Women and tattoos… While nowadays tattooed women are no longer such a big deal, back in the day it wasn’t really like that..

Artist: @lazerliz

Nora Hildebrandt, a circus woman, was only 22 when she was exposing her 365 tattoos, inked by her husband in New York. She started getting inked at the beginning of 1882, almost a decade before the tattoo gun was invented. Nora was America’s first professional tattooed lady. Her place in history is due mostly to the fact that her father, German born Martin Hildebrandt, was America’s first professional tattoo artist. Nora stood in as a canvas for her father when he was not tattooing sailors and soldiers from both sides of the Civil War.

However her fame was rather short lived as another attractive tattooed lady debuted shortly after her. Irene Woodward quickly eclipsed Nora’s spotlight, a 19 year old girl that proclaimed herself “the only tattooed woman”, that even appeared in The New York Times with her approx. 400 tattoos.


These women worked at circuses in the summer and museums of curiosities in the winter. To show almost every part of their tattooed body in an era where showing an ankle was risky, these women were a sensation on stage. Of course they made up scenarios on how or by whom they got tattooed to attract clients at circuses, scenarios that often included kidnapping and being forcibly tattooed.

Few of these women actually chose their designs so for most part they were wearing the dreams and visions of the artists that tattooed them. When they were not on stage these women used to cover up their bodies so the sun wouldn’t mess up their body art and so that only the paying customers would enjoy what they had to offer.


In 1851 during a trip, Olivia Oatman and her sister were kidnapped by Yavapai Indians. They were held captive for a year and then traded off to the Mohave Indians, which saved them from a life of slavery and abuse. They were raised as natives, which included tattooing them on the chin and arm to assure their passing onto the afterlife. When she returned, saved by the army her story was published in a bestseller called Life Among the Indians: Being an Interesting Narrative of the Captivity of the Oatman Girls. For 7 years she roamed trough the country telling her story in museums, circuses, churches and schools where a fee was charged at the entrance, making her the first american woman that exposed her tattooed body for money and also inspiring all the dramatic scenarios the tattooed ladies were to tell in order to be more interesting than the other.

Until the 1920s hundreds of heavily tattooed people were roaming trough America showing off their bodies in circuses or itinerant performances and among them were Miss Stella, Princess Beatrice, Mae Vandermark, Irma Senta and Maud Arizona. Europe had its own attractions: Queenie Morris from Ireland, Froeken Ingeborg from Sweden, Saharet from France,  and a lot of ladies from Germany, including La Bella Angora and Annette Nerona that had portraits of Bismarck, Wagner and Goethe tattooed on her skin.


These women were becoming more professionally independent. While the first tattooed ladies got on stage because of their husbands, these girls wanted not only money, but adventure and autonomy.

Betty Broadbent was only 17 when she left her babysitting job to run off with the circus in 1927. She was one of the most loved and photographed tattooed ladies of the XX century.  In 1937, Betty Broadbent decided to take her job internationally. She spent time working for independent circuses in both New Zealand and Australia. When she returned home to the United States, she continued performing and traveling in a side show until 1967. Betty even entered a televised beauty contest in 1939. She knew she didn’t have a chance to win but she took full advantage of the free publicity.  It was in 1967 that Broadbent retired. In 1981, Broadbent was the first person to be inducted into the Tattoo Hall of Fame.


More and more people were doing this, and as medicine advanced, providing remedies for the affections they showed,  people had little to no interest in going to freak shows. Between 1950 and 1960 tattoos were banned in certain cities and american states after tattoo needles were linked to the hepatitis epidemic.

.. So the tattooed ladies had to reinvent themselves.


To be continued..

Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram!

Featured image: Hannah Pixie