The Original Gus Wagner, Tattoo Folk Hero: A Newly-Discovered Photo Collection
Collecting and studying tattoo history is often a lesson in patience and perseverance, but a little luck helps too! A few weeks ago I got a call about a stash of tattoo photos that had remained intact for more than a century. It’s a moment collectors dream about, and boy did it deliver! The images are bright, bold and packed with clues about the history of tattooing in America. The icing on the cake, as you’ve probably guessed, is that the photos came from tattoo titan Gus Wagner (1872-1941), the celebrated globetrotting artist and showman who has captured peoples’ imaginations for more than a 120 years. I’ll post additional images in the near future, but until then scroll down for a look at Ed Miller, one of Wagner’s nearest and dearest human canvases. Enjoy!
The Tattooed Bookkeeper: Gus Wagner’s Triumphant Return to Ohio
Researched and written by Derin Bray
On a sunny day in 1902, Edward Miller settled himself in an old Windsor chair beneath a tree, rolled up his shirt sleeve and submitted his arm to the painful process of being tattooed by hand. The repeated sting of needles was probably unfamiliar to the twenty-one year-old bookkeeper, but the man wielding them was certainly not. Miller received his freshly-inked design from none other than Gus Wagner, the self-proclaimed “World’s Champion Hand Tattoo Artist” and a dear friend.
The son of a police officer, Edward J. Miller (1881-1957) lived on the banks of the Muskingum River in Marietta, Ohio, just a stone’s throw from the house of Charlotte Wagner. Over the years he forged a special bond with the Wagner children, so when Charlotte’s son Gus returned home from nearly half a decade at sea, Ed was among the close friends and family who welcomed him back with open arms. Fortunately for historians, at least one of their gatherings —replete with backyard boxing and tattooing— is documented by a series of candid photographs.
Wagner’s Marietta tattoo sessions marked the first time he plied needle-and-ink on American soil. He had spent the previous four years crisscrossing the globe as a fireman for commercial steamships, never staying in the same place for longer than six months. At every port he sought out tattoo artists to decorate his hide; he undoubtedly bent their ears for precious trade secrets too. So by the time Wagner returned home to Ohio in the spring of 1902, he had transformed himself into a walking picture gallery —boasting over 260 designs in eight colors— and had become a skilled practitioner in the mysterious art of tattooing.
Progress on Ed Miller’s body suit came to a standstill in the winter of 1902 when Wagner shuttered his Marietta shop and moved an hour-and-a-half north to Newark. He tattooed on the Square downtown and, according to multiple newspaper articles, improved the appearances of a fair number of soldiers at the encampment of the Ohio National Guard. But Wagner grew restless, as he always did, and soon pushed west to open new shops in Delaware and then Terre Haute, Indiana. Along the way he booked performances with the Wonderland show, Queen Carlotta’s Gypsy Camp and even as window dressing for a Cleveland cigar store —evidently he stimulated quite a bit of trade!
Marietta’s illustrated men finally reunited in Chicago in December 1903. Miller had relocated there to further his career as a bookkeeper, and Wagner’s girlfriend Maud and her sister Dora —actresses and acrobats known as the The Stevens Sisters— had booked a sketch act in George Middleton’s famed Clark Street Museum and Theater. The appointment gave Ed and Gus an opportunity to finish what they had started, possibly even in the curio hall of the Dime Museum. A photographer documented the occasion with a stunning portrait of Wagner hand-poking Miller’s back; his rendition of St. George and the Dragon is in full view.
From Chicago Gus and Maud continued on to St. Louis, where they opened a shop in anticipation of the 1904 World’s Fair, also known as the St. Louis Exposition. Over the next few decades he continued to travel widely and create art of all manner, cementing his legacy as a globetrotter, champion hand tattoo artist, taxidermist, wood carver and showman extraordinaire. Today, the bulk of his personal tattoo equipment can be found at the South Street Seaport Museum in New York City.
Miller, on the other hand, sought a quieter life. In 1913 he married Jeanette Carson, a beloved nurse in Chicago’s Eye and Ear infirmary. The couple relocated to Bloomington a few years later, where Miller kept the books for the Bloomington Glass Company until his retirement in 1952. Straight-laced and buttoned-up, his co-workers were probably unaware of the veritable menageries of crabs, turtles, dogs, birds and slithering snakes that hid beneath his tailored suit.
Full citations available upon request.
Several candid photographs of Gus Wagner and Ed Miller at a 1902 gathering in Marietta are in a private collection; several more are in “Souvenirs of the Travels and Experiences of the Original Gus Wagner Globe Trotter & Tattoo Artist” scrapbook in the The Alan Govenar and Kaleta Doolin Tattoo Collection at South Street Seaport Museum.
In a 1904 newspaper article, Wagner claimed his first tattoos in America were done in Marietta.
It is possible, if not likely, that Ed Miller was tattooed by Wagner in the Clark Street Museum in December of 1903. Gus and Maud had a contract to appear there together the following year.