Learn about Augustus “Gus” Wagner’s early life as a merchant seaman and tattoo artist who traveled the world from 1898-1902, and his return to the United States as a professional tattooist and tattooed man.
Gus Wagner was born in 1872 in Marietta, Ohio, a trading and boat-building town on the Ohio River. At age twelve he saw his first heavily tattooed man, “Captain Costentenus the Greek Albanian,” in a traveling show. In his 20’s, he set out as an itinerant salesman and laborer. In 1897 he boarded the cargo steamer Bellona at Newport News, Virginia, thus embarking on a four-year career as a merchant seaman. By traveling around the world, Gus Wagner got to know many seaports: Vera Cruz, London, Cape Town, Sydney, Auckland, Honolulu, New York, San Francisco, and others. It was during this time that he discovered the art of tattooing.
By 1901 Gus reportedly had 264 tattoos of his own, (and over 800 by 1908) allowing him to promote himself as “the most artistically marked up man in America.”
The exhibition will familiarize viewers with hand tattoo techniques, and make the case for the importance of researching, documenting, and preserving tattoo collections in museums and research institutes.
Most of the artifacts are not on view due to their fragile condition and conservation needs, but the reproductions and video projection in the exhibition are a testimony of the richness of Gus Wagner’s image vocabulary, his life and artistic influences, and a relatively unknown area of American history during the period from the 1890s to the 1930s.