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The History of Tattooed Ladies from Freakshows to Reality TV

We talked to academic Annie Irish about how tattooed women have been objectified and fetishised since the days of the 19th century.

'Nora Hildebrandt—Tattooed Woman' by Charles Eisenmann, Ronald G. Becker Collection of Charles Eisenmann Photographs, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries.

Anni Irish thinks her tattoos may have prevented her from some professional opportunities, but she doesn't really care at this point. The Brooklyn-based academic got her first tattoo at age 18, but it wasn't until she was 21 and had her knuckles inked with the word "VERBOSE." (including the period) that her body art went past what she considers the point of no return.

"That's when it went from a hobby to a lifestyle choice," she told VICE over the phone. "My watershed moment! I remember the artist telling me it was really hardcore."

Now 29, Irish holds an MA in Gender and Cultural Studies from Simmons College and an MA in Performance Studies from New York University; her work, as you might have guessed, focuses on body modification, fetishism, and the social-cultural history of tattooing in America. Tuesday night, at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, she gave a lecture titled "The American Tattooed Ladies: 1840-2015," tracing the history of tattooed women from 19th-century sideshow performers to present-day reality TV celebrities and models like Kat Von D and Megan Massacre.

Just before she gave her talk, I called her up to chat about the history of tattooed women being objectified and fetishized, how the New York Times helped make ink less taboo, and why people once would have paid money to see a woman with body art.

'Unidentified Tattooed Woman' by Charles Eisenmann, Ronald G. Becker Collection of Charles Eisenmann Photographs, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries.

VICE: Can you tell me about your own tattoos?
Anni Irish: I get most of them at Pumpkin Tattoos in Boston by an artist named Chad Chesko. Most of them are larger designs. I've got the tops of both my thighs covered, and I've been working on turning my arm into a sleeve for about ten years. I have some small ones too—an anchor, a diamond, a switchblade.

Your lecture at the Museum of Morbid Anatomy sold out—congrats! What are you going to talk about?
I situate the lecture by explaining my own personal experience with tattooing. Then I contextualize the art practice within the history of freak shows and dime shows—early spaces of American entertainment. Often, at those public spectacles, women heavily covered in tattoos would be an attraction. So, in a way, women getting tattoos and being performers tie into the formation of the entertainment industry as we know it today.

Then I begin talking about Nora Hildebrandt, the first "official" tattooed woman. She had a short-lived career at Barnum & Bailey's circus, where she'd show off her tattoos on stage. But a woman named Irene Woodward quickly replaced Nora because she was considered more attractive. This ties into the present—how many of the most famous tattoo artists are heavily sexualized—and it relates to how men fetishize the female body. In the 19th century, people who visited the freak shows could buy cabinet cards—photographs—of these women and bring them home as souvenirs. People would collect them. It was like their version of Instagram followers. Both practices relate to the female body being "circulated" and "owned."

I also talk about Maude Wagner, one of the first official female tattoo artists, and then speed things up and mention one woman per decade who was either heavily tattooed or an artist. This brings us all the way to today's most popular tattooed women like Kat Von D and Megan Massacre, who are on reality TV and sort of act as this representation of one trope of the modern tattoo lady.

What was the American attitude towards tattoos like in the 19th century?
In the late 1880s, early 1890s, there was the idea that people with tattoos were associated with criminality and underground, seedy things. At the turn of the century, it was tied to sailors, prostitution, and crime. Part of this had to do with where tattoo shops were located—and many were near shipyards and attracted sailors.

There was a duality to it because, on one hand, the public thought they were low-class or associated with gangs and prison. But then, on the other, you had the public admiring tattoos at freak shows. Or, at least, they considered them gross or shocking, but they still couldn't look away. Tattoos were stigmatized, but people were still interested enough to pay to see them.

Related: For more on ink, watch our doc 'Tattoo Age: Valerie Vegas.'

How did people get tattoos in the 19th century?
Even then, people would get tattooed at tattoo shops. The tattoo machine—or "tattoo gun," though artists hate that term—was invented in 1876 that was based on a pen that artisans developed. Up until that point, people would get stick and poke. But tattoo shops were illegal throughout America. They weren't even legal in New York until 1997!

