Meet Oliva Oatman; the first known white woman with tattoos. Oliva’s life had been anything but normal. In the 1850s, during a trip to California with her family, Yavapai Indians attacked. Oliva’s parents were murdered. Only Oliva and her sister survived. The two girls were rescued and adopted by Mohave Indians, who then gave Oliva her iconic face tattoo. This face tattoo was a tradition for the Mohave Indians. Oliva’s sister passed away soon after they were rescued. Oliva would remain with the Mohave Indians until they sold her for ransom years later.
Once Oliva was sold for ransom she became a celebrity, started traveling the country and informing everyone about her experience with the Mohave Indians. There would always be a massive turnout whenever Oliva spoke about her experience with the Mohave Indians. Everyone wanted to see the facial tattoos that the Mohave’s gave her. Oliva told all those who listened that she never wanted the tattoos and that the Mohave’s did this without her permission.
This story may have been altered over the years. Oliva spoke of the tattoo as a horrible reminder of what had transpired in her life. Meanwhile, the tattoo the Mohave Indians inflicted on her became a sign of willing acceptance among her new family.
Meet Nora Hildebrandt; America’s first known Professional Tattooed Lady. Before Nora became famous, she claimed to have been tortured and held captive by Native Americans. Nora said that she was tortured daily with hours of tattooing by the famous Chief, Sitting Bull. Nora is one of many Tattooed Ladies who fabricated the stories behind their ink.
Nora traveled with Barnum and Bailey’s Circus throughout the 1890s, showing off all of her tattoos. Tattooed women were used as acts in Burlesque Shows and Peep Shows. Women would strip in front of crowds and show their bodies off. Most of the audience was split between those who wanted to see the tattoo art and those who just wanted to see women half-dressed.
Over the years, Nora’s story has changed multiple times. Some assume that Nora was related to the first Tattoo Artist to open a tattoo shop in NYC; Martin Hildebrandt. However, the only relationship the two shared was as a Tattoo Artist and his client. Some assume Nora took Martin’s last name because she was charmed with the art he put on her body. Nora’s story will remain a mystery.
Stay tuned for next week’s blog, where we will delve into two more Victorian Tattooed Ladies.