Tattoos in the Spotlight: A History of Tattoos and Sideshows

Barnum Bailey 800

Since the Middle Ages, people have been drawn to the entertainment of traveling shows that exploited the differences between the masses and the unique. These shows would place anything or anyone that was different from the norm on display, and charge the eager public for the opportunity to get a glimpse of the world’s oddities – both animal and human, naturally occurring and man-made.

Celebrating the ‘Freakish’

These “freak shows,” as they were called, started in Europe and travelled from one destination to another, drawing crowds everywhere they went. Some were even displayed as single attractions and took up permanent residence in the inns, taverns, and local fairs of medieval Europe.

The “freaks” that were placed on display at these shows were both people and animals that had been born with the disfiguring diseases or disabilities that made them worth paying the price of admission to see (such as giants, dwarves, conjoined twins, pinheads, or hermaphrodites), or they were what the public considered “made freaks” — performers that had chosen to change their appearance in some way or perfected an act that would draw in the crowds, such as sword swallowers, fire eaters, snake charmers, and of course, tattooed men and women.

Showcasing Tattooed People

Men and women with tattoos have been put on display for profit throughout Europe and the United States for centuries, both voluntarily and without their consent. Some of these tattooed attractions were captured in their native land and brought back by the Westerners that had found them for the express purpose of making a spectacle of their captors in order to cash in on their differences.

One of the first recorded natives to be captured and put on display for their tattoos was a man named Prince Giolo (or Jeoly), a 30-year-old islander from a small island called Miangis, south of the Philippines in what is now Indonesia. Giolo was covered almost completely with intricate tattoos in geometric designs, and he was sent to England to be placed on display for profit.

Giolo was promoted with full-length illustrations detailing his tattoos and was taken all around England where people paid handsomely to see the tattooed man, both commoners and the social elite alike. Although Giolo died of smallpox only three months after being brought to England, and didn’t make his captors anywhere near as much money as they would have liked, he did set a precedence for tattooed individuals as paid attractions a full century before Captain James Cook brought his own tattooed captive back to England and the real tattooed attraction trend took off.

Making Money from Tattoos

Other tattooed attractions chose to turn their body art into a way to make a living by covering themselves with tattoos and then joining up with the sideshows, circuses, or carnivals that charged the public to see the strange sight of men and women with permanent art on their bodies.

By the end of the 18th century, many European sailors were returning from their journeys to exotic lands with permanent souvenirs marked on their skin. These men had chosen to be tattooed by the natives that they encountered on their travels, and were so impressed by the tattoos that they saw on the natives, had tattoos done for themselves.

At that time, many Europeans had never even seen a person with tattoos, and they were very willing to pay for the chance to see tattooed individuals. This demand created a new type of sideshow attraction and new occupation for many people. Being covered in tattoos with a full “body suit” was expensive at this time, so those that chose to undertake being extensively tattoo did so almost exclusively in order to make money from being placed on display in sideshows.
This new type of attraction started with tattooed sailors coming inland to show their tattoos off to the crowds at inns and taverns.

Cabri – The First Paid Tattooed Attraction

The first Westerner to be displayed as a tattooed attraction, Jean Baptiste Cabri, was a Frenchman that had been working on an English whaling ship at the end of the 18th century when he was shipwrecked on the Marquesan Islands, where tattooing was a way of life for the natives. Cabri was tattooed while on the Islands, and even married a chief’s daughter before he was rescued in 1804 and went on display himself as a tattooed attraction for the public throughout Europe.

Later, after the popularity of tattoos as a paid attraction grew, the circuses and carnivals of the day stepped in and added tattooed men and women to their venue of acts. Most of the population had never even seen a tattoo, and couldn’t imagine why someone would permanently mark their bodies in such a way, so the sideshows chose to create fabulous tales like that of the origins of Cabri’s tattoos as to why the tattooed men and women on their payroll were covered with decorative ink.

Exciting Tales of Capture and Escape

Many of these stories centered around the tattooed attractions having been forcibly made to get their tattoos. These stories usually stated that the tattooed man had been captured by cannibals and forced to be tattooed and succumb to the horrific pain of the tattooing process before heroically escaping the clutches of his savage captors.

These dramatic tales of capture and escape drew the crowds in to see the poor man that had been forced to have his skin marked forever by native savages, and the sideshows would milk the curiosity and empathy of the crowds for all it was worth, often selling pamphlets or “pitch cards” that told the dramatic tale of the tattooed attraction to make even more money.

Duping the Crowd

One of the first men to be used in such a ploy was an Englishman named John Rutherford, who claimed that he had been captured and tattooed by Maori natives in 1828, and later went on to marry a Maori princess. Rutherford was a popular attraction in the 1820s and 1830s, and although his tale of capture and forced tattooing was almost certainly a lie, his tattoos did appear to have been done in Tahiti and Fiji, which thrilled the crowds with their authentic native wild appearance and appeal.

In the United States, the first tattooed white man to be placed on display for profit told a very similar story. James O’Connell told the crowds that came to see his tattoos that he and his shipmates had been shipwrecked in Micronesia in the late 1820s, and he was forcibly tattooed by the natives of the island, and had also married one of the chief’s daughters. It did appear that he had been tattooed in the South Seas, but the location and way he was tattooed was almost certainly a complete fabrication. Although O’Connell only had a few tattoos, he was still a very popular attraction at the time, as there was very little competition as far as tattooed attractions went, and he enjoyed a successful career as a tattooed man on display with the circus sideshow circuit until 1852.

Painted Ladies

In the 1880s, tattooed women entered the world of entertainment, and almost completely upstaged the male tattooed attractions, due to the fact that most of their bodies would have to be shown in order to have their tattoos visible to the crowds. Tattooed women were also seen as docile and chaste, which brought an intriguing conflict to the idea of tattoos in general.

