History of a Tattooed Attraction: Betty Broadbent

Betty Broadbent Ta 800 1

Image source: Tattoo Archive

The appeal of the tattooed attraction as a standalone act may have begun to die down in the 20th century but the rise of the sideshow and the circus kept people paying to see the tattooed men and women of the world into the 1950s.

The Tattooed Women of the Sideshows

Women began to gain even more popularity in the world of tattooed performers, as the crowds seemed to love the duality of the thought of women being refined, delicate, and classy on one hand, while managing to be mysterious and exotic on the other, thanks to their tattoos.

Many of the female tattooed attractions that the crowds flocked to see stuck to the tried and true showman’s practice of creating elaborate and false stories about being captured and forcibly tattooed. These tales of danger and suspense seemed to draw people in more regularly than just the thought of a person that had paid to have tattoos placed all over their body.

Betty Broadbent – the Makings of a Tattooed Lady

Not all of them chose to hide behind phony stories, however. The most famous female tattooed attraction of all time was one of those that chose honesty over deceit, and her career flourished.

Betty Broadbent was born on November 1st, 1909 and her love and fascination of tattoos began at any early age. When Betty was fourteen years old, she was hired as a nanny for a well-to-do family in Atlantic City, and moved from her home in Orlando, Florida to fill her new position. While visiting the world famous Atlantic City Boardwalk, she came across a tattooed man named Jack Red Cloud that was on exhibit for the crowds as a Tattooed Man.

Starting the Body Suit

Betty was immediately intrigued and drawn to the artistic side of the art of tattooing, hoping to become an artist herself. Red Cloud introduced Betty to his friend, Charlie Wagner, a famous tattoo artist in New York City, and Betty used her life savings that she had earned from some early work as a horse rider in a rodeo to travel to the city and visit with Wagner.

While in New York, Betty paid both Wagner and another artist named Joe Van Hart to begin the creation of her tattooed body suit. The tattoo artists worked on Betty’s body suit for over two years, and eventually had other artists add their work, such as Tony Rhineagear and Red Gibbons.

A Canvas of Creativity

Betty’s body suit of tattoos grew to include three hundred and sixty-five individual tattoos that covered her back, arms, chests, and upper legs. Her choice of tattoos seemed to stick to no particular theme. Her tattooed body art ranged from historical figures, such as Pancho Villa, Charles Lindbergh, and Queen Victoria, to religious figures, such as the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus. One of Betty’s most famous tattoos was that of a large eagle that spread from shoulder to shoulder, and was rumored to take six sittings to complete. Betty was quoted as saying that “it hurt something awful, but was worth it” once the tattoo was completed.

Joining the Circus

Charlie Wagner later introduced Betty to the circus proprietor, Clyde Ingalls, who offered Betty a position with the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1927, after seeing her extensive tattooing and her passion for the art form. Betty went to work as a tattooed attraction for the first time, starring as the Tattooed Lady, and was billed as the Tattooed Venus. She would begin every performance by entering the stage wrapped in a satin or velvet robe to conceal her body, then as the ringleader of the show would introduce her, and she would hear him declare, “And now, ladies and gentleman, the lady who’s different,” she would drop her robe to reveal herself clad in a long bathing suit that displayed her tattoos.

A Respectable Performer

Betty always insisted that she took part in a respectable act, and kept up her image as a lady. She would never show more skin than was acceptable at the time, and she didn’t take part in any “bump and grind like those carnival floozies,” as she put it in one interview.

The Tattooed Venus also avoided the phony native capture tales, and didn’t even like to be referred to by her stage name, as she felt that it was misleading, although she did go with it since the crowds seemed to enjoy it and it helped to keep her performance memorable.

When the times progressed a bit more, and women were able to show more of their bodies, Betty went and had her upper legs and thighs tattooed by the famous tattoo artist, Bert Grimm, and she shortened her stage bathing suit to show her new additions.

Pushing the Boundaries

After several years of working as a tattooed attraction, Betty decided to add something extra to her act. She had been watching the rising popularity of horse and mule shows, and went to work as a horse rider n Harry Carey’s Wild West Show for awhile to keep things fresh, and her career moving forward.

Betty also wanted to push the limits for women everywhere, and entered a beauty pageant in the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City, which was the first televised beauty contest of all time. Although Betty didn’t win the competition, she definitely turned quite a few heads and opened some minds to the possibilities of women being more than what they seemed on the surface.

Seeing the World and Working as a Tattoo Artist

After the beauty pageant at the World’s Fair, Betty took her one-woman tattooed attraction act on the road, and travelled to New Zealand and Australia, working as the Tattooed Lady in the independent circuses that she found along the way. She not only enjoyed furthering her career, but also seeing as much of the world as she possibly could.

When she returned home to the United States, Betty went back to work as a tattooed attraction at both the Cole Brothers Circus and the Sells Floto Circus. In the off-season, she would often set up shop as a tattoo artist in on of the arcades on Market Street in the San Francisco area of California.

Betty continued to perform as the Tattooed Venus for long after most of the other tattooed attractions had left the show business, and didn’t retire from the stage until the age of fifty-eight, leaving her last job with the Clyde Beatty Circus in 1967.

Tattooing in Retirement

After retiring, Betty was said to have missed the whirlwind of people and the constant travelling of showbiz life, and continued her lifelong dedication to the art of tattooing by working as an artist at her Florida home.

Betty Broadbent dedicated her life to her love of tattoos and sharing it with the world, and she was honored for her hard work in furthering the tattoo world’s image by being the first person to be entered into the Tattoo Hall of Fame in August of 1981.

After an amazing life filled with many firsts and tons of successes, Betty passed away peacefully in her sleep at the age of seventy-four, two years after seeing her name go up as the first acknowledged Tattoo Hall of Famer.