Maud Wagner was born in 1877. No historical records explain why she ran off to join a circus, where she met her husband Gus Wagner. They do note she ended up doing a trade for their first date: if he tattooed her, she would go out with him.
He did more than that, he eventually also taught her how to tattoo.
Today Maud Wagner is credited as the first female tattoo artist in the United States.
I’m painting her.
You’ve seen her as a work in progress before in your inbox if you’re part of my newsletter community. Today, I want to show you a few new touches as I’ve begun to embroider the work. Some stitches are directly applied but others are an opportunity to try something new.
I’m experimenting with something new to me called water soluble fabric. It actually dissolves in water! I’m embroidering her tattoos on this surface and am testing what it looks like when I affix the embroidery to the canvas.
You can see the start of her hummingbird on the material here:
Today I’m only showing glimpses. I’ve decided against revealing her until she is complete; I’m excited about this work and want that initial reveal to be as dramatic as she deserves.
I was drawn to Maud because of her proud pose in the photograph I stumbled upon but as I’ve learned more about her, I feel even more passionate about sharing her story and this work.
Margot Mifflin, author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and the Tattoo, talks about how more women than men are tattooed today, yet the profession remains largely male dominated.
Academic Anni Irish posits that in a culture where women are constantly objectified, and dealing with issues of sexism, choosing a tattoo is a sign of bodily autonomy. I never fully understood my own desire to have a tattoo until I read this: without knowing it, that is absolutely part of my personal tattoo story. For me, that makes it even more important for women to have female tattoo artists (and male) that understand and respect this nuance.
If you know of any living female tattoo artists in your area, wherever you are, please let me know. My research will extend to living female artists, who much like my Anonymous Woman series, have chosen a career path that is largely gendered and ruled by men.
I’m truly excited to have you along with me for this ride.
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