August “Gus” Wagner was a tattoo artist and performer. “World’s Champion Hand Tattoo Artist and Tattooed Man”, was one of the most exuberant figures in the history of American popular culture. As a tattooist and showman, he adorned thousands of customers and thrilled audiences from coast to coast in the early years of the 20th century.

Gus was born June 16, 1872 in Marietta, Ohio, a trading and boat building town on the Ohio River. At age twelve he saw his first tattooed man, “Captain Costentenus the Greek Albanian,” in a traveling show. As a young man he hit the road as an itinerant salesman and laborer. In 1897 he boarded the cargo steamer “Bellona” at Newport News, Virginia, em- barking on a four-year career as a merchant seaman.

Gus and Maud Wagner
Gus and Maud Wagner

He claimed to have learned to tattoo from tribesmen in Java and Borneo who showed him how to use their traditional hand-made tools. Gus reported to have had 264 tattoos by 1901. He promoted himself as “the most artistically marked up man in America” and became known as “The Tattooed Globetrotter“.

Gus and Maud Wagner, watercolour by Pepe
Gus and Maud Wagner, watercolour by Pepe

He married his wife, Maud Wagner, on October 3rd, 1904, in St. Louis, Missouri. Maud Stevens was born in 1877 at Lyons County, Kansas, and she was an aerialist and contortionist, working in numerous traveling circuses and the first known female tattoo artist in the United States. She met Gus while traveling with circuses and sideshows ‒ at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (World’s Fair) in 1904, where she was working as an aerialist. She exchanged a romantic date with him for a lesson in tattooing, and several years later they were married. Together they had a daughter, Lovetta, who started tattooing at the age of nine and went on to become a tattoo artist herself.

As an apprentice of her husband, Maud learned how to make traditional “hand-poked” tattoos, despite the invention of the tattoo machine. Together, the Wagners, were two of the last tattoo artists to work by hand.

Maud Wagner

Gus Wagner died on June 10, 1941 in Chase County, Kansas. Maud Wagner died on January 30, 1961 in Lawton, Oklahoma.

Reference: tattooarchive.com