circus

The Tattooed Lady

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


"Ladies and gentlemen, while you have been in this tent, you have seen numerous strange people, if you will, human oddities, freaks of nature, people who were born in strange conditions. But behind this curtain we have probably the strangest of them all- far stranger than anything we have out here on the stage, because, back here, we have this human oddity, who is not born a freak, she wasn't born strange, this woman is a man-made monstrosity. She was a young woman, very beautiful. She met and married a man 3 times older than herself. He was so jealous of her and afraid she would be attracted to some other man that he marked her body, thinking that by marking her head to toe, she would no longer be attractive to any other man. And here she is....."

Tattooed ladies, such as Artoria, were staples in the circus side show at the turn of the 2oth century. What was then viewed as odd and grotesque has gained popularity and social acceptance as an art form and a means of personal expression.  As the circus announcer's introduction suggests, the oddest part about the tattooed lady was the idea that she had not been born this way but made into such an oddity. The bearded lady was often a sideshow attraction but unlike the tattooed lady, she had been born with her "freakish" condition. For many tattooed ladies, tattoos were a means of personal freedom, a way that a woman could earn substantial money and travel. Tattooed men had long graced the stages of  circus side shows but they could not compete with the women whose sex appeal had the power to draw crowds. Stories of abduction and forced tattooing often introduced the ladies as they stepped on stage, romanticizing the ink that covered their skin and adding to the mystique of the tattooed lady. Despite the tales told to draw crowds, many tattooed ladies sought ink to gain employment and often earned more than working class men. 

Betty Broadbent
Tattooed ladies performed in a time when showing more than an ankle was taboo so while the artwork that adorned their bodies may have contributed to their bad image, their immodest dress that was necessary to display the designs earned them a reputation as "unclean" and "immoral." Despite the stigma, tattooed ladies often wore their ink with pride, "feeling not of guilt but of superiority...." "proud of their ornamented skin."

It is generally thought that outside of circus acts and sailors, few people in the past were tattooed. The picture above is one of my favorite as the woman getting tattooed is neither a circus act or a sailor and is in the process of getting tattooed. The young lady is getting her social security number tattooed on her thigh, a popular practice after the numbers were issued in the mid 1930's.

Today tattooing has more or less lost the stigma that it bore in the last century but for many, tattoos still embody the spirit of the tattooed lady. In current popular culture people are known for the artwork they wear or create on skin. The reality television show craze has given way to several shows about tattoo artists and those that get tattooed, once again, as in the day of the tattooed lady, putting ink on display. Most of all though, the spirit of the tattooed lady can be found in everyone that wears ink and takes pride in their own skin. 

Much of the information in this post has been gleaned or borrowed from this wonderful site


In honor of my new tattoo, the next few posts will be dedicated to my own ink. 

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