Like many interesting characters in the early 20th century, Maud Stevens and August “Gus” Wagner ran off to join the circus. Maud, originally an aerialist and contortionist, met Gus at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. At the time, Gus was heralded as the world’s most tattooed man. The two began dating, and Gus began teaching Maud the art of the hand poke tattoo.
And so, Maud Wagner became America’s first known professional female tattoo artist, and the world’s most tattooed woman of the time. Since tattooed people were considered social outcasts in the early 1900s, they traveled with the circus and performed with Vaudeville shows. After leaving the circus, the two continued to travel, bringing their tattoo artistry throughout the country.
Their neighbors back in rural Kansas were not so excited about their inked neighbors. Those who used to live near the Wagners would tell their children scary stories about the circus freaks down the road to make them behave!
Gus died in 1941, after being struck by lightning. Maud died two decades later, in 1961. The two are buried in Homestead Cemetery in Cedar Point, Kansas.
If it weren’t for a group of tattoo artists and enthusiasts, the Wagners’ graves would have been lost. The grave sites were hard to track down and once found, the headstones were almost unreadable and hidden within bushes. But, thanks to the tattoo history-loving group, new headstones were commissioned in 2016 so anyone could easily find America’s first known male and female professional tattoo artists.