The Tattooed Ladies
So, as it turns out, tattoos didn’t always use to be a medium of self-expression or a way of showing off your cool new “I heart Mum” tat to your mates – there was once a way to make money out of it! There have been several professional tattooed ladies over the years and the most successful ones literally ran off to join the circus. Here are a few examples of a couple of the most well-known ones:
Nora is regarded as America’s first professional tattooed lady. This is mainly down to the fact that her husband, German born Martin Hildebrandt, was the first professional tattoo artist in America and when he wasn’t tattooing sailors and army men he used his wife as a canvas! Nora began her profession in the 1890s by touring with the Barnum and Bailey Circus at which point she was covered, neck-down, in over 365 designs. Her first self-exhibit was in the Bunnell’s Museum in New York on the 1st of March.
Despite being born in London around 1857 Nora told an elaborate, fictional story about her past in order to explain the origin of her tattoos and bewilder her audience. She claimed that whilst travelling through the Wild West with her father they were kidnapped by Sitting Bull and his tribe, who forced her father to tattoo her every day for a year whilst she was tied to a tree. The agony of her torture left her blind, and in order to stop it her father deliberately broke all his needles which resulted in the tribe murdering him. Nora was rescued from the tribe by General George Cook, and while recovering in hospital her eyesight amazingly returned. It was also in the hospital that she met circus owner Adam Forepaugh who convinced her to come back to New York with him and work at the circus.
In reality, Nora’s life wasn’t as weird and wonderful as her story but still pretty tragic. Eventually her husband Martin was charged with insanity and was committed to an asylum, and Nora remarried tattooed barber Jacob Gunther in 1889. The pair toured as a tattooed couple for years. Eventually Nora was over shadowed by other tattooed ladies that came about and died four years later. Her fate is still somewhat unknown.
Artoria was born in Wisconsin in 1893, with the birth name of Anna Mae Burlingston, and ran away from home at the age of 14. Apparently she met her future husband Charles ‘Red’ Gibbons whilst hanging around outside a carnival. He was a tattoo artist and told her that he could make famous and she could see the world if she let him tattoo her and join the carnival. What a lovely wedding proposal! Although, this was quite normal for most tattooed ladies of the time, with their tattooist husbands making them their calling cards so to speak.
When they married Red tattooed Artoria with intricate reproductions of religious paintings and artwork by the likes of Michelangelo and others. He was regarded as one of the best tattooists of his time. By the start of the early 1920s she had begun to embark on a career as a tattooed lady that would span over 35 years. Artoria worked for many different carnivals and circuses in her lifetime, including the Barnum and Bailey Circus – the same show that Nora worked for. By the late 1940s Red had become completely blind due to a construction accident and being the victim of a robbery and eventually died, causing Artoria to go into retirement.
Her oddball fictional story was that she ran away from the poverty of her home to join the circus because of her love for the sideshow. However she was eventually branded under the name of the “man-made monstrosity”, with her manager claiming that she was married to a man who tattooed her because he was mad with jealousy.
Artoria came out of retirement in the 50s but eventually died in March 1985.