I think if you wanted one, you'd know where to go. It was a word-of-mouth type thing. The illegality had to do with a fear of needle safety—fears of HIV, intravenous drug use, etc. This stigmatization likely sparked the now-familiar medicalization of tattooing—fresh needles, clean shops, etc.—and the rise of its legitimacy as a skill and practice.

Why were people so interested in seeing tattooed women on stage back in the day?
There's a sexualization to it because a lot of women were wearing skimpy outfits on stage and showcasing skin with personal markings on them. Unless you were someone who was regularly going to vaudeville shows or brothels, part of the appeal was that you'd be seeing women with body modification who you wouldn't see on the street. It was exciting to see a naked body on stage. It was acceptable for men to have tattoos on their bodies, but they'd be viewed as lower class. It was still shocking to see a man with tattoos, but even more shocking to see a woman with tattoos. They became popular spectacles, and there's actually one account I heard about a woman switching careers from a typist to a tattooed woman so she could make more money as a performer at one of the freak shows.

Can you tell me about Maude Wagner, the first female tattoo artist?
While Nora Hildebrandt was the first "official" tattooed woman, Maude was actually the first to start tattooing. Her husband Gus gave her tattoos, and she eventually became his apprentice. They were some of the last professional tattoo artists to be exclusively tattooing by hand, as the tattoo machine was invented in 1876. Not every woman who was getting tattooed became a tattoo artist. Only small group of women did because it was—and still is—a masculine boys club. The great female artists were overshadowed by the men. That's why I want to elevate them in history with this lecture.

'Unidentified Tattooed Woman' by Charles Eisenmann via Syracuse Special Collections Research Library.

I read an article where you described socialites getting tattooed as a crossover moment for women, gender, and tattoo culture. Can you elaborate on that?
There was this New York Times article published in 1882 about the tattoo artist Martin Hildebrandt, the husband of Nora. He's famous in American tattoo history: Tattooing was illegal, but Hildebrandt was getting press in the Times. The article mentions that higher-class women started getting tattoos, which was a symbolic elevation of the practice. The article proves that it wasn't just sailors, criminals, and prostitutes getting inked, but socialites too. These women were often getting images of butterflies—which I think is lame, but, hey, people still get butterflies today. The little tattoos were viewed as nostalgic items—ephemeral in that they might not be noticed, but still permanent.

At the same time, these women were getting them in places that were cover by clothing, so people wouldn't assume they were circus performers or prostitutes. I mean, clothing covered everything then, but it speaks to this idea of concealment—having it, but not wanting to show it. I feel that that's still a lot of people's attitude today. I have a friend today who has as many tattoos as me, but all on her torso. She's getting her PhD and her parents don't even know she has them.

'Unidentified Tattooed Woman' by Charles Eisenmann, Ronald G. Becker Collection of Charles Eisenmann Photographs, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries.

How are the tattooed women of the 19th century linked to the famous tattoo women of today?
In the past it was the circus stage, but today it's the reality TV stage. They're both entertainment platforms, and it's a recapitulation of culture.

For example, today two of the most famous tattoo women are Kat Von D and Megan Masscre. These women are really good tattooers, but they also do modeling, DJing, and have clothing and makeup lines. Megan identifies as both an alternative model and a tattooer, which makes me think of Suicide Girls and the whole alternative modeling craze—the idea that people are actively trying to be tattoo models. A friend of mine is a tattoo model and a Suicide Girl. Twenty years ago, who would have thought that people could make a living off these industries? But it's also similar to that woman I mentioned who quit typing to become a tattoo girl in a freak show.

I think the main difference about tattoo girls of the 19th century and those of today is that back then sex was implied, but it was a wink and a nod. Today, it's prominent and in your face. This is really problematic because it has to do with being fetishized. I think Kat's done a good job at controlling her image, but Megan was sexualized very early—how she appears in her photo shoots and whatnot. Obviously, she can do whatever she wants, but if you look at the early photo shoots of both famous tattoo girls, they couldn't be more different. They used their sexuality in very different ways, and have since gone about their careers in very different ways, and gotten different opportunities as a result. It speaks to this larger idea of the sexualization of women, controlling women, and how they're portrayed in the media by people other than themselves.

Anni Irish will be be teaching a class on freak shows at SVA this summer that's open to the public. Follow her on Tumblr.

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