Contortionist and aerialist, she was a circus performer and, above all, the first know female tattoo artist in the United States. Hers is a story of love, tattoos and fame.
Born in February 1877 in Lyon County, Kansas, Maud Stevens was a performer travelling with circuses and sideshows when she met her husband-to-be Gus Wagner at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (a sort of today’s Expo). He was a sailor who traveled the world in the last 1800s and came home covered with tattoos. He always told he learned how to tattoo from the tribesmen in Janva and Borneo. Attracted by tattoos, Maud seems to have exchanged their first romantic date for a tattooing lesson, until she fell in love and married him several years – and lessons – later.
She became her canvas, her apprentice and the love of his life.
They had a daughter, Lotteva, who had to become a tattoo artist herself. Despite her parents’ profession, Maud forbid Gus to tattoo her and she never got inked by anyone else, becoming one of the few un-tattooed tattoo artist known.
Maud and Gus were specialized in hand-poked tattoos, despite the tattoo machine was already widespread. Thus the Wagners became two of the last tattoo artists to work by hand. The news of the first female tattoo artist spread all over the United Stated. Moreover, her body was swallowed up in tattoos: butterflies, lions, snakes, trees portraits and her own name on the left arm, so she left the circus and started to perform as a tattooed attraction. Also, she kept on tattooing her circus coworkers and the audience who flocked to see her.
Maud Wagner died in January 1961 in Lawton, Oklahoma. She is still recognized as a milestone in the tattooed women’s history and emancipation.