April 9, 2021
With her pearl necklace, clothing that harkens to the early 1900s, and the flowers that adorn her, the tattoos Maud Wagner sports seem a bit anachronistic. This colorized photo does justice to the colorful beauty of her tattoos though, in a way that the original photo cannot. Eventually, nearly every inch of Maud was decorated with illustrations of monkeys, birds, tigers, butterflies, horses, plants, women, and some patriotic tattoos. The artwork on her body was typical of the time period. She also had her name tattooed on her left arm. All of her body work was completed by “The Original Gus Wagner,” the man who became her husband.
Maud Wagner, the daughter of David Van Buran Stevens and Sarah Jane McGee, was born in 1877 in Lyon County Kansas. Nothing is really known about her reasons for running off to join the circus, but during this time, it provided opportunity and freedom. Wagner did her early work as an acrobat, contortionist, and aerialist in several traveling circuses. She met Gus Wagner at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. Gus was a tattoo artist himself, with 800 tattoos, leading him to describe himself as "the most artistically marked up man in America." In a bit of a nontraditional trade-off, he gave her a tattoo lesson and she repaid him with a date. The exchange must have been satisfactory, as the two married a few years later, and she became a tattoo artist, after working with him as his apprentice.
The Rise And Fall Of The Tattoo's Popularity
In 1891, tattooing was transformed when Samuel O’Reily got a patent pending for an early design of a tattoo machine, which caused the practice of tattooing to blossom. These new tattooing machines sped up the process of creating a tattoo, and most artists started to use the technology instead of the old poke and stick method, and tattoos enjoyed a brief surge in popularity. There were some members of the upper class who had tattoos, and even Winston Churchill’s mother had a tattoo, of a snake eating its tail. Tattoos were expensive, and Victorian women who could afford it, would have a small tattoo hidden by their clothing. The brief surge in popularity began to fade in the early twentieth century, as newspapers began to warn that customers could contract venereal diseases by getting tattoos. By 1936, only 6% of people had a tattoo according to Life magazine, showing a decline from earlier. Finding a respectable tattoo artist was challenging, and the industry was not regulated. There were no tattoo shops, and tattoo suppliers were not publicly advertised. To get a tattoo, you had to be introduced to the artist.