The Tattooed Ladies

Tattooed ladies were working-class women who had gotten plenty of ink at a time when it was unthinkable for any proper ‘lady’ to do so. They performed in circuses and sideshows, along sword swallowers, fire eaters and bearded women throughout the late 19th and early 20th century.

The ladies would wear clothing revealing their tattoos. They also made considerably larger sums than their male colleagues, defying Victorian gender norms.  Often, they would use made-up on-stage biographies. These could include tales of abduction and captivity as a way of narrating how they came to look the way they did.

 

The stories were inspired by the real-life tale of Olive Oatman, a Mormon teenager who lived with the Mohave Native American tribe, receiving traditional tattoos as a spiritual rite of passage.  Both Olive and her sister had their chins and upper arms tattooed with blue cactus ink, like everyone else in the tribe, so that they would be recognised as belonging to it in the afterlife. 

 

Nora Hildebrandt, tattooed tied to a tree

Nora Hildebrandt was America’s first professional tattooed lady. Her father German-born Martin Hildebrandt was the first professional tattoo artist in the country. He used Nora as a canvas and by 1882, when she was 32 years of age, she was covered enough in ink to begin touring with the Ringling, Barnum & Bailey Circus.

According to her made-up biography, which borrowed heavily from the story of Olive Oatman, she and her father had been held captive by Native American Indians. Nora claimed that during her captivity, she had been tattooed for over a year by her father while tied to a tree, as a dare in order to ensure their freedom. Apparently, Sitting Bull himself had held the needle at one point. 

La Belle Irene

Nora was quite a popular exhibition, but when Irene Woodward, known as La Belle Irene, came onto the scene, making her debut in New York just a couple of weeks after Nora, she was quickly eclipsed.  Irene did not use the captivity narrative, but the New York Times claimed that she was tattooed by her sailor father from the age of 6.

Her on-stage narrative claimed it had been a part of protection against ‘savages’ in rural Texas. The truth to that particular story may be in question. But perhaps much more impressive now is that it seems she was tattooed neck-to-toe by the legendary Samuel O’Reilly and his then apprentice, Charles Wagner. 

Artoria Gibbons’ works of art

Artoria Gibbons was born on a farm in Wisconsin in 1893 but ran away to join the circus when she was 14. While at a carnival, she met a man named Red Gibson who was a tattoo artist. He promised her a career with the circus, touring the world if she would let him tattoo her. They ended up married and Artoria went on to perform in sideshows for 35 years. Just as Nora Hildebrandt, she toured with the Ringling, Barnum & Bailey circus, but also Hagenbeck-Wallace.

Artoria is regarded as having been the highest-paid tattooed lady, attracting a real following throughout the years. She continued to display her tattoos into her eighties, showing off her impressive bodysuit, covering 80% of her body, right up until her death. No elaborate back-story, Artoria proudly proclaimed that her husband had done all of her ink. They were all reproductions of Italian masterpieces by artists such as Raphael and Michelangelo, with a few more patriotic motives thrown in for good measure.