In the mid-1800's and well into the 1900's the popularity of tattooing went hand in hand with the public affinity for circuses and the "freak shows" that went with them. It began in the early 1800's with Jean Baptiste Cabri, a French deserter, discovered by Russian explorer George H. von Langsdorff in the Marquesas Islands where he had been tattooed and eventually taken a native wife. After less than a decade exhibiting his tattoos throughout Europe, Cabri quickly slipped from the public eye and died poor and in relative anonymity.
If Cabri opened the door for tattooed show people, John Rutherford wedged that door open, rolled out the carpet and waved the welcome banner. The fanciful stories that he told of the origins of his tattoos, of a shipwreck in New Zealand and subsequent capture by Maori natives, forcible tattooing, assimilation to native society and escape to return to civilisation were retold, borrowed and mimicked by tattooed people for many years to come.
Horace Ridler had London tattooist George Burchett tattoo his entire body, he had his teeth filed to points, his ears stretched and an ivory tusk inserted though another hole in his nose. Under the moniker The Great Omi he became one of the most famous and remembered "freaks" of the circus era, the end of his career coming at the perfect time, when tattooing became more prevalent in main stream society and more and more circuses did away with the sideshows which no longer provided the shock value of previous years.
In a time of censorship and modesty, the idea of paying to see a woman's skin on display meant that the popularity of the tattooed lady proved to be much more lucrative and productive than that of the tattooed men.
Nora Hildebrandt debuted at Bunnell's Museum in 1882, it was her father Martin Hildebrandt, hailed as America's first professional tattoo artist, who covered the canvas of his daughter's skin in tattoos. Borrowing the concept from her male predecessors, Nora told a fantastical tale of the origin of her tattoos, saying that she and her father were captured by American Indians where Sitting Bull forced her father to tattoo her daily for an entire year while she was tied to a tree. In the later years of her career, Nora did away with the farce and instead enthralled her audience with the details of her fathers work while displaying it for all to see.
Only weeks after Nora Hildebrandt's debut, Irene Woodward, La Belle Irene presented her elaborately tattooed self to New York and her fame almost immediately eclipsed that of Hildebrandt. Her artwork is credited to Samuel O'Reilly and Charlie Wagner, using a variation of Nora Hildebrandt's story, Irene's fame grew so much that upon marrying her, husband George took her surname. Despite much debate on the matter, it is Irene Woodward who is remembered as "The Original Tattooed Lady".
Betty Broadbent was the first person to be inducted in to the Tattoo Hall of Fame in 1981. Her pin-up body was inked with over 350 intricate designs by the greatest artists of the day; Charlie Wagner, Joe Van Hart, Tony Rhineager and Red Gibbons. While many people were unable to handle the demands and rigours of life in the circus, Broadbent embraced it spending 40 years in and around the circus and sideshows. She toured through Australia, New Zealand and America, appearing as an attraction at the New York World's Fair in 1939.
Circus performers; contortionist Maud Wagner and wood carver Gus Wagner were one of the most famous tattooed/tattooist couples. They met at the St Louis Worlds Fair, it was Gus who tattooed Maud and taught her the art. They spent much of their lives in the circuses, their daughter Lovetta Wagner was never tattooed but followed in their footsteps becoming a celebrated tattoo artist even tattooing Don Ed Hardy in 1993.
At the hight of their popularity, rival circuses would compete to secure the services of the person with the most intricate and elaborate tattoos and stories. Tattoo artists of the day would often spend the warmer months touring with the circuses earning much more than they did upon returning to their homes and shops for winter. For over 70 years, every major circus having at least one tattooed person as a part of their exhibition.
The sad truth for many of these people was that fame is a fickle a fleeting mistress and many of them passed out of the public eye and were forgotten, their fates unknown and the dates of their deaths unknown. Their deaths proved to be as unremarkable as their lives had been a cruel and ironic reflection of the fickle nature of fame.
To suggest that these tattooed people were anything but pioneers of the art would be a lie. It is thanks to them and their exposure of tattooing over 70 years that society began to appreciate tattoos as an art rather than a part of the freak shows to which they had been first introduced.