Meet America & Britain’s First Female Tattoo Artists: Maud Wagner (1877–1961) & Jessie Knight (1904–1994)


For a cer­tain peri­od of time, it became very hip to think of clas­sic tat­too artist Nor­man “Sailor Jer­ry” Collins as the epit­o­me of WWII era retro cool. His name has become a promi­nent brand, and a house­hold name in tat­tooed households—or those that watch tat­too-themed real­i­ty shows. But I sub­mit to you anoth­er name for your con­sid­er­a­tion to rep­re­sent the height of vin­tage rebel­lion: Maud Wag­n­er (1877–1961).

No, “Maud” has none of the rak­ish charm of “Sailor Jer­ry,” but nei­ther does the name Nor­man. I mean no dis­re­spect to Jer­ry, by the way. He was a pro­to­typ­i­cal­ly Amer­i­can char­ac­ter, tai­lor-made for the mar­ket­ing hagiog­ra­phy writ­ten in his name. But so, indeed, was Maud Wag­n­er, not only because she was the first known pro­fes­sion­al female tat­too artist in the U.S., but also because she became so, writes Mar­go DeMel­lo in her his­to­ry Inked, while “work­ing as a con­tor­tion­ist and acro­bat­ic per­former in the cir­cus, car­ni­val, and world fair cir­cuit” at the turn of the cen­tu­ry.

gus and maud wagner

Aside from the cow­boy per­haps, no spir­it is freer in our mythol­o­gy than that of the cir­cus per­former. The real­i­ty of that life was of course much less roman­tic than we imag­ine, but Maud’s life—as a side show artist and tattooist—involves a romance fit for the movies. Or so the sto­ry goes. She learned to tat­too from her hus­band, Gus Wag­n­er, an artist she met at the St. Louis World’s Fair, who offered to teach her in exchange for a date. As you can see in her 1907 pic­ture at the top, after giv­ing her the first tat­too, he just kept going (see the two of them above). “Maud’s tat­toos were typ­i­cal of the peri­od,” writes DeMel­lo, “She wore patri­ot­ic tat­toos, tat­toos of mon­keys, but­ter­flies, lions, hors­es, snakes, trees, women, and had her own name tat­tooed on her left arm.”

Maud Wagner family

Unfor­tu­nate­ly there seem to be no images of Maud’s own hand­i­work about, but her lega­cy lived on in part because Gus and Maud had a daugh­ter, giv­en the endear­ing name Lovet­ta (see the fam­i­ly above), who also became a tat­too artist. Unlike her moth­er, how­ev­er, Lovet­ta did not become a can­vas for her father’s work or any­one else’s. Accord­ing to tat­too site Let’s Ink, “Maud had for­bid­den her hus­band to tat­too her and, after Gus died, Lovet­ta decid­ed that if she could not be tat­tooed by her father she would not be tat­tooed by any­one.” Like I said, roman­tic sto­ry. Unlike Sailor Jer­ry, the Wag­n­er women tat­tooed by hand, not machine. Lovet­ta gave her last tat­too, in 1983, to mod­ern-day celebri­ty artist, mar­ket­ing genius, and Sailor Jer­ry pro­tégée Don Ed Hardy.

Olive Oatman, 1858. After her family was killed by Yavapais Indians on a trip West in the 1850s, 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. Credit: Arizona Historical Society.

The cul­tur­al his­to­ry of tat­tooed and tat­too­ing women is long and com­pli­cat­ed, as Mar­got Mif­flin doc­u­ments in her 1997 Bod­ies of Sub­ver­sion: A Secret His­to­ry of Women and Tat­too. For the first half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, heav­i­ly-inked women like Maud were cir­cus attrac­tions, sym­bols of deviance and out­sider­hood. Mif­flin dates the prac­tice of dis­play­ing tat­tooed white women to 1858 with Olive Oat­man (above), a young girl cap­tured by Yava­pis Indi­ans and lat­er tat­tooed by the Mohave peo­ple who adopt­ed and raised her. At age nine­teen, she returned and became a nation­al celebri­ty.

Tat­tooed Native women had been put on dis­play for hun­dreds of years, and by the turn of the 20th cen­tu­ry World’s Fair, “natives… whether tat­tooed or not, were shown,” writes DeMel­lo, in staged dis­plays of prim­i­tivism, a “con­struc­tion of the oth­er for pub­lic con­sump­tion.” While these spec­ta­cles were meant to rep­re­sent for fair­go­ers “the enor­mous progress achieved by the West through tech­no­log­i­cal advance­ments and world con­quest,” anoth­er bur­geon­ing spec­ta­cle took shape—the tat­tooed lady as both pin-up girl and rebel­lious thumb in the eye of impe­ri­al­ist Vic­to­ri­an­ism and its cult of wom­an­hood.


And here I sub­mit anoth­er name for your con­sid­er­a­tion: Jessie Knight (above, with a tat­too of her fam­i­ly crest), Britain’s first female tat­too artist and also one­time cir­cus per­former, who, accord­ing to Jezebel, worked in her father’s sharp shoot­ing act before strik­ing out on her own as a tat­tooist. The Mary Sue quotes an unnamed source who writes that her job was “to stand before [her father] so that he could hit a tar­get that was some­times placed on her head or on an area of her body.” Sup­pos­ed­ly, one night he “acci­den­tal­ly shot Jesse in the shoul­der,” send­ing her off to work for tat­too artist Char­lie Bell. As the nar­ra­tor in the short film below from British Pathe puts it, Knight (1904–1994), “was once the tar­get in a sharp shoot­ing act. Now she’s at the busi­ness end of the tar­get no more.”

The remark sums up the kind of agency tat­too­ing gave women like Knight and the inde­pen­dence tat­tooed women rep­re­sent­ed. Pop­u­lar stereo­types have not always endorsed this view. “Over the last 100 years,” writes Amelia Klem Osterud in Things & Ink mag­a­zine, “a stig­ma has devel­oped against tat­tooed women—you know the mis­con­cep­tions, women with tat­toos are sluts, they’re ‘bad girls,’ just as false as the myth that only sailors and crim­i­nals get tat­toos.”


Jesse Knight—as you can see from the Pathe film and the pho­to above from 1951—was por­trayed as a con­sum­mate pro­fes­sion­al, and in fact won 2nd place in a “Cham­pi­on Tat­too Artist of all Eng­land” in 1955. See sev­er­al more pho­tos of her at work at Jezebel, and see a gallery of tattooed—and tattooist—ladies from Mifflin’s book at The New York­er, includ­ing such char­ac­ters as Bot­ti­cel­li and Michelan­ge­lo-tat­tooed Anna Mae Burling­ton Gib­bons, Bet­ty Broad­bent, the tat­tooed con­tes­tant in the first tele­vised beau­ty pageant, and Aus­tralian tat­too artist Cindy Ray, “The Classy Lassy with the Tat­tooed Chas­sis.” Now there’s a name to remem­ber.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Daz­zling Gallery of Clock­work Orange Tat­toos

Why Tat­toos Are Per­ma­nent? New TED Ed Video Explains with Ani­ma­tion

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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