While tattooed women may be commonplace in 2018, they were once so taboo that they performed in freak shows around the world. Famous tattooed ladies performed along fire eaters, sword swallowers and bearded ladies throughout the late 19th and early 20th century—helping to create and mold Western tattoo culture. We've narrowed down the top 5 tattooed ladies that everyone should know in the gallery below, let us know if you recognize any of these tattoo icons in the comments section on Facebook.
Artoria Gibbons was born on a farm in Wisconsin in 1893 and she moved away from home at the age of 14 to join the circus. Once at the carnival, she met a man named Red Gibbons who was a tattoo artist. Red promised Artoria that he'd let her travel the world with the circus if he could tattoo her, because they didn't have a tattooed lady in their act. Gibbons went on to perform in sideshows for over 35 years, touring with Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey circus as well as Hagenbeck-Wallace. Gibbons is regarded as the highest paid tattooed lady, earning an impressive male following throughout her years in the circus. Gibbons continued to perform until the time of her death, showing off her collection of ink into her eighties.
Betty Broadbent was born in 1901 in Philadelphia and her interest in tattoos developed when she turned 14. Around that time she met a tattooed man named Jack Redcloud, who introduced her to tattooer Charles Wagner. By 1927, Broadbent began collecting tattoos from Wagner as well as Tony Rhineagear, Joe Van Hart and Red Gibbons. Over her lifetime, Broadbent collected over 565 tattoos, which helped her get discovered by Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus. Broadbent was a rebel of her time and enjoyed pushing the boundaries of female beauty—which led her to compete in a beauty pageant at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Broadbent was regarded as the most heavily tattooed women of the 20th century, becoming the first person to be inducted into the Tattoo Hall of Fame.
In her highly dramatized and fictionalized back story, it is said that Nora Hildebrandt was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1860. As a child, her father fled the family to live in America and Hildebrandt followed him shortly after. After graduating school in 1878, Hildebrandt headed to Salt Lake City to meet her father and they began traveling further west to the White Pine Reservation. During their journey, Hildebrandt and her father were captured by a tribe of Lakota Native Americans, which was led by Sitting Bull. Hildebrandt's father was sentenced to burn at the stake, however, when the tribe saw his tattoos, Sitting Bull promised his freedom if he'd tattoo them. But, Sitting Bull later changed his mind and would only allow their freedom if he tattooed his daughter from head to toe. For the next year, Hildebrandt was tattooed by her father every day until she was covered in 365 tattoos. During that year, Hildebrandt went blind and her father broke his needles to put a stop to the tattooing. He was killed shortly after that, however, Hildebrandt was rescued and brought to a hospital in Denver. While recovering, Hildebrandt was approached by circus leaders who promised her sight could be restored if she went to a hospital in New York City with them. Hildebrandt agreed, her sight was restored and she went on to work at the G.B. Bunnell Museum. She then went on to have a career exhibiting her tattoos in cities throughout Europe and the Americas.
However, because of racial biases against Native Americans at this time, it is believed that this story is entirely fabricated. It's more likely that Hildebrandt was born in England and tattooed by a husband or lover at the time. Many tattooed ladies of the freak show created fictional backstories that featured Native American captures—but in most cases, they're just part of the fantasy.
Often regarded as the first tattooed lady, Irene Woodward was born in Dallas, Texas and given the name 'La Belle Irene.' There are rumors that she began getting tattooed at the age of six by her father, who was a sailor, however the stories have not been officially confirmed. In reality, Woodward was likely tattooed by artists Sam O'Reilly and Charles Wagner.
Mae Vandermark was born in Pennsylvania but came to New York City in 1924 to become a stenographer. While swimming in Coney Island, she noticed a tattoo of butterfly on someone's shoulder, which sparked her love for tattoos. After getting a few tattoos, Vandermark met tattoo performer Lotta Pictoria who showed her the ropes of the freak show and helped her become a tattooed lady. She was also introduced to Charles Wagner at the time, we covered her in a bodysuit of tattoos over the course of ten months for the measly price of $130.