These days tattoos are a huge trend and especially in NYC where it feels like the majority of people have most of their bodies tattooed. They are very trendy and these days considered beautiful on a woman's body by most. The question is where did women and tattooing start? The truth is that tatoos were considered so taboo that members of the circus tattooed their whole bodies! Find out more about the secret history of Women and Tattoo.



Olive Oatman, 1858. She was the first tattooed white woman in the U.S. After her family was killed by Yavapais Indians, on a trip West in the eighteen-fifties, she was adopted and raised by Mohave Indians, who gave her a traditional tribal tattoo. When she was ransomed back, at age nineteen, she became a celebrity. Photograph courtesy of the Arizona Historical Society, Tucson, 1927.


Nora Hildebrandt, the first American tattooed circus attraction, in the late eighteen-eighties. Like many early attractions, Hildebrandt claimed to have been forcibly tattooed by western Indians, following Olive Oatman’s example. She was tattooed in New York, by her common-law husband, Martin Hildebrandt, one of the first shop tattooists in the U.S. Photograph courtesy of the Tattoo Archive.


Maud Wagner, the first known female tattooist in the U.S., 1911. In 1907, she traded a date with her husband-to-be for tattoo lessons. Their daughter, Lotteva Wagner, was also a tattooist. Photograph courtesy of the author.


Mildred Hull. One of the first women to learn tattooing without the help of a boyfriend or husband, she worked on the Bowery for two decades and tattooed many women, including debutantes and sorority sisters. They often requested hearts containing lovers’ names, and “Mother” tattoos. Photograph courtesy of the Tattoo Archive.


Like many tattooed circus attractions, Anna Mae Burlington Gibbons was a working-class woman who was tattooed during economic hard times. She and her husband, the tattooist Charles (Red) Gibbons, travelled and worked as a team, starting in the nineteen-twenties. She wore part of Botticelli’s “Annunciation,” a piece of Michelangelo’s “Holy Family,” and on her chest, a portrait of George Washington. Photograph courtesy of the Circus World Museum, Barabou, Wisconsin.


Betty Broadbent. One of the best-known and most photographed American circus attractions, Betty Broadbent made history by appearing in the first televised beauty contest—fully tattooed—at the 1937 World’s Fair. Photograph courtesy of the New York Daily News.


Elizabeth Weinzirl, 1961. A doctor’s wife who began getting tattooed at forty-seven, she was one of the first women to collect and show her tattoos recreationally. Photograph courtesy of Mary Jane Haake.


Bobbie Libarry, 1976, photographed by Imogen Cunningham. Libarry was an attraction turned tattooist in San Francisco. The ninety-three-year-old Cunningham, who photographed the eighty-three-year-old Libarry in a hospital, thought this was one of her best portraits. It was also one of her last, taken just months before she died. Photograph courtesy of Imogen Cunningham Trust.


Billed variously as “Miss Technicolor” and “The Classy Lassy with the Tattooed Chassis,” the Australian Cindy Ray toured in Australia and New Zealand in the early sixites, then learned to tattoo and has been working ever since. Now seventy, she goes by her birth name, Bev Nicholas, and works weekends at Moving Pictures Tattoo Studio, near Melbourne, where she has been tattooing for over forty years. Photograph courtesy of Randy Johnson.

Anyone riding the Brooklyn L train these days can see that tattoo culture is thriving, especially among women. In fact, 2012 was the first year in which more women than men were tattooed in the U.S (twenty-three per cent of women, compared with nineteen per cent of men). Margot Mifflin’s 1997 book, “Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo,” examines this trend, which, it turns out, has been surprisingly long in the making. The book is a cultural history, with photographs of tattooed women and female tattoo artists through the ages, beginning with a white Native American captive with a chin tattoo, from 1851. The third edition of the book, released yesterday, includes a hundred new photographs that examine how tattoo culture has evolved over the past fifteen years. As Mifflin writes in the introduction, “Tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies—and why.” As we approach the fortieth anniversary of Roe v. Wade, this observation is especially resonant.
Though tattoos are an increasingly common, and visible, element of personal style these days, some of the more hidden and historic examples—from Victorian women to circus attractions—are the most surprising. Above is a selection of photographs of some of the first tattooed women and female tattoo artists from “Bodies of Subversion,” with captions by the author.
All photographs from “Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo,” by Margot Mifflin, published by PowerHouse Books.