Pioneers of Female Body Art

I thought it might be fun to rummage around the history books and take a look at some of the intrepid women who were instrumental in introducing and legitimizing the art of tattoos to the American and European public. Up until the 1960s, most of these women found circus sideshows, carnivals and dime museums as a way not only to display their body art but also earn a paycheck while doing so.

Although this list is not totally comprehensive…I have chosen to include those women I feel contributed the most and are the most famous.

nora_hildebrandt2Nora Hildebrandt

Nora Hildebrandt (often misspelled as “Hilderbrandt”) was the first tattooed lady to make the scene in the United States. She made her debut at Bunnell’s Museum in New York City in 1882.

Nora was tattooed by her father Martin Hildebrandt and told a tale onstage similar to those used by tattooed men like Constantine. Nora claimed that her father tattooed her while they were held captive by Sitting Bull, at the chief’s command. Within weeks of her debut, another tattooed lady by the name of Irene Woodward stole the limelight. Woodward quickly overshadowed Hildebrandt.

la-belle-irene-011La Belle Irene

Irene Woodward used the stage name “La Belle Irene” and was often refereed to as “The Original Tattooed Lady”…though there is some doubt to her claim of being the actual first female tattoo attraction. But as early as 1882 the The New York Clipper, also known as The Clipper, a weekly entertainment newspaper published in New York City from 1853 to 1924 mentioned her working with G.B. Biennell. (a dime museum operator).

Some of the tattooed side show attractions of that era concocted elaborate tales as to why they got inked. In her onstage presentation she used a variation of Nora Hildebrandt’s story, claiming to have been tattooed as protection against the Indian “savages” in Texas.

It is rumored La Belle Irene’s tattoo work was done by Samuel O’Reilly and Charlie Wagner of New York City.

Emma de Burgh mr_mrs_frank_burgh

Emma and Frank de Burgh were one of the most popular turn of the century husband and wife attractions. Tattooed by Samuel O’Reilly during the late 1800s in New York City, the de Burghs were among the many American attractions to work with much acclaim in Europe. First appearing in Berlin, Germany circa 1891, they took the side show world by storm. They were inked primarily with religious designs, the Last Supper and The Calvary were among fan favorites.

tattooed_woman1Lady Viola

Lady Viola was another circus sideshow attraction. The Bowery/Coney Island/Brooklyn tattoo artist Frank Graf inked her in the 1920s.

During an interview in 1989, Bob Shaw recalls the first time he saw Lady Viola in St. Louis, MO. (Bob Shaw tattooed for over 50 years before leaving for a better place. Bob helped pass & set the standards on Tattooing & the Technique on sterilization back in the 60’s. Bob was also the President of the Worlds Largest Tattoo Association – National Tattoo Association when he passed away on Mar. 17, 1993)

“The fellow who did Lady Viola’s work was way ahead of his time. If you ever can get one of those photos and blow it up, you’ll see all those little flower designs have heads in ’em, that’s the popular people of the time, like Charlie Chaplin and Tom Mix. He was the first person I saw really do portraits; he did presidents Wilson, Washington and Lincoln across her chest. You looked at them and immediately knew who it was.”

Lady Viola did have a very special suit of tattoos, often being billed as “The Most Beautiful Tattooed Woman in the World.” Along with popular tattoo figures of the time, she had the United States Capitol on her back and the Statue of Liberty and Rock of Ages on her legs. During the outdoor season she worked with the likes of the Ringling Bros. Circus (1932) and the winter months found her in dime museums like Gorman’s in Philadelphia (1930s). Lady Viola spent decades in the show business world and was still working with the Thomas Joyland Show at the age of 73!

Although Lady Viola made her name as a tattoo attraction, she like many other female attractions (including Betty Broadbent) also did some tattooing.

Artoria Gibbons

artoriagibbons1Artoria was a tattoo attraction that worked for 35 years in circus and carnival sideshows, including the Ringling, Barnum & Bailey Brothers Circus (from 1921 to 1923), the Hagenbeck-Wallace in 1924 and others. Artoria was the stage name for Mrs. C. W. (Red) Gibbons.

