Born in Kansas in 1877, Maud was the first female tattoo artist in the United States. She began her adult life as a circus performer, working within various travelling circuses. In the early 1900s, while working within the St Louis World’s Fair as an acrobat, aerialist and contortionist, she met Gus Wagner.
Gus Wagner was known as the ‘Tattooed Globetrotter’. He was a well-known tattoo artist and one of the last tattooists to only work by hand, using the stick and poke method. Some say Gus offered Maud tattoo lessons in return for her going on a date with him, but other sources argue that Maud demanded lessons in return for said date. The jury is still out as to which is the truth, but it is evident that he taught her how to tattoo her own body, not just the bodies of others.
It didn’t take long before she became covered in tattoo artwork, becoming a circus attraction herself – an inked woman. Margo DeMello comments in Inked, Tattoos and Body Art Around The Word, that Maud’s tattoos were ‘typical of the period’, and consisted of ‘patriotic tattoos’ and ‘tattoos of monkey, butterflies, lions, horses, snakes, trees, women’. Maud also reportedly had her own name tattooed on her left arm. Tattooed women were a regular occurrence in circus side-shows; a barely-clad woman with her body permanently altered through ink was somewhat of a spectacle.
Gus and Maud married, and moved from circuses to smaller vaudeville houses. They’re often credited with bringing tattoo artistry inland from the coastal towns and cities where the customs and practices first started. This movement of tattoo culture enabled the skills to be shared amongst locals, and served to help disseminate tattooing widely.
Like Gus, Maud used the manual stick and poke method exclusively, despite the fact that tattoo machines were becoming widely available and frequently used by other artists. After her success in performing the skill, she passed it on to her daughter, Lovetta. Interestingly though, Maud refused to let Gus tattoo their daughter. This resulted in Lovetta being one of very few tattoo artists to have never been tattooed; one account suggests that Lovetta decided if she couldn’t be tattooed by her father, then she wouldn’t be tattooed by anyone.
Maud died in 1961 after many years of being one of few female tattoo artists in her country, and no doubt she would have faced unique hardships for being a woman in a perceived male realm. Maud and Gus were also two of the few tattoo artists to become renowned for stick and poke work; it’s likely Maud is the only female tattoo artist to achieve this renown. She died one of the most famous stick and poke tattoo artists of her generation; a legacy that lived on through Lovetta whose last tattoo was completed using the stick and poke on tattooist and collector Don Ed Hardy.