"Tattoos have been a lifelong fascination for me"

Amelia Klem Osterud will be at Magers & Quinn at 5:00pm, Sunday, January 31, to read from her fascinating new book The Tattooed Lady: A History. It’s a beautiful book, full of illustrations and history.

Check out some of the photographs from the book, read the introduction, then join us to learn even more from the author herself.

From the Introduction:
Tattoos have been a lifelong fascination for me; I grew up drawing on my body with colored markers to create my own tattoos before getting my first real one at age eighteen. My tattoos are a major part of my identity; I am proud of the stories they tell about my life. However, I didn’t know much about the greater history of tattooing until a chance discovery in graduate school, where I was studying history and library science. I was taking a class on Native American women’s history and learned that many Native women (and men) were tattooed or marked in some manner. Even though I was more interested in studying women’s labor history, I delved into the subject of Native American women’s tattooing and found that nineteenth-century documents held a wealth of information about tattooing.

I went deeper, looking for books about the history of Western women and tattooing, and found, to both my horror and delight, almost nothing. Women are mentioned in general tattooing history only in passing or as an aside. Sometimes, they just show up in books of historical images of tattooing, mixed in with men with bad prison tattoos, completely out of context. However, there were a few women who kept popping up ever so briefly in my research; these were the tattooed ladies, a group of interesting sideshow performers with unbelievable tales. Betty Broadbent, La Belle Irene, Annie Howard. Their names were mentioned, but little else. Tattooed ladies were a part of forgotten American history, often dismissed in print as second-rate circus freaks or as monstrous, yet sexy, anomalies. These women were left to languish in a past that didn’t know what to do with them when they were alive, and a present that wasn’t sure what to do with their memory—that is, until now. I’m here to tell their stories and to celebrate their contributions to American history.

When asked in a 1934 interview why she got tattooed, Artoria the Tattooed Girl admitted, “I got tattooed because I wanted to get tattooed; it’s a nice way to make a living. You wouldn’t believe, though, how many people come up an’ ask if I was born this way.” Anna Mae Gibbons, who performed as Artoria for more than fifty years with various circus sideshows, dime museums, and carnivals, always affirmatively answered that question onstage: “The doctors figure it was on account of my mother must have gone to too many movies.”

Tattooed ladies graced sideshow and carnival stages until 1995, when the last performing tattooed lady, Lorett Fulkerson, retired from the carnival circuit at age eighty. For just over one hundred years, women who were not afraid of being different took advantage of the weird perceptions that Americans had about tattooing. The medieval idea of “impression,” a mark left on a baby in the womb because of something the mother witnessed, which Artoria referred to in the aforementioned 1934 interview, was clearly alive and well in the minds of American circus audiences well into the twentieth century. Other ideas about tattoos and those who had them were just as strange. Hospitals quarantined patients with tattoos, regardless of the condition or age of the tattoo, due to fear of disease and infection. Cities banned tattooing because they thought it spread cancer. To some, tattoos were the mark of a “savage” or a sign of a criminal mind, and on a woman, it clearly meant she was a prostitute. “Scientific” minds studied tattoos on individuals and deemed these people unfit for civilization. Yet, despite, or perhaps because of, the supposed danger, tattoos were considered exotic and sexy–the gutsy tattooed women onstage wore short skirts and skimpy tops to show off their body art. Then, like today, sex and danger sold tickets.

These tattooed performers came of age when it was unseemly for women to show their ankles in public, much less display their tattoo-covered arms, legs, and chests for paying audiences. That they chose this type of career is both remarkable and courageous, especially since many came from impoverished backgrounds. Despite the myth of the American dream, working-class women were born poor and stayed poor because they had little education or options. Going to school, working their way up the ladder–these were not alternatives available to them, and because of these limitations they lacked the ability to make choices that would help them break out of their class. The decision to get tattooed and go on the road allowed women to achieve things that few others, especially working-class women, could even imagine.

Their histories, both real and faked for the sideshow audience, show us exactly how important these women were to developing American culture. Their sideshow stories are, without a doubt, reflections of America’s nightmares and dreams. Early tattooed lady Nora Hildebrandt’s story is one of capture by “savage Indians” and torture by tattoo at the hands of her father. Artoria’s famous story involves her running off as a teenager to join the sideshow and become a tattooed muse. When you pair these fabrications with what has been uncovered about their actual lives, the differences are both telling and fascinating.

Their real biographies are obscure and have been pieced together from work histories, photographs, newspaper articles, advertisements, and interviews. Putting tattooed ladies in their proper context requires knowing where they fit in circus and sideshow history, the history of tattooing, as well as nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century women’s history. These were not women who left memoirs, diaries, or letters. These were hardworking women who spent a majority of their careers traveling, living life, getting by.

Ultimately, this book is about how a group of gutsy women found a better way, for them, to survive and flourish, and how their decisions impact us today.

From The Tattooed Lady: A History. Meet the author, Amelia Klem Osterud, at M&Q, 5:00pm, Sunday, January 31. Details are here.