The latest exhibit at Tattoo Archive in Winston-Salem celebrates female tattoo attractions — provocative and daring women who performed in circus sideshows as human canvasses beginning in the late 19th century.
The visual objects of gawkers, their predecessors were tattooed tribesmen from the South Pacific brought back to Western Europe by explorers for presentation to royals and other members of high society and treated as exotic specimens for pseudo-scientific examination.
The female tattoo attractions share a lineage with early burlesque performers, and their poses betray a hint of flirtation that points towards the Hollywood pinup girls of the 1940s and 1950s. But their insistent dignity in a profession far outside of mainstream respectability makes them seem more like distant ancestors of the riot grrrl movement.
“A lot of these were farm girls,” says Harriet Cohen, who operates Tattoo Archives with CW Eldridge. “They would choose to make a career out of being tattoo attractions. They got paid more than men because they showed more skin. In that day, you know, it was scandalous for a woman to even show an ankle. They also made money from selling their postcards.”
Cohen and Eldridge, who goes by Chuck, hold a deep reverence for the history of tattooing. It shows in the lovingly researched narrative posted with the exhibit and the hundreds of framed photographs in the storefront that serves as a custom tattooing shop, museum and bookstore.
Cohen points to a “pitch card” of Betty Broadbent in the 1950s.
The photograph shows the performer about 30 years into her career with an open smile and her right hip provocatively posed to display a tattoo of an unfurling American flag.
“Chuck knew her,” Cohen says. “She would go in the winter to do wild west shows. She was covered for those.
“There’s Miss Harriett,” Cohen continues, “who’s named for me — or I’m named for her.”
She points to a photograph taken in the 1930s of Artoria Gibbons, who has the image of George Washington tattooed near the top of her sternum.
“She and her husband were a team,” Cohen says, adding that Gibbons daughter is still alive and possibly living in South Carolina.
The names and inscriptions on the pitch cards hint at mysterious biographies and bygone scenes.
Lyda Akado, Ms. Arabella. Celly d’Astra. Princess Beatrice. There is Djita, a tattoo attraction from the 1900s billed as a beauté Orientale on a pitch card bearing the inscription “World’s Fair office, Oldham (England).”
Another pitch card depicts Annie Howard, billed as “Tattooed Venus” in the 1910, crediting a photography studio in Providence, RI.
The exhibit pays particular homage to Nora Hildebrandt, considered by many to be the first tattooed woman in American history. Hildeb randt performed at Bunnell’s Museum in New York City in March 1882 “and opened the door for many more women to come into the show business world,” according to the exhibit literature.
The Tattooed Lady: A History by Amelia Klem Osterud, which is on the shelf at Tattoo Archive, reports that Irene Woodward competed with Hildebrandt in the 1880s for status as the first tattooed lady.
Despite the ample bearing of skin, the photographs are not as sexually provocative as one might expect. Olive Oatman is dressed in a petticoat, drawing attention to the vertical stripes tattooed on her chin. Her story, whether true or not, is that she was kidnapped by Indians in Arizona while traveling with her family on a wagon train in 1851, and tattooed against her will. But the fact that she reportedly wrote a memoir, and lectured around the country while displaying her tattoo and selling her books makes hers as much of a showbiz career as any of the other women.
An inscription on the back of Broadbent’s 1950s pitch card provides a hint as to why she and other women chose to become tattoo attractions and how they viewed themselves.
“Began having the tattooing placed upon my body at the age of 17, taking 25 years to complete it, as you now see it,” it reads. “It was done for professional reasons only. I have no regrets for having chosen this most unusual career.”
Female Tattoo Attractions, a photographic exhibit, is on display at Tattoo Archive, located at 618 W. 4th St. in Winston-Salem, through May 31. Tattoo Archive is open Monday through Saturday, noon to 8 p.m.