Although fictional, the characters in The Tattooed Lady are largely based on historical tattooed women Nora Hidebrandt and Maud Wagner.

Maude Wagner was the first known female tattoo artist. She was a performer in a turn-of-the-century traveling circus when she met her future husband, tattoo artist and artist Gus Wagner, at the 1904 World’s Fair in Louisiana. She learned the “mysterious” art of tattooing from him while working in the trade in the 1910s. Died in 1961.

Illustration using a 1903 photograph of Gus Wagner and Maude Stevens. (Screen shot)

“It was mysterious because there were no tattoo parlors,” said Darin Bray, a historian and collector of tattoo artifacts and author of “Loud, naked and in three colors.”

“You need to find a person who had a reputation as a tattoo artist. Tattoo artists were often itinerant. So even finding someone who could do the work was a challenge, let alone learning the trade and craft,” he said.

Nora Hildebrandt lived a generation before Wagner, tattooing her entire body in the 1880s before the invention of the electric tattoo machine. Her husband, Martin Hildebrandt, tattooed her with a hand poke technique.

“She would be bright red and blue below her cleavage and above her ankles, all over her body,” Darrin Bray said. “It was a painful process and it took a lot of time. She was doing this work at a time when there were really only a handful of tattooed male performers. She was really at the forefront of this whole tattooed attraction movement.”

Hildebrandt’s speech included the story of how she got the tattoo, a story that she would change from city to city. Perhaps she was a stowaway on a ship and was tattooed by sailors, or was captured overseas and agreed to be tattooed to save her life.

It is widely believed that the tattoos were not her decision. But, in truth, they were. Fiction was part of the show.

The stories revolving around the actors made the show more exciting, but it also makes it harder to determine the truth. Did they become actors because their husband or boyfriend was a tattoo artist who needed a canvas? Or they got tattooed as an act of liberation, as in one case when Bray found a woman in her hometown of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who had become a tattooed woman in a traveling circus to escape an abusive marriage.

“For a long time, the history of tattooing was in the Dark Ages, and it’s coming out of the shadows,” Bray said. “Now there are a lot of people like me who are obsessed with researching and writing about it, gathering as many clues as possible to tell the story.”

Vernon saw a very modern story in these historical women.

“We’re all in suits. “Some of us put on costumes to try to be normal, and other people turn themselves inside out and show the world what freaks they are and proudly display it,” Vernon said. “Our show examines the sometimes physical dangers of being visible versus the emotional dangers of being invisible.”

The Tattooed Lady begins previews on Saturday, October 29. The premiere is on Friday, November 4. The show will continue until Sunday, November 20.