In the early 19th century, circuses began to offer their visitors sideshow attractions in the form of tattooed men. The men would cover their bodies with tattoos and then present themselves to audiences for viewing. Many of these colorful performers would claim that they’d been kidnapped by savages and forcibly tattooed.
Towards the end of the 19th century, tattooed ladies were introduced to the sideshow scene. They became an even bigger drawcard for audiences because of the scandalous and controversial nature of their acts. They would appear nearly nude in an age where most women covered their entire bodies, revealing only the skin of their hands and faces. Like the tattooed men, most of the tattooed ladies told wild stories of being and forced into covering their bodies with tattoos by their fathers, husbands or by savage (but apparently quite artistic) tribesmen. Unlike the men, however, the tattooed ladies offered an element of feminine sensuality in their acts, often dancing while stripping off items of clothing to reveal their tattoos.
Being a tattooed lady required a high level of courage. There were many people in the late 19th century and early 20th century who frowned upon the tattooed ladies’ performances, so these women had to cover up when in public or simply stay within the safe confines of the circus group. Many tattooed ladies chose not to tattoo their necks and arms; the only skin that was acceptable for women of the time to show. Although there were some who disdained them, the tattooed ladies were so popular with the majority that when Groucho Marx released his song, Lydia the Tattooed Lady, it was a hit and is now his most famous song.
Some of the tattooed ladies rose to international fame and are still admired for their tattoo body suits a century later. Here are a few of these early divas of ink:
Betty Broadbent: Tattooed Lady and Tattoo Artist
Born in 1909, Betty Broadbent was one of the few tattooed ladies who refused to claim that she’d been forced into being tattooed by savages. Instead she told her own story, that she’d been a nanny in New Jersey as a young teenager and later married a cowboy at the age of nineteen. She spent her days on the boardwalk and the beach where she met tattoo artist Jack Redcloud. By 1927, she was working on a full body tattoo suit with artists Redcloud, Joe Van Hart, Charlie Wagner, Red Gibbons, and Tony Rhineagear. These artists were among the first to use electric tattoo machines instead of the traditional hand-poking method.
Betty performed as a tattooed lady for several different circuses for forty years. She travelled around North America, New Zealand and Australia, showing off her collection of over 350 tattoos to curious audiences. She eventually settled in San Francisco, where she worked as a tattoo artist. She died in 1983, two years after becoming the first person to be inducted into the Tattoo Hall of Fame.
Artoria Gibbons: The Painted Wife
Artoria Gibbons was born in 1893 in Wisconsin, USA, as Anna Mae Burlinston. When her family later moved to Spokane, Washington, she began working as a cleaning lady to supplement her family’s income. It was there that she met Charles “Red” Gibbons, a tattoo artist who she married in pre-war 1912. Times were tough for the couple, and they decided to turn Artoria into a tattooed lady in order to bring more money into the family. At the time, tattooed ladies were paid well, often more than working class men. They changed her name and began working on creating a tattooed body suit for her.
Charles Gibbons designed religious tattoo for his wife, in keeping with her Episcopalian beliefs. Like Betty Broadbent, Artoria chose not to claim that she’d been forcefully tattooed by savages. Instead, she told a tale of running away to the circus for love. In the 1970s, her manager Ward Hall changed her story, stating that she’d been tattooed by her jealous tattoo artist husband as a way to make her less attractive to other men. This story upset Artoria, but her manager would simply turn the sound system down so that she couldn’t hear him.
Artoria retired in 1981, as one of the last professional tattooed ladies in the US. She died four years later in 1985.
Irene Woodward: Daughter of Ink
Irene Woodward, born in 1862, appeared on the sideshow scene in the 1880s. It is said that she made her debut not long after Nora Hildebrandt was first introduced and quickly eclipsed Hildebrandt, becoming one of the most famous tattooed ladies of her time.
Her story was that she’d been tattooed by her father. Sometimes the story was that she was forcibly tattooed, and sometimes she claimed that she’d wanted the tattoos. The reality is that she wasn’t tattooed by her father, but rather by the popular New York artists Samuel O’Reilly and Charles Wagner. She was also known to claim that she’d been tattooed in the “wild west” as protection from native tribesmen.
Woodward’s stage name was La Belle Irene and she spent her career as a tattooed lady travelling in America and Europe. She passed away in 1915, but her legacy remains.