The First Tattoo Model

June 27, 2024 | Jamie Hayes

The First Tattoo Model

The Tattooed Venus

Today, a woman covered in tattoos is a common sight. In the 30s? People would actually pay money to see one. Meet Betty Broadbent, the Tattooed Venus. 


She Was A Florida Girl

Born in Florida in 1909, it's unknown when Sue Lillian Brown started to go by the name that made her famous: Betty Broadbent.

Betty Broadbent in dressState Library of New South Wales, Wikimedia Commons

She Started Working Young

Betty had to start working young. The family eventually moved to Philadelphia, and at 14, Betty got a job as a nanny for a wealthy family in Atlantic City. 

While walking the city's iconic boardwalk, she saw a something that horrified most girls her age—but she was utterly transfixed.

Atlantic City BoardwalkSelf, Wikimedia Commons

She Was Fascinated

The 14-year-old Betty came across a man named Jack Redcloud who had attracted a crowd on the Atlantic City boardwalk. Why? Because he was covered in tattoos.

tattooKevin Bidwell, Pexels

She Was Inspired

While the tattoos inspired horror and disgust from the crowd, Betty had to know more. She connected with Redcloud, and soon he introduced her to legendary tattoo artist Charlie Wagner.

tattoo artist Charlie WagnerFPG, Getty Images

She Needed Money

Soon, Broadbent would become Wagner's canvas. There was just one problem: Wagner's shop was in New York City, and for a girl like Betty, that was a long ways away.

New York City 1920'sLibrary of Congress, Picryl

She Went All In

Broadbent's family was poor, but she found work riding horses in a rodeo when she was a teenager. When she'd saved up enough, she spent all her life savings on a trip to New York City.

In New York, she'd get her tattoos. Nothing else mattered.

Betty Broadbent looking at a mirrorState Library of New South Wales, Flickr

She Got Covered

In 1927, four years after they first met, Wagner began work on Betty's body suit. But this was a serious project—he couldn't get it done alone.

Tattooed lady Betty BroadbentState Library of New South Wales, Flickr

Several Artists Joined In

Pioneer American tattoo artists like Tony Rhineagear, Joe Van Hart, and Red Gibbons all helped contribute artwork to Betty's full body suit—but they had a lot of work to do.

Tattooed lady Betty BroadbentState Library of New South Wales, Flickr

It Took Years

Wagner and the other artists spent over two years putting over 500 tattoos on Betty's back, arms, chest, and upper legs.

Tattooed lady Betty Broadbent sitting on an armchairState Library of New South Wales, Flickr

She Didn't Have A Theme

If you scanned Betty's tattoos, you'd have trouble coming up with a theme: There was Pancho Villa, Charles Lindbergh, Queen Victoria, and the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus.

Tattooed lady Betty Broadbent standing in short dressState Library of New South Wales, Flickr

Her Eagle Was The Most Famous

Betty's most famous tattoo was the large spread eagle covering her chest from shoulder to shoulder, which is rumored to have taken six full sessions to complete.

Tattooed lady Betty Broadbent, 4 April 1938State Library of New South Wales, Flickr

She Made The Papers

Betty's tattoos made her a curiosity for the rest of her life. In 1939, she had attracted enough notoriety that the New York Times published a story about her. For Betty, it was just another chance to spread the good word of tattooing.

The New York Times BuildingJavierDo, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

She Gave A Classic Answer

The interviewer from the Times asked Betty what getting the eagle was like. Her answer was the same that most tattooed people give: “It hurt something awful, but it was worth it".

New York Times Newspaperjaneb13, Needpix

She Joined The Circus

Maybe you're wondering how a woman covered in tattoos made a living in the 1930s. Simple: Charlie Wagner had connections with the Ringling Bros. Circus. 

It was a match made in heaven.

Ringling Bros. CircusLibrary of Congress, Picryl

She Was An Attraction

Billed as the Tattooed Venus, Betty would emerge on stage wrapped in a long robe. The ringleader would announce, "And now, ladies and gentleman, the lady who’s different:” and Betty would drop the robe, revealing her tattoos to the oohs and aahs of the crowd.

Betty BroadbentThomas Hawk, Flickr

She Had Many Skills

Betty already knew how to ride a horse, but with the circus she could train with the best. When she wasn't working, learned how to ride professionally horses, steers, and mules for performances.

Sideshow Alley at the Royal National Show, Brisbane, August 1982Queensland State Archive, Flickr

She Had High Standards

Her tattoos might have shocked audiences, but Betty Broadbent always made sure to maintain a respectable act. She kept up her image as a Lady, and she never showed more skin that was acceptable at the time. 

Betty Broadbent tattooedFREDERIC J. BROWN, Getty Images

She Didn't Mince Words

When asked what made her act different from other performers, Betty made it clear she was a cut above: "I don't bump and grind like those carnival floozies".

BIg circus tentN i c o l a, Flickr

They Made Up Stories About Her

Especially when she was starting out, Betty didn't always have control over how she was marketed. Ringleaders would make up elaborate backstories—but some of them made Betty furious.

