Mother’s Day, Moms and Tattoos: An American Tradition

Whether you call her Mom, Mum of even Little Mama, would you consider getting a “mom tattoo” as a Mother’s Day gift for your mom?

As Mother’s Day approaches, and sons and daughters are considering what to get Mom as a gift, many will decide that the perfect gift for the woman who gave them life is to commemorate their love with a “mom” tattoo.

Phil Colvin, the owner of Memorial Tattoo in Atlanta, has been a tattoo artist for 25 years. He says that while he gets requests for mom tattoos year-round, he always sees a rush in the weeks before Mother’s Day.

“As long as there’s been modern tattooing, at least in America, there’ve been mom tattoos,” Colvin said. “People are always going to have mom tattoos. They’re a way to show respect for their mothers. “As long as there are mothers, there’s going to be people getting mom tattoos. It’s just one of those classic, beautiful tattoos that are never going to get old,” Colvin added. “For the most part, mom tattoos feature a heart and scroll, a rose or flowers around it, with some nice lettering around ‘mom.’ But there are million variations on the theme.”

Well, a variation on the mom tattoo theme that we’ve been thinking about here at WorthPoint is “tattooed moms.” More specifically, postcards, cabinet card photos and carte de visites (CDVs) of tattooed women from the mid- to late-19th and early 20th centuries. A quick search through the Worthopediacomes up with great, classic images of women who gave over their bodies—at least their skins—to tattoo artists, which often led directly to lucrative jobs in dime museums and circus sideshows. These cards, in good condition, can realize anywhere between $100 and $500, depending on how well the tattoos show up.

The CDV known as the “Tattooed Woman Nora Hildebrandt with Dictionary” is credited by “Charles Eisenmann, New York. Nora is holding a Webster’s Dictionary upside-down while posing. This card sold for $268.99 in March of 2013.

The first tattooed lady to appear in the United States is said to be Nora Hildebrandt, who moved to the U.S. from London with her father, Martin, a tattoo artist. Martin did much of the work on Nora, who claimed on stage at Bunnell’s New American Museum in New York City that while the two were held captive by the Sioux tribe, chief Sitting Bull demanded that the father tattoo the daughter. Very doubtful, but it made for a good story.

Within weeks of Hidebrandt’s debut at Bunnell’s museum, another tattooed lady—Irene Woodward—came onto the scene and quickly eclipsed Hildebrandt, who switched gigs and toured with Barnum and Bailey Circus.

An original Morris Photo CDV Photo depicts Irene Woodward, it sold for $105 in 2008, while a close-up of Ms. Woodward realized $149.99 in 2013.

Woodward worked at Bunnell’s museum and made a celebrated tour of Europe. She also claimed to have been tattooed by her father, but unlike the typical on-stage stories of having the tattooing done against her will, Woodward claimed she wanted the work done. In 1883, she married a showbiz man named George E Sterling and had a son, George Jr., and spent the next 15 years in the circus.

Annie Howard was another tattooed lady who worked in the Barnum & Bailey’s show in the early 1900s with her husband, tattoo artist Frank Howard. They, too, told the tale of being captured by “savages” who forcibly tattooed them. In truth, most of Annie tattoos were done by Frank.

An original/vintage CVD of circus and sideshow performer Annie Howard (circa 1880s) covered in tattoos, taken by Charles Eisenmann, 229 Bowery, New York City. This card sold for $510 in October of 2013.

Annie earned some fame in 1882 for being arrested for assaulting a man who insulted her tattoos while she was on her way to a job interview with Bunnell’s museum. Bunnell loved the publicity and had a job waiting for Annie when she was sprung from jail 10 days later. She later joined Barnum & Bailey’s when the circus played London’s Olympia. They were so well-though-of by the Brits that Frank and Annie received a whole page in the show’s program, which had the lurid and enticing title of the “Wonder Book of Freaks and Animals.”

One of the most well-loved of the tattooed ladies to capture America’s attention was Anna Mae Burlington, who was born in Linwood, Wis., in 1893, and married professional arcade tattoo artist Charles “Red” Gibbons at the age of 19. Soon after, the young Mrs. Gibbons decided they could make more money if she began work as a tattooed lady and had her husband work on several full-color images of her favorite classical and religious artwork. Among the tattoos she sported included many angels and saints, as well as a patriotic portrait of George Washington on her chest and a version of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper” across her upper back.

A photo postcard of Artoria Gibbons. The caption in the lower right area reads “Artoria Tattooed By Chas. Gibbons LA CAL” (Los Angeles California). The photo studio is marked in the lower right corner margin as being Empire Los Angeles. This image is one of a small group of images of her at the same sitting and sold for $355 in June of last year.

Artoria Gibbons’ chest featured a portrait of George Washington, while her upper back was emblazoned with a copy of Da Vinci’s “Last Supper.”

She worked under the stage name of “Artoria, Tattooed Girl” in circuses and carnival sideshows, including the Ringling Bros., Barnum & Bailey Circus (from 1921 to 1923), the Hagenbeck-Wallace circus in 1924 and others. She became one of the world’s most famous tattooed ladies and worked for more than 50 years, finally hanging it up in the mid-1970s.

While the ladies working in the sideshows, traveling fairs and museums claimed to have been forced to get their tattoos, those stories were based in fact. In 1851, a young woman named Olive Oatman was traveling to California with her family when the party was attacked by Yavapai Indians. Five members of the Oatman family were killed, while, Olive and Mary Ann Oatman were captured. A brother, Lorenzo, was left for dead, but recovered and managed to reach safety. Olive was tattooed with vertical lines on her chin, marking her as a slave before the Yavapais traded the sisters to the Mojave tribe, where they were adopted by a chief. In 1856, the U.S. Army learned of Olive and paid a ransom to recover her. Her sister Mary Ann had died earlier of disease.

One version of an Olive Oatman’s session with the Powelson photographic studio of Rochester, N.Y., (left) shows off the tattoos she received at the hands of Native American in the 1850. It realized $1,265 in a 2008 auction at Cowen’s Auction House in Cincinnati. The CDV on the right sold for $1,495 in 2007, also at Cowan’s.

Because of her actual run-in with the “savages,” images of Oatman were in demand and she posed several times for photographs in the early 1860s, wearing the typical American ladies’ dress, with her hair in curls. The only indications that she was a captive of Native Americans were the tattoos on her face. CDVs of Oatman, taken at Powelson photographic studio in Rochester, New York, sell for more than $1,000, with the top price paid for a copy being $1,495 in 2007 at Cowan’s Auctions.

So, whether you are thinking of getting a mom tattoo as your gift to Mom this Mother’s Day, or you have an affinity for collecting old circus and sideshow postcards and CDVs of tattooed mothers, we hope you have a great Sunday. If you’d like to share a story behind your mom tattoo or how you started your tattooed moms collection, please do so in the comments box below. We’d love to hear from you.

Gregory Watkins is the editor of You can e-mail him at

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