Subversive Bodies: Talking about Tattoo Taboo and the Marvelous Maud Wagner

I always want to talk about tattoos; about the six that I have, about the hundreds I want. My friend and I collect “inspo” pictures on Pinterest and scan our bodies for available space. As I’m writing this, a business card is pinned against my wall with a date, time, and quote for my next planned piece: a silhouette of a Georgian woman, complete with a bonnet (I’m a huge Jane Austen fan). Already, my brain is on fire with ideas for future designs to be inked on my back, my thigh, my neck. I’ve joked with other tattooed friends that once you get one, you’re soon to get dozens more. Tattoos are just addictive.


This is me, featuring a few of the tattoos that I have. These are all inspired by Harry Potter.

Tattoo Origins

I’m aware that tattooing isn’t a new thing. I also suspect that it’s not a particularly western thing, either. Joshua J. Mark writes:

The word “tattoo” comes from the Polynesian Ta meaning ‘to strike’ which evolved into the Tahitian word tatau meaning ‘to mark something’ and so tattoos have come to be associated in the modern day with Polynesia. The art of tattooing goes back millenia, however, and was practiced in ancient Egypt at least as early as the Middle Kingdom (2040-1782 BCE). 1

According to Smithsonian, there are examples of ink on Egyptian bodies dating back to 2,000 B.C. (though, the 1991 C.E discovery of Ötzi the Iceman on the Italian-Austrian border suggests that people had tattoos 1,000 years earlier). 2 It’s interesting that archeologists initially assumed that only predynastic women donned tattoos, given the prevalence of inked women on figurines and tableaus. 3

Egyptian Tattooed Figurine“A female figurine showing tattoos. FaienceEgyptMiddle Kingdom, 12th Dynasty, 1850-1640 BCE. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)” cc. Metropolitan Museum of Art

Examinations of Ötzi revealed more geometric patterns of ink, though the tattoos discovered on Egyptian female and male bodies were more symbolic figures. For instance, the bull represents male virility. In the Journal of Archaeological Science, archeologists write about the “S” symbol on a female corpse’s shoulder and an “L” shape on her abdomen. Unfortunately, all they can surmise is that these vague symbols may identify her as a woman of high status with religious knowledge (staves or staffs typically symbolize authority according to Ancient Egypt Online). 3

S“Her shoulder bone bears four “S”-shaped lines. The pattern has been found on other pieces of art from this time period.” cc. National Geographic


Stigma and Prejudice

It was customary for men and women of the ancient Near East to be covered from head to toe with tattoos; however, permanent ink in the western world has often been viewed with disapproval and prejudice and still is today. It’s silly to think that art on a person’s arm may disqualify them from a job. In the western world, people with tattoos might be considered social outliers, criminals, and/or savages (with all the antiquated, cruel, and–on occasion–racist connotations attached). Women with tattoos throughout history may have been judged as prostitutes since tattoos were frequently associated with sexual deviance. A cursory search for “tattoos throughout history” brings me to a number of criminology journals in which historians explore the link between ink and criminal behavior (and let me tell you, tattoos are not the precursor of crime).

In their study: “Body Art in the Workplace: Piercing the Prejudice?” Brian K. Miller, Kay McGlashan Nicols, and Jack Eure examine the ways in which tattooed individuals face disadvantages in the professional world. Of stigmatized individuals, they write:

Stigmatized individuals are likely to encounter many treatment problems in employment such as biases in performance evaluation, dead-end or low level jobs, lower pay and benefits, low promotion rates, insufficient opportunities for training and development, absence of in-group status, absence of relevant mentors, treatment as tokens, self-esteem problems, and problems arising from a host of self-limiting problems (Ilgen and Youtz, 1986). 4

People who want tattoos must decide if they want to express themselves in a clear and unique fashion at the expense of an office job. Bridy Heing writes for the popular social site, Hello Giggles: “As of 2012, 1 in five adults had at least one — many people still see tats as unprofessional and inappropriate for work. According to one recent poll, 42% of those asked feel all tattoos are always inappropriate at work, while 39% said that employees with body art reflect negatively on employers.” 5 Heing mentions Mind Valley, a blog that ran with these statistics when curating a series called “Tattoos in the Workplace,” wherein people in corporate positions proudly display their ink. 6



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Photographer: All Is Amazing

The inked women depicted above list a number of reasons for their tattoos. Some of the tattoos are symbols of their emotional recovery while others pay homage to their heritage. Their tattoos represent freedom from abusive relationships and the taking back of autonomy.

