The Tattooed Lady: Maud Wagner & husband Gus became 1900s circus stars for their old-school tats

Maud Stevens Wagner - The Tattooed Woman

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Gus Wagner is considered one of the first tattoo professionals, and his greatest body of work was, well, his own body.

In all, Wagner said he had 264 tattoos, which led to him promoting himself in a circus-sideshow style act as “the most artistically marked up man in America.”

Sharing space with him on the marquee was his wife, Maud Stevens Wagner — The Tattooed Lady — who was apparently nearly as much of an attraction, at least according to a Utah newspaper in 1909. All of her body art was, of course, completed by her husband, “The Original Gus Wagner.”

But Maud was more than just an inked canvas: she was also an aerialist, contortionist, and the mother to their daughter, Lovetta.

The notice (below left) was published in the local newspaper in advance of the couple’s appearance at the Big Four State Fair.

Also appearing: snake charmer Madame Brew, an 8-legged horse, “the largest number of racehorses ever seen on any race track in the Rocky Mountain states,” trained ponies and dogs “of almost human intelligence,” and the main event: the Wild West show.

The Original Gus Wagner show, with “a tattooed lady” (1907)

The Fresno Morning Republican (Fresno, California) August 28, 1907

The “original” Gus Wagner announces in a letter that he would like to come here. “My show,” he explains, “consists of a tattooed lady and gentleman, also a baby mermaid, and many interesting relics of travels.”

Gus also, his letterhead states, does antiseptic tattooing in ten colors for the trade.

Gus tattooing Maud Wagner

Gus, Maud & Lovetta Wagner

Excerpted from a Dallas Morning News interview in The Monitor (McAllen, Texas) Sep 7, 1993

For 83-year-old Lovetta Wagner Davis, women with tattoos are not necessarily news. After all, by 1910, her mother was enveloped in body ink: hundreds of tattoos covered her, mostly reflecting carnival or Western themes.

“Mama had a tiger’s head, a cowboy chasing a steer, and she sat on two baby elephants,” Davis says.

Yet, though her parents, Maud and Augustus Wagner, were tattooed from neck to toe, Davis has not one tattoo…

“Although we all knew how to tattoo — Papa taught her and me — Mama wouldn’t let Papa tattoo me. I never understood why. She relented after he died and said I could get tattoos then, but I said that if Papa couldn’t do them like he had done hers, then nobody would. And that was that. End of story.”

Not quite. What Davis couldn’t have herself, she did for others, thousands, in a painting and tattooing career that has spanned seven decades.

Gus and Maud Wagner with their baby


The Tattooed Woman (1909)

The Ogden Standard (Ogden City, Utah) September 4, 1909

The Wagners, “The Tattooed People” are here, and can be seen in a sideshow at their museum in the southwest corner of the museum grounds.

Photo: Mrs Gus Wagner, the Tattooed Woman, who will exhibit, beginning Monday, at the Fair Grounds.

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tattooed woman 1909

The Tattooed Lady: Maud Wagner’s tattoo close-ups

1909 tattoo closeup 1

1909 tattoo closeup

The Wagners: Tattooed couple circus attraction in Santa Barbara (1907)

The Wagners - Tattooed couple in Santa Barbara 1907
Photo courtesy New York Seaport Museum/Twitter

Gus Wagner, the most tattooed man in the world, visits Texas (1924)

Republican-Gazette (Gove City, Kansas) Sep 25, 1924

One of the attractions of the Gove County Fair was the original Gus Wagner — there are several spurious — the well known Globe Trotter, snake charmer and curio hunter.

He is an interesting character; a man of pleasing personality, chuck full of incidents and interesting information.

He has traveled around the world three times. and visited every country, going hundreds of miles into the interior of many of them, so is possessed with first-hand information, and being a fluent talker. he can keep one spellbound while he lectures on life — whether it be human, animal, fowl or insect. Also cannibal and uncivilized life.

Augustus “Gus” Wagner was born at Marietta, Georgia, June 16, 1872. His father died when he was quite young, and Gus became a wanderer at the tender age of eleven years.

