Maud Wagner, circa 1907
Maud Wagner began life as a circus performer. Maud was an aerialist and contortionist, and at the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, she made a deal with a tattoo artist named Gus Wagner. She agreed to go out on a date with him, as long as he promised to teach her how to tattoo.
Gus Wagner had been a merchant seaman, and while traveling the world in the late 1800’s he witnessed traditional tattooing techniques across many cultures. Wagner claimed to have learnt how to tattoo from tribes in Java and Borneo. When he returned to America in the 1910’s, he had over 250 tattoos of his own, and claimed for himself the title of ‘the most artistically marked up man in America’.
When Maud met Gus, he was a tattooist in his own right, using machine-free techniques. He was known as ‘the Tattooed Globetrotter’, with designs covering his body depicting the history of the US, Japan and China. Maud was fascinated with the art (and the artist), and married Gus only months after their first date.
Maud and Gus Wagner tattooing clients
Maud was soon covered in tattoos herself, mostly patriotic designs typical of the period, and the couple soon became a popular circus attraction. It was reported they were making up to $200 a week from their tattooed skin, equivalent to around $2000 today.
When they weren’t on display as a tattooed couple, they were giving tattoos to people. Their daughter Lovetta later recalled that most clients wanted designs of birds, animals, or their pets.
Tattooed sailors in the early 1900s
The early 1900s were an interesting time for tattooists; the tattoo craze of the late 1800s was dying down with the aristocracy, and tattoos were seen now as the trade of sailors and delinquents. In 1897 it was estimated that around 75% of American women had a tattoo, by 1936, this number had dropped to around 6% of the entire population. But Gus and Maud still had plenty of trade, not least because there weren’t as many tattooists around for people to go to.
For the rest of their lives, Maud and Gus Wagner worked in circuses, fairs and vaudeville houses across the US, as both performers and tattooists. Gus died in 1941 after being struck by lightning, and Maud sadly passed away of cancer two decades later, in 1961.
Her legacy lived on though; her daughter Lovetta carried on the family trade, despite her mother forbidding her to get any tattoos herself. And Maud no doubt inspired countless other women who met or were tattooed by her, to pursue the career themselves.