Taking back autonomy. That is the female burden. So often in history women have been denied independence and power. Their every move has been dictated by their male counterparts, their rights decided by them, too. Women have been denigrated, used, and abused by men (not to say there aren’t men who have been equally denigrated, used, and abused, but that’s not the current topic). As trivial as they may seem, tattoos have, on occasion, been used as armor against the patriarchy and worn as emblems of empowerment. There is power in deciding what to do with one’s body. 

As author Margot Mifflin writes in Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo:

“Tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies—and why.”

Maud Wagner, The Tattooed Lady

I want to end this post paying homage to a formative figure of the tattoo world. Maud Stevens was born in Lyon County, Kansas in 1877. She had a colorful career first in local circuses before traveling across the continent as an aerialist, acrobat, and contortionist.  She ended up at the Lousiana Purchase Exposition where citizens would gather to witness the newest inventions in action and dazzling absurdities like “The Tattooed Globetrotter.” His “civilian” name was Gus Wagner, and he would later become Maud’s husband.

Gus-Maud-Wagner-Female-Tattoo    Maud receives her first tattoo by husband, Gus

Apparently, Gus offered to teach Maud how to master the stick-and-poke style of tattooing in exchange for a single date. She evidently agreed to this trade and subsequently became the canvas on which her husband crafted his designs. According to Margo DeMello, writer of Inked: Tattoos and Body Art Around the World,  Maud “wore patriotic tattoos, tattoos of monkeys, butterflies, lions, horses, snakes, trees, women, and had her own name tattooed on her left arm.” Soon enough Maud practiced her skill on public clients, favoring the precise method of sticking and poking despite the advent of electric tattoo machines. 7

It’s incredibly unfortunate that there is no accessible collection of Maud’s tattooing work. The only reason we know what we do know about Maud is because of her daughter, Lovetta. According to Open Culture, “Maud had forbidden her husband to tattoo her and, after Gus died, Lovetta decided that if she could not be tattooed by her father she would not be tattooed by anyone.” I’m curious about Maud’s insistence that her daughter not be tattooed by her father. Did she resent her husband for using her as a walking portfolio? Clearly, she wanted her daughter to have the liberty to choose what tattoos she would wear if she would wear any at all. Incidentally, Loretta took up the tattooing torch and continued to use the traditional stick-and-poke method. She gave her last tattoo in 1983 to the American tattoo artist Don Ed Hardy.  8

lotteva-wagnerLovetta Wagner with a portrait of her mother. cc. Vintage Daily

I love my tattoos. I’m always ready to defend myself and my tattooed friends from small-mindedness when it comes to opinions on body art and modification. People have the right to self-expression whether it conforms to another person’s religious philosophies on the sanctity of the body or a person’s presumption of deviance. It’s likely that every inch of my skin will never be entirely covered like Maud’s, but the tattoos I have now and will have will all be choices I make.


  1. “Tattoos in Ancient Egypt” by Joshua J. Mark
  2. “Tattoos: The Ancient and Mysterious History” by Cate Lineberry
  3. “Earliest Ancient Egyptian Tattoos Found on Mummies” by Sarah Gibbens
  4. “Body Art in the Workplace: Piercing the Prejudice?” by Brian K. Miller, Kay McGlashan Nicols, and Jack Eure
  5. “Combating Major Tattoo Stigmas, One Rad Photo (Series) at a Time” by Bridey Heing 
  6. “Tattoos In The Workplace: Using Photography To Tackle Outdated Beliefs” at Mind Valley
  7. “Maud Wagner: The United States’ First Known Female Tattoo Artist” at All That’s Interesting
  8. “Meet America & Britain’s First Female Tattoo Artists: Maud Wagner (1877-1961) & Jessie Knight (1904–1994)” at Open Culture

Also, read this about Jessie Knight, the first British female tattoo artist.

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