The stories behind 5 famous inked-up ladies of the Roaring ‘20s

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Modern History

Chapter 7

Including the first person to be inducted into the Tattoo Hall of Fame, the highest-earning tattooed lady in history, and America’s first female tattoo artist.

New York City is widely considered to be the birthplace of modern tattoos. From there, body art would eventually spread to American society: from almost every corner of circus performers and socialites, to biker gangs and musicians, and from mystics to politics.

Female circus performers in particular were real trailblazers: challenging the gender constraints placed on women working at the time, and the limitations on displaying the female form. “Tattoos were an early way that women took control of their bodies,” according to Time.

Betty Broadbent

Betty Broadbent was the most photographed and most tattooed woman of the 20th century — the first person to be inducted into the Tattoo Hall of Fame. In her lifetime, she collected over 565 tattoos, creating a body suit that won her a job as a performer for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus. Betty was considered “a rebel of her time and enjoyed pushing the boundaries of female beauty,” according to Inked.

“Betty’s body suit of tattoos grew to include five hundred and sixty-five individual tattoos that covered her back, arms, chests, and upper legs,” according to Cloak and Dagger. Her tattooed body art ranged from historical figures, such as Pancho Villa, Charles Lindbergh, and Queen Victoria, to religious figures, such as the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus.

“One of Betty’s most famous tattoos was that of a large eagle that spread from shoulder to shoulder, and was rumoured to take six sittings to complete. Betty was quoted as saying that ‘it hurt something awful, but was worth it’ once the tattoo was completed.”

Artoria Gibbons

Artoria Gibbons ran away from home at age 14, joined the circus and got tattooed head-to-toe so she could travel the world. Quite possibly most parent’s worst nightmare, but it turned out pretty well for her — she went on to become the highest-earning tattooed lady in history.

For over 35 years, Artoria performed in sideshows and toured with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus as well as Hagenbeck-Wallace. “Gibbons is regarded as the highest paid tattooed lady, earning an impressive male following throughout her years in the circus. Gibbons continued to perform until the time of her death, showing off her collection of ink into her eighties,” according to Inked.

Irene Woodward

Irene Woodward


Irene Woodward, also known as ‘La Belle Irene’ is America’s “first tattooed lady.” Rumours have it that her father (a sailor) started tattooing her at age six, but since a sensational story is an important part of showbiz, this story is questionable. It’s more likely Samuel O’Reilly and Charlie Wagner were the artists behind her ink.

Mae Vandermark

Mae Vandermark reportedly started off getting a few tattoos for fun, but after meeting a freak show friend who “showed her the ropes,” Inked writes, she went all in with a body suit – courtesy of legendary tattoo artist, Charlie Wagner. He apparently completed her tattoos “over the course of ten months for the measly price of $130.”

Not a bad return on investment for Mae, who went on to enjoy a successful career performing as a tattooed lady. When asked about her extensive body suit of tattoos, Mae replied: “I love art… and that’s true, too — up to a certain point… I mean, I like to eat regular.”

Maud Wagner

Maud Wagner is one of the most famous tattooed ladies of the 20th Century – and she’s also America’s first female tattoo artist. In 1904 she apparently traded a date with Gus Wagner (her husband-to-be) for an apprenticeship with him. They fell in love, married, and began tattooing together.

“Maud and Gus specialised in hand-poked tattoos, despite the tattoo machine was already widespread,” according to Tattoo Life. “Thus the Wagners became two of the last tattoo artists to work by hand. The news of the first female tattoo artist spread all over the United States. Moreover, her body was swallowed up in tattoos: butterflies, lions, snakes, trees portraits and her own name on the left arm.”

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