Lady Viola Name Plate

As the circus sideshow spread tattooing from coast to coast in America, many old-school tattooists recalled seeing their first tattooed person in the sideshow. They admitted that this had a major impact on them choosing the art of tattooing for a livelihood.

Lady Viola was one of those circus troopers causing a stir in the tattoo world and the outdoor amusement business. The Bowery-Coney Island-Brooklyn tattooist Frank Graf tattooed her in the 1920s.

In a Bob Shaw interview in 1989, Bob remembers the first time he saw Lady Viola in St. Louis, MO. "The fellow who did Lady Viola's work was way ahead of his time. If you ever can get one of those photos and blow it up, you'll see all those little flower designs have heads in 'em, that's the popular people of the time, like Charlie Chaplin and Tom Mix. He was the first person I saw really do portraits; he did presidents Wilson, Washington and Lincoln across her chest. You looked at them and immediately knew who it was."

Lady Viola did have a very special suit of tattoos, often being billed as "The Most Beautiful Tattooed Woman in the World." Along with popular tattoo figures of the time, she had the United States Capitol on her back and the Statue of Liberty and Rock of Ages on her legs. During the outdoor season she worked with the likes of the Ringling Bros. Circus (1932) and the winter months found her in dime museums like Gorman's in Philadelphia (1930s).

Lady Viola spent decades in the show business world and was still working with the Thomas Joyland Show at the age of 73! Many photographs and pitch cards of Viola's career have survived. Fred Clark, a mid-west tattooist who did photography as a hobby took many beautiful photographs of Lady Viola that she used for pitch cards. Several of them included Clark and his Amund Dietzel-built traveling tattoo case.

Although Lady Viola made her name as a tattoo attraction, like many other female attractions (including Betty Broadbent) she also did some tattooing. During the circus season attractions would be required to do a certain number of performances so there was not much time for them to tattoo. During the winter months Betty Broadbent would work arcades as an attraction/tattooist. So probably during the winter stints with the dime museums, Viola would have time to do some tattooing.

Originally published by the Tattoo Archive © 2003
Updated 2017