Although women tended to have just as many tattoos as the men did, they usually left their face, hands, and neck free of tattoos instead of having them tattooed like the men usually did. The women did this in order to be seen as “decent” when they were fully-clothed. Female tattooed attractions told outrageous tales of how they came to get their tattoos, just as their male counterparts did, and the first professional tattooed lady, Nora Hildebrandt, seemed to set the tone with her tale of being captured by the Native Americans. Nora told the story that she had been Sitting Bull’s captive, and was kept tied to a tree while being forcibly tattooed by the savage and wild Indian natives.

This story brought in the crowds, but the truth of the matter was that Nora received her 365 tattoos from her father, the tattoo artist Martin Hildebrandt, who saw Nora as a good business opportunity. Nora began performing as a tattooed attraction in 1882, three weeks before any other tattooed lady, and liked to call herself the one and only.

Barnum’s ‘Parade of Freaks’

Toward the end of the 19th century, tattooed attractions in circuses and sideshows increased, mostly thanks to the efforts of P.T. Barnum. Known as the world’s best showman, and the most successful promoter of tattooed attractions of all time, Barnum gained fame that lasts to this day due to the founding of the Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, which went on to be purchased by the Ringling Brothers and to become the world-renowned Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, which is still a major act to this day.

One of Barnum’s most famous attractions was his own sideshow, which was called the “Parade of Freaks,” and placed both born and made freaks on display to the public. Some of the biggest draws were the tattooed attractions, and the most famous of those was Alexandrio, a Greek man that Barnum brought to the United States and dubbed Prince Constantine. The story told to the public about Prince Constantine was that he was captured and forcibly tattooed by Chinese tartars, and with 388 tattoos done in the Burmese style, he was quite the sight to be seen. Prince Constantine was displayed in the sideshow amongst other tattooed attractions, such as the brother and sister team of Annie and Frank Howard.

Famous ‘Freaks’ and Tattoo Artists

The Howard siblings claimed that they were shipwrecked in the South Seas, and had been forcibly tattooed by the natives that found and imprisoned them. The truth behind their tattoos was much less exotic, but did show the way that the art of tattooing was progressing at the end of the 19th century. The Howards were tattooed by two of the most famous tattoo artists of the day, Martin Hildebrandt and Samuel O’Reilly.

John Hays was another tattooed attraction that travelled with Barnum, and had been tattooed by O’Reilly. Hays had 780 tattoos, and told the tale that he had been captured and forcibly tattooed by a Native American tribe.

Many of the folks that worked as tattooed attractions went on to become tattoo artists themselves, and some of the people that saw the tattooed men on display went on to become tattoo artists, as well. Charlie Wagner, who after seeing Prince Constantine on display in New York City, went on to get tattooed himself, and then learn the art of tattooing. Wagner became one of the most famous tattoo artists of all time, and tattooed over 50 people that went on to become tattooed attractions themselves.

The Changing Face of Tattoos

During the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, tattoos became increasingly popular as a business, due to the competitive nature of tattooed attractions. Crowds were still showing up in droves to see people with tattoos, and more and more of the population were getting tattoos for themselves.

Tattoo artists would offer both single tattoos to the public, as well as full body suits to those interested in making a living by becoming tattooed attractions. Another famous tattoo artist of the day, Bert Grimm (who had worked as a tattooed attraction himself in the Buffalo Wild West Show), was recorded as saying that tattooists charged 50 cents to one dollar for a small tattoo, and around 33 dollars for a total body cover job, which was done as quickly as possible so the client could go on to work as a tattooed attraction, making anywhere from 25 to 30 dollars a week as a tattooed attraction put on display for profit.

The Great Omi

One of the most extreme examples of tattooing and body modification for profit was an Englishman named Horace Ridler, later called the Great Omi when on display for the crowds. Omi decided to become a professional sideshow entertainer after World War I, and contracted English tattoo artist George Burchett to turn him into a human zebra after realizing that just a few tattoos wasn’t enough to draw in the paying curiosity seekers. Burchett covered Omi’s face, head, and most of the rest of his body with heavy, black curving designs, and the Great Omi billed himself as a man/beast to the crowds. Later in his career, he decided to take things up a notch again by adding pierced and stretched earlobes, having his teeth filed to sharp points, and inserting an ivory tusk into a septum piercing. Omi toured all over Europe and the United States until retiring to England in 1950.

Tattoos and the Circus – A Close Relationship

Tattoo artists worked closely with the owners of circuses, carnivals, and sideshows to be able to make the biggest profit that they could on prospective tattooed attractions. Thanks to those close relationships, tattooists were able to guarantee their clients a job with a show once their body suits of tattoos were completed, and the lucrative living the tattooed attractions made with the shows helped to ensure that the tattoo artists always had a pool of clientele ready and willing to pay for their service.

Some tattoo artists even travelled with the circus and carnivals as employees, in order to be on call when any of the attractions needed new ink work done. They were typically on the road during the spring, summer, and fall — taking the winters off to work in their own shops or wintering with the show in the off-season down in the Southern states, such as Florida.

Slowing Down in the 1930s

By 1932, there were over 300 completely tattooed men and women exhibiting themselves in sideshows, most of them traveling to places where tattoos had only ever been heard of, never actually seen. The attraction of tattooed acts, and sideshows in general, seemed to slow down soon after, and tattooed men and women soon became old news to the ever-hungry public, and they soon lost interest as they looked for something newer and more unique.

The Great Depression also took a big toll on the entertainment industry, as people had to choose between food and freaks after the stock market crashed, and families became largely destitute. The heyday of the sideshow had come and gone, leaving many tattooed attractions struggling to find another way to make a living, and many of the other freaks left to live in poverty, as well.