In his wanderings, he has gathered many curiosities. By the exhibition of these and his muchly tattooed body, and by tattooing others he makes a livelihood for himself and family — wife and one daughter.

Gus and Maud Wagner, the famous tattooed couple 1900s circus attraction

The most tattooed man

Wagner is the most tattooed man in the world, having more than 800 symbols in various designs tattooed on his body. Every part of his body is tattooed except his face and hands. The decorating was done by nineteen persons in twelve colors, and represents more than $600 worth of work. Each design is made up of many symbols and cost from $75 to $250.

One design covering his entire breast and abdomen depicts or features incidents of his life and is a sight to see. Around his neck appears a necklace of birds — eleven swallows — one for each of the eleven shipmates that went to sea in the Brig Swallow.

On his abdomen, he has a picture of the lighthouse scene around the Cape of Good Hope. On his back is the history of the United States; on one leg the history of China; on the other leg the history of Japan, etc., and various bits of tattooing for filling in.

In other words, he carries his life’s history on his hide, as well as the history of his native country along with that of several countries visited by him. Much of this tattooing was done in foreign countries by natives of Borneo, Australia, Java, Sumatra, the South Sea Islands, and on shipboard.

Pulling up a pant leg, Mr. Wagner says: “Here is some Samoan work. It was hammered in with a mallet and a needle made of bone. It hurt worse than any of the other methods. This angel you see carrying the cross was done in New Zealand.”

Wagner himself is one of the world’s greatest tattooists, having tattooed thousands of persons. At one time, 3600 in eighteen months at Kansas City, Missouri. At another time he did a splendid business at St. Louis during the World’s Fair.

“There is something about tattooing which I cannot explain,” said Mr. Wagner, “and why so many people have it done I don’t know. It may be vain, but I find it fascinating and very useful in traveling. Every symbol and every design made up of symbols has a meaning.

Gus Wagner tattoos
Tell man on left tattooed by Gus Wagner; Gus Wagner on the right

“These on my body, for instance, are mementos featuring incidents of my life and travels. Then, too, in every country where tattooing is practiced a tattooed person who is able to tattoo needs no further introduction to the natives, be they civilized or uncivilized, or even barbaric and cannibalistic.

“In this way, one can win the hearts of the most primitive peoples. Matches also are a help to win ’em.”

“Yes, tattooing is a paying business if one knows how to go about it,” continued the globetrotter. “You’ve got to know the business — how to handle and apply the needles, not going too deep, and above all to know how to use pigments, which must be pure and not cause irritation; and to know the work must be done quickly and well.”

All symbols and designs for tattooing made by Mr. Wagner are sketched freehand on canvas, then sketched freehand on the human canvas. In this act, he claims to be the Champion of the World.

All the above information and many times more is given by Mr. Wagner in his interesting and entertaining lectures furnished free in connection with his exhibition of curios which were gathered by him in all parts of the world in his globe-trotting expeditions.

Among the curiosities shown here during the past week by Mr. Wagner are: what is left of the body (skeleton) of a boy supposed to have been two years old when drowned off Gulf Port, Mississippi. To the skeleton are clinging six devil fish; that queer and freakish looking thing with a head like a dog, eyes like a cat, nose like a rabbit, ears like a mule, front feet like an owl, hips like a kangaroo, and hind legs and feet like a chicken.

Also gruesome-looking skulls; snakes, dead and alive; petrified and fossilized sea and land animals and fishes; Zulu, Eskimo and Egyptian shoes and clothing; necklaces; tanned snake hides; etc.

Among his live snakes are several Texas Diamond Rattlers, bull, hog, coachwhip and racers. He also has a beautiful specimen of the milk snake picked up near Gove City, and a number of centipedes picked up on the Fairgrounds.

Mr. Wagner says that from his experiences gained by his travels he is convinced that there is a God. “There MUST be a Supreme Ruler to run the universe.”

He also says he wants to take his wife and his daughter around the world with him on his next trip. 

ALSO SEE: Find out about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West & Congress of Rough Riders of the World

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