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Old time tattooed circus women

Updated on January 25, 2016
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It's hard to imagine a time when people paid to see tattooed folks, but at the turn of the 20th century, tattoos were rare (the tattoo gun had only recently been invented) and extremely taboo. Becoming a circus exhibition by covering oneself with tattoos was an option, and many performers found walking the tightrope or swinging on the trapeze tiring, and opted to become tattooed and take the easy route of becoming an exhibit.

The women who took this route were the bravest, defying not only the stigma of becoming tattooed, but baring large amounts of skin in a time when the exposure of a knee could have one arrested for indecent exposure at the beach. Many of the tattoos are crude compared to the detail and skill with which tattooing is done today, but the old bodysuits of yore are quite beautiful in their own right.

Betty Broadbent banner
Betty Broadbent banner
Annie Frank, German Circus
Annie Frank, German Circus

The circus gave tattoos and tattooists great exposure and was a great help in popularizing this ancient but taboo medium of art. Tattooists traveled with the circus and were able to display their work directly in exhibits of tattooed "freaks," who sometimes performed acts such as sword swallowing in addition to being a tattooed oddity. It is estimated that 300 people were employed as sideshow performers in 1920.

Notable women

Nora Hildebrandt began her career in 1882, and her father owned the first tattoo shop in the United States. To assuage the taboo nature of her exhibit, and to titillate the crowds, she claimed she and her father were kidnapped by Sitting Bull, who forced her dad to tattoo her head to toe.

Betty Broadbent
Betty Broadbent
Betty Broadbent
Betty Broadbent

One of the most famous tattooed women in history was Betty Broadbent. She began her career in 1927 and was covered with a body suit, much of which was tattooed by Charlie Wagner. She was exhibited at the 1939 World Fair, and eventually became a tattooist herself. She was the first person to be honored by the Tattoo Hall of Fame.

Jean Furella worked as a bearded lady and fell in love with a man who hated her beard. She shaved it off, but still needed to make a living, and thus became a tattooed attraction. Read the pamphlet the circus sold in which she tells her story here.


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    • lifeinthecircus profile image

      lifeinthecircus 7 years ago

      I loved the link to that pamphlet -- just a shame they don't scan the interior pages.

      Also makes me wonder if anyone ever got tattoos in the letterpress style, like they were their own advertisement...

    • profile image

      Charles 5 years ago

      My ex-wife Erica has been extensively tattooed. She claims it was done against her will, though I have my doubts about that.

      She did drink and (ab)use dope, so it is not impossible.

      And she is not exhibiting her skin at all, she hardly gets out of the house. I have seen her though and her arms were all tattooed, so was her neck and under her bleached hair I saw blue too...

      I wonder how many more women are like that.

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