The Tattooed Lady: Lady Viola
Many tattooed ladies often told elaborate stories and false claims to their start in the sideshow business. Lady Viola was no exception.
Viola claimed that she got her first tattoos after she fulfilled a promise to her father to become a nurse at the tender age of sixteen. The story was concluded with her father paying for her $5000 tattoo bill. This portrayal was far from the truth.
Lady Viola was originally born as Ethel Martin in 1898 in Covington, Kentucky. At the age of seventeen she had her first son and in the following year she married but the marriage did not last. In order to support herself and her child, Viola decided to get tattooed to start her career in Coney Island. She lived with a well known tattoo artist, Frank Graf and his wife who was an "Egyptian" dancer in the sideshow. Viola lived with them for seven weeks while Frank worked to complete her distinctive tattoos. Frank was famous for his very detailed portrait work which he covered all over Viola's body.
Lady Viola worked in the local sideshows as well as performed in Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus with the branded slogan "The Most Beautiful Tattooed Lady in the World". She performed her last show in 1932 before going into retirement in order to raise her nine children with her second husband.
Not only was Lady Viola a famous performing tattooed lady but also an accomplished tattoo artist. She settled with her husband and children in Fresno, California to run her own tattoo shop until her husband died in 1969. Lonely and in need of money, Viola came out of retirement to return to the sideshow business for one more year. She spent the rest of 1970 as a tattooed lady and active tattoo artist for the Thomas Joyland show.
In 1970 at the age of 73, Lady Viola was known as the oldest performing tattooed lady and tattoo artist before her final retirement. Her obituary made no mention of her extensive sideshow