Maud Stevens Wagner (1877–1961) was the first known female tattoo artist in the United States. Emerging from a subculture of circus performers and other outsider artists, the heavily tattooed Wagner was not the first American woman to be tattooed, but she was probably the first to practice the art herself.
Maud Stevens Wagner was born Maud Stevens in Emporia, Kansas, on February 12, 1877, and little is known of her early life. Once out on her own, she became a contortionist and a trapeze artist, traveling around the country and performing at county and state fairs, circuses, vaudeville shows, and amusement arcades that might offer anything from family-oriented events to rowdier fare. A larger fair at the time might feature tattooed men and women from countries around the world where body art was indigenous to the culture—people from such cultures, especially women, were presented as exotic specimens for the entertainment of Americans who knew little of the meanings of tattoos in the cultures where they were used.
In 1904 Maud and her fellow circus artists converged on St. Louis, Missouri, which promised to provide abundant employment at official events and sideshows: the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, known as the St. Louis World's Fair, was scheduled to run for seven months and to draw millions of attendees (final attendance approached 20 million). There, she met Gus Wagner (1871–1941), a tattoo artist whose life story was even more colorful than most. Wagner had joined the merchant marine at age 15 and traveled around the world. He had numerous tattoos himself, and he told Maud that he had acquired them on the islands of Java and Borneo (now part of Indonesia), where local tattoo artists had shown him how to ink tattoos by hand, using only ink and sharp, clean needles.
Wagner asked Stevens for a date and she agreed, on the condition that he teach her the art of tattooing. Wagner agreed and the date involved a tattoo given to Wagner's apprentice and soon-to-be girlfriend. Photographed at the height of her career, Maud had most of her body covered with tattoos, and those were apparently done by Wagner; a 1907 photo of the couple shows him tattooing his wife. When Maud began doing tattoos herself, she continued to use the hand tattooing technique even after electric tattoo machines became available. Meanwhile, with the fair as a backdrop, the romance between Wagner and Maud Stevens seems to have developed quickly: they were married on October 3, 1904.
Tattoo art was often a precarious way to make a living, but during the fair Maud and Gus Wagner prospered. By September of 1904, with two more months of the fair to go, they had tattooed at least 1,900 people, a figure attributed to Gus alone by a contemporary newspaper. Among his clients were 31 women the couple considered to be part of “high society.” That year, “my father probably earned as much as a bank president at the fair,” the couple's daughter, Lotteva Davis, later recalled to Ellen Sweets of the Dallas Morning News in 1993. Lotteva was born in 1907; her name has often been given inaccurately as Lovetta. The couple had another daughter, Sarah, who died in infancy.
Unfortuately, no tattoo work definitively known to have been done by Maud Wagner exists or has ever been photographed. What she might have drawn can be guessed from the tattoos she herself shows in photograph—and, for the few who have seen it, a circus banner painted by Gus, showing Maud in the nude. Lotteva Davis, in her Dallas Morning News interview, recalled that customers “wanted tattoos of their pet dogs, cats, lovers’ hearts, butterflies, and birds. How they do love birds.” A widely reproduced 1911 photo of Maud Wagner, with her arms folded over her bare upper torso, shows some of these categories, plus loins, tropical plants, and a snake climbing a tree, presumably in the Garden of Eden.
As Lotteva told Sweets, Gus and Maud Wagner were as well known for sign painting as they were for tattoos. In that profession, Maud often used the name M. Wagner to disguise her gender. As Lotteva grew up, the circuit of small-town shows was growing smaller, and it was likely that the family adapted, doing whatever they could to raise money. Maud Wagner promoted an aviation show that featured flight pioneers Wilbur and Orville Wright, but times were difficult. “Between train wrecks, windstorms, bad business deals and the Depression, I don't know how much money we made and lost,” Lotteva recalled to Sweets. Lotteva suffered serious childhood diseases, including typhoid fever, whooping cough, scarlet fever, pneumonia, and measles, but survived them all.
At age nine, Lotteva also began to do tattoos for money. She was an enthusiastic artist who first took up drawing during a long convalescence from measles when she was four. Through their travels, the Wagner family has been credited with bringing tattoos to the heartland of the United States, far beyond the waterfront locales where it had previously been common. Unusually for a tattoo artist, Lotteva had no tattoos of her own; Maud Wagner forbade her husband from tattooing their daughter.
Maud and Gus Wagner continued to do tattoos and to travel to venues that wanted to display their own tattoos in later years. They also spent more and more time at their rural Oklahoma home. In 1940, Gus was injured by a tree that fell on him after being struck by lightning, and he died the following year. At that point Maud gave Lotteva permission to be tattooed, but she declined to accept any tattoo not done by her father. Lotteva went on to marry three times, each time to a Native American—a Cherokee, a Cheyenne, and then a Chippewa (Ojibwe).
Maud Wagner continued to do so-called hand-poked tattoos, with no electronic aid, for the rest of her career. She and Gus were among the last practitioners of this art, and by the old age of Lotteva, who also continued to do hand-poked tattoos, it was extremely unusual and the subject of national recognition by fellow tattooists. Maud lived with Lotteva in Lawton, Oklahoma, for the last 12 years of her life. She died at her home in Lawton, Oklahoma, on January 30, 1961.
Hudson, Karen, Chick Ink: 40 Stories of Tattoos and the Women Who Wear Them, Polka Dot, 2007.
Mifflin, Margot, Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, 3rd edition, PowerHouse, 2013.
Osterud, Amelia Klem, The Tattooed Lady: A History, Speck, 2009.
Dallas Morning News, August 15, 1993, p. F1.
New Yorker online, http://www.newyorker.com/ (January 15, 2013), Maria Lokke, “A Secret History of Women and Tattoo.”
Open Culture online, http://www.openculture.com/ (August 1, 2015), “Meet America & Britain's First Female Tattoo Artists, Maud Wagner (1877–1961) & Jessie Knight (1904–1994).”
Style.Mic website, https://mic.com/ (December 3, 2016), Rachel Lubitz, “The Untold Story of the Badass First Female Tattoo Artist in the United States.”
Tattoo Artist online, http://tattooartistmagazineblog.com/ (March 28, 2013), Valerie Farabee, “Foremothers of the Tattoo Trade: Legendary Female Tattooers.”
The Open Mind website, http://www.the-open-mind.com/ (October 4, 2015), “Maud Wagner, The Early 1900s Female Tattoo Artist.” ❑