlie Wagner, from whom she also learned the craft. 

According to Millie herself, she began getting tattooed as the owner of the show for which she was working told her she could make up to $80 a week if she stood out from other girls in the circus. And from her account, it was a pretty intense and speeded experience when Wagner got to work. 

“They started with my arms. Two more treatments disposed of my legs as low as my instep. Spaced by days, there followed two applications on my thighs, the operation feeling like a mild burn as long as the needles made contact with my flesh. Then there were four more treatments, delicate, painstaking, on my sides and back. And finally, the colour ran riot on my chest. Was I embarrassed to have these men treat my body? What does a woman do when she visits a doctor?”

Millie was born in 1897. Unfortunately, she passed away only 50 years of age. However, her legacy lived on and continued to inspire female artists through the decades to come and up until this day.