“And then there were the women.”
They look out from images on the wall: confident and beautifully adorned. They are Tattooed and Tenacious: Inked Women in California’s History, on exhibit at Channel Islands Maritime Museum through Dec. 30.
“There’s so much that the sailors tell about their tattoos,” says collections manager Heather Behrens. “You think of the drunken sailor who just wakes up with a tattoo. Sometimes it is kind of true, but more of it is myth. And then there were the women coming into the picture. We date them back [in California] to the early 1500s.”
The first tattooed women of California were members of native tribes who tattooed lines on their chins in their tribe’s signature pattern. The tattoos represented a variety of things, from a woman’s loyalty to her tribe to her hopes for a long and happy life. In addition to archival images of Native American women, there is one of Olive Oatman, a
pioneer woman surrounded in myth. Many believe that she was kidnapped by the Yavapai while traveling west with her family in 1851 and later sold to a Mohave tribe. Whatever the truth, Oatman’s image is undeniably striking: Her enigmatic gaze and stern pioneer dress contrast with the dark, bold lines tattooed on her chin.
From women of the Old West to tattooed ladies of the circus and high-society debutantes of the Victorian Era, the women featured represent the swath of time and
society. One look and you know they all have stories to tell. Many of the stories just happen to be written in ink on their bodies, taking the shape of flowers, lions or even six United States Presidents. Some tattoos are simple, while others are elaborate reproductions of works by the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. The inked images may point to a woman’s past, her dreams, her place in society or her defiance of it. They are personal and meaningful. They are permanent, after all; stories without end.
One story belongs to Maud Wagner, the first known non-Native American female tattooist in the United States. Maud was a circus performer when she met Gus Wagner in 1904. She asked him to “tattoo her all over and teach her to tattoo.” They married and opened a tattoo shop in Los Angeles. Their daughter, Lotteva, became a well-known tattooist in her own right.
Then there is Dorothy “Dainty Dotty” Jensen, a former “fat lady” with Ringling Bros. Circus. She and her husband ran a tattoo shop in Los Angeles after World War II. Dainty Dotty created many well-known flash, or pre-drawn, tattoos that other tattooists use as templates. (Many Dainty Dotty flash are still used to this day.)
Ahead of their time, female tattooists of the early 20th century bucked societal norms. Ruth Weyland, a tattooist in 1930s San Francisco, was known for her tattoos of lesbian imagery. For Weyland, Wagner, Jensen and others, being a tattooist offered a livelihood at a time when women didn’t have many options. The same went for famous tattooed ladies of the circus, like Artoria Gibbons, Lady Viola (born Ethel Martin Vangi in 1898) and Betty Broadbent. In the 1920s and 1930s they earned in one week what most people — man or woman — made in a month.
Tattooed and Tenacious illustrates how times have changed. Tattoos went from being something a woman would hide under her clothes to something to be shown off. They’ve always been and continue to be symbols of one’s ownership over one’s body — from defying the Victorian notion that women should be “pure” to telling a personal story for all to see.
Rounding out the exhibit is a display showing how tattoos are made and a mannequin featuring the work of six Bay Area tattooists.There is also an invitation to go on the museum’s Facebook page to share personal photos of tattoos and, most of all, their stories.
Tattooed and Tenacious: Inked Women in California’s History through Dec. 30 at Channel Islands Maritime Museum, Channel Islands Harbor, 3900 Bluefin Circle, Oxnard. For more information, call 805-984-6260 or visit www.cimmvc.org.