The Secret History of Women and Tattoo

Since ridiculously awful tattoos have been in the news recently, I thought I’d take a look at some ladies who have paved the way for tattoo artistry for women, and are much cooler that One Direction. Even though the photo of Maud Wagner (middle) was taken over a hundred years ago, I don’t think she’d be out of place in a Camden tattoo parlour today.



“Olive Oatman, 1858. She was the first tattooed white woman in the U.S. After her family was killed by Yavapais Indians, on a trip West in the eighteen-fifties, she was adopted and raised by Mohave Indians, who gave her a traditional tribal tattoo. When she was ransomed back, at age nineteen, she became a celebrity. Photograph courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society, Tucson, 1927.”





“Maud Wagner, the first known female tattooist in the U.S., 1911. In 1907, she traded a date with her husband-to-be for tattoo lessons. Their daughter, Lotteva Wagner, was also a tattooist. Photograph courtesy of the author.”


“Billed variously as “Miss Technicolor” and “The Classy Lassy with the Tattooed Chassis,” the Australian Cindy Ray toured in Australia and New Zealand in the early sixites, then learned to tattoo and has been working ever since. Now seventy, she goes by her birth name, Bev Nicholas, and works weekends at Moving Pictures Tattoo Studio, near Melbourne, where she has been tattooing for over forty years. Photograph courtesy of Randy Johnson.”


In Edinburgh last Summer, I met someone who had bees tattooed on his knees just so he could say ‘I’m the bees knees!’ (does that even make sense?). I have a feeling that it won’t be long before that joke gets old. Tattoos involve either a brave or a foolish decision, and I’m too much of a wimp to make either. I think women like Maud Wagner chose the brave option. They’re pretty admirable for expressing themselves in exactly the way they wanted to and without regret, especially given that their chosen mode of expression was far from the norm at the time.


To find out more see Margot Mifflin’s book Bodies of Subversion: The Secret History of Women and Tattoo.

 by Eloise Blondiau

via The New Yorker

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