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How did tattoos become a sideshow feature?


Sporting multiple tattoos once qualified you to be a main attraction in a circus "freak show."
Sporting multiple tattoos once qualified you to be a main attraction in a circus "freak show."
Yifei Fang/Getty Images

Long before there was social media, a wondrous thing would occur with little warning: The circus would come to town.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, "Circus Day" was, well, a circus. Tents would appear, as if out of nowhere. Strange and exotic animals would pace in the cages while waiting to execute their tricks. Brightly, and sometimes scantily, clothed performers would perform daring acts. And, in a tent near all the action, another form of entertainment promised never-before-seen attractions -- all for the price of a few coins. The sideshow, as it came to be known, was a collection of individual oddities ranging from bearded ladies and wolf men to sword swallowers and tattooed wonders.

Tattooed sideshow acts were an integral part of a circus' success. The men and women who displayed their elaborately inked bodies acted as living, breathing billboards advertising the adventures the circus offered to spectators who clamored for a break from their ordinary lives. These tattooed performers became so important to the financial health of a circus that strong rivalries grew between troupes. Each circus sought to display a tattooed sideshow attraction that could wow audiences with the most extreme colors and patterns of ink.

It's believed James F. O'Connell became the first man to display his tattoos as part of a circus sideshow in the United States when he became one of Phineas T. Barnum's chief attractions in 1842. Onlookers were regaled with tales of the complex drawings that covered his torso and arms. According to one popular version, O'Connell was detained on the Caroline Islands in the western Pacific Ocean, where he was tattooed against his will by young women. The last girl to puncture his skin with dye would be the one he would be forced to marry. The tattoos, and the story behind them, were sufficient to cause a stir -- especially because many of the viewers had never seen a tattoo before [source: O'Connell].

The sideshow's tattooed "freaks" were vital to tattoo artists, too. Many of these artists would tag along with the circus for several months, perfecting their craft and publicizing their work -- via sideshow performers -- to waiting audiences.

And as the tattooed performers' role in the circus sideshow grew, so did the number of people willing to commit to the concept as a vocation. By the 1920s, an estimated 300 people who were completely covered in tattoos earned their living in circuses and sideshows [source: Gilbert].

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