Artoria was born on a farm in upper Wisconsin. Her parents were poor and by the age of 14 she decided to leave home. While hanging around a local carnival sideshow she met Red Gibbons. Red told her that he was a tattoo artist and if Artoria agreed to let him tattoo her, she could join the show and see the world. And that’s exactly what she did. She and Red married a short time later.

In the 1950s Artoria came out of retirement and worked with the Dell-Travers ten-in-one show:

Artoria’s tattoos were magnificent: reproductions of paintings by the masters like Raphael and Michelangelo plus a few patriotic designs, but main inspiration are Italian masterpieces. “My husband done everyone of them,” she said proudly. “They’re all masterpieces. He was crazy ’bout eye-talian painters.”

May Vandermark
May Vandermark was born in Pennsylvania and came to New York City in 1924 to work as a stenographer. Tattoo legend tells us that one day while swimming at Coney Island, she saw a butterfly tattoo on someone’s shoulder and just had to have one.

May found a boardwalk tattooist and got a butterfly tattooed on each shoulder. As fate would have it, May met Victoria James who was also known as Miss Pictoria. Miss Pictoria convinced May to become a professional tattooed lady and off they went to see Charlie Wagner. Wagner tattooed May and she started playing Coney Island shows. She took the stage name Miss Artorio and eventually graduated to working with the Ringling show in the late 1920s.

Betty Broadbent
Betty Broadbent was famous for her long career with Ringling Bros, Barnum & Bailey Circus. Born in 1909, she began her tattoo career around 1927. Betty’s tattooed body suit was done by New York tattooist Charlie Wagner, one of the few tattooers at the time working with one of the “newfangled” electric tattoo machines. Her body was covered almost to entire solidity with approximately 350 tattoos. She was exhibited for many months as part of an attraction at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, appearing as part of the “John Hix Strange As It Seems” sideshow. Along with her circus career, Broadbent also became a tattoo artist herself and supplemented studio work with performing. Betty retired to Florida in 1967, and passed away in 1983.


Elizabeth Weinzirl

Elizabeth was known in the tattoo world as “The Tattooed Grandma” or “The World’s Number One Tattoo Fan”. Elizabeth was first tattooed in the 1940s by the world famous Bert Grimm. Through the years Elizabeth had corresponded with tattoo artists and fans around the world.

Cindy Ray
Cindy Ray was a famous tattooed girl in the 1960s. Born Bev Robinson, the Cindy Ray persona was her image attached to a marketing campaign by a photographer named Harry Bartram. He offered to get Ray tattooed and market a whole line of books, tattoo products and more. She was a young single mother, working in a factory in 1959 Sydney, Australia, and was looking for some way of earning extra money. She did become a tattoo celebrity and traveled the world, but the bulk of the benefit and profit from her images and products went to Bartram and not her. She eventually became a tattoo artist herself and settled down to run a shop in her native Australia.

Krystyne Kolorful
Canadian exotic dancer Krystyne Kolorful made a name for herself in both the exotic dance world and the tattoo world with her full body suit tattoos. She spent ten years and an estimated $15,000 getting her entire body covered in an elaborate pattern of floral based designs. Currently she is tied with American Julia Gnuse for the Guinness title of Most Tattooed Woman. Both women are calculated to have 95% of their body surfaces covered in tattooing.

Julia Gnuse 20070903040346most_tattoo_bodies_julia_gnuse_the_illustrated_lady

Commonly known by the nickname The Illustrated Lady, Julia holds the Guinness Record for being the most tattooed woman in the world, having coverage of 95% of her body (including her face). Gnuse was born with porphyria, a condition in which sunlight results in blistering of the skin. As the blisters often result in scarring, she began getting tattoos as a way to cover up the scars…however, the tattoos do not prevent the skin from blistering as they are purely aesthetic.

She currently resides in Foothill Ranch, California.

2 Responses to “Pioneers of Female Body Art”

  1. Magninifico!!

  2. I read this paragraph fully about the resemblance of latest and earlier technologies, it’s amazing

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