Circus parade around tentsGibson & Co., Wikimedia Commons

They Made Her A Captured Woman

Audiences would know of stories like Olive Oatman, the white woman who was captured by Native Americans and tattooed against her will. 

This was a popular backstory that ringleaders liked to give Betty—but she wasn't having it.

Olive Oatman tattooed womanBenjamin F. Powelson, Wikimedia Commons

She Was Always Herself

Betty always pushed back against these phony narratives and always presented herself as she was: A regular, American woman, covered in tattoos.

Betty Broadbent, the tattoed ladyBettmann, Getty Images

She Didn't Like Her Name

Betty didn't even like the name Tattooed Venus. She would have preferred just going by her own name, but she couldn't deny how much the moniker drew in crowds.

Crowds at a circus sideshowLibrary of Congress, Picryl

Times Started To Catch Up

As times changed and it became acceptable for women to show more skin, Betty had more and more blank canvas to cover, and she didn't waste the opportunity.

Betty Broadbent tattooed ladyKeystone-France, Getty Images

She Got Even More Tattoos

Eventually, Betty had legendary tattoo artist Bert Grimm tattoo her upper thighs. She then had her stage bathing suit shortened to show off the new art.

Bert Grimm Reno Covention1982Manfred Kohrs, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

She Got Bored

Just being the Tattooed Venus was enough at first, but after a few years Betty decided to spice things up. She put her horse riding skills to work and got a job performing in Harry Carey's Wild West Show.

Harry Careyfilm screenshot, Wikimedia Commons

She Never Stood Still For Long

The Wild West show couldn't keep Betty Broadbent entertained for long. Soon, she was itching for a new adventure. And for a woman like her, adventure was never too hard to find.

Betty BroadbentBettmann, Getty Images

She Wanted To Push Boundaries

Betty had managed to eke out a living, but mainstream society was still nowhere near ready to accept a woman covered in tattoos. She wanted to change that.

tattooed womanStevan Gabriel, Pexels

She Entered A Beauty Pageant

Betty entered the beauty pageant at the 1939 World's Fair in New York City—the first-ever televised beauty pageant. This was a great chance to spread the good word.

1939-40 Worlds FairWaeltkm, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

She Lost, But It Didn't Matter

Another woman won the contest—let's not go crazy here—but Betty Broadbent definitely got noticed. Enough that she decided it was time to take her show on the road.

Betty Broadband, the Tattoo LadyBettmann, Getty Images

She Went Down Under

After the beauty pageant, Betty took her show Down Under. She travelled to New Zealand and Australia, where she performed with whatever circuses she found along the way.

Sydney, AustraliaFlickr Commons, Picryl

She Went Right Back To It

Betty went right back to her performing when she got back stateside, working with both the Cole Brothers and Sells Floto circuses. But she'd found a new passion as well.

Circus Australia 1940'sRoyal Australian Historical Society, Wikimedia Commons

She Started Tattooing 

In the off season, Betty worked as a tattoo artist herself out of her shop in San Francisco—or wherever she happened to be at that moment.

Woman tattooingcottonbro studio, Pexels

She Worked All Over

While travelling North America with the circus, Broadbent kept working as an artist on the side, working as a guest artist in shops all over the country.

If you know someone who got a tattoo in the 50s or 60s, maybe it's an original Betty Broadbent!

Sells Floto circusLibrary of Congress, Picryl

She Worked With Tom Mix

Tom Mix was the original movie cowboy, but when he wasn't in front of the camera, he was a circus performer, and Betty spent much of her career performing with him, either as the Tattooed Venus or on horseback.

Tom Mix 1925Agence de presse Meurisse, Wikimedia Commons

She Love To Perform

By the 1960s, a person covered in tattoos wasn't exactly the awe-inspiring attraction it once was. Most of the tattoo acts had retired by then, but Betty Broadbent kept going longer than pretty much anyone else.

She kept performing until 1967, when she was 58.

CircusDaniele Pisani, Shutterstock

She Moved Back Home

After retiring, Betty moved back to her home state of Florida, where she kept working as a tattoo artist out of her home for the rest of her life.

tattoo artistcottonbro studio, Pexels

She Always Missed The Road

Betty did eventually settle down, but don't go thinking she did it by choice. When asked about her retirement, she said, "Boy, do I miss the people and the travel".

John Robinson's CircusAtwell, Harry, Wikimedia Commons

She's The Most Photographed

By the end of her life, Betty Broadbent became the most photographed tattooed woman of the entire 20th century.

Tattooed woman, Australia, 25 December 1937State Library of New South Wales, Wikimedia Commons

She's A Legend

Betty Broadbent spent her entire life spreading her love of tattooing all around the world. It's no wonder that when the Tattoo Hall of Fame opened in August 1981, she was the very first inductee.

Tattoo artist doing a tattoocottonbro studio, Pexels

She Passed Peacefully

Two years after she was inducted into the Tattoo Hall of Fame, Betty Broadbent passed peacefully in her sleep. She was 74 years old.

Tattoo signBrett Sayles, Pexels

Sources:  1, 2

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