Writing by Amanda Finlayson Park // Illustration by Ayelen Lujan
History is littered with strong, fearless and unique women who provide us with no shortage of inspiration. Maud Stevens Wagner, hailed as the original female tattoo artist, is one such woman.
Born in 1877 in Lyon County, Kansas, she began her adult life as a circus performer working within various travelling circuses. In the early 1900s while working as an acrobat, aerialist and contortionist, she met her life partner, Gus Wagner.
Gus Wagner’s moniker was the ‘Tatooed Globetrotter.’ He was well-known as an international traveller and as one of the last tattooists to only work by hand using the stick and poke method.
According to the myth, Maud demanded that Gus teach her the art of tattooing in exchange for a date. Gus agreed and taught her how to tattoo her own body, which was eventually covered head to toe in sprawling, intricate floral designs as well as the bodies of others. And it didn’t take long before her reputation as an inked woman led to her being a circus attraction. After Gus and Maud married, they travelled the world with various circuses and were credited with bringing tattoo artistry inland from larger towns. This enabled the art of tattooing to be disseminated more widely and helped develop the tattoo culture in America.
Margo DeMello commented in the book Inked, Tattoos and Body Art Around The Word, that Maud’s tattoos were “typical of the period”, and consisted of “tattoos of monkey, butterflies, lions, horses, snakes, trees, women”. Maud also reportedly had her own name tattooed on her left arm, a proud declaration of self-love.
Despite the fact that tattoo machines were becoming widely available and frequently used by other artists, Maud exclusively used the stick and poke method. This was a skill and talent that she passed on to her daughter, Lovetta. Maud died in 1961 as one of the most famous stick and poke tattoo artists of her generation and her legacy lived on through her daughter Lovetta.
We can be in no doubt that Maud was a vanguard of tattoo artistry in a time when society regarded it as a spectacle. She paved the way for over 23% of women who are tattooed in the United States today. The popularity of tattoos can be attributed to the fact they are now often seen as symbols of empowerment and self-expression.
Maud provided us with inspiration through her uniqueness, her tenacity and her entrepreneurial spirit that flourished in a profession dominated by men. It is clear she learned early on how little value to assign to others’ opinions of you. An important lesson that we should all take a moment to appreciate. She showed fearless irreverence when it came to conforming to society’s image of femininity. Instead she chose to prioritise expressing herself freely and creatively through her art.
She denied the prevailing model and pushed the boundaries of what society regarded as acceptable. So let us be inspired by her bravery, her boldness, and her beauty. Maud Wagner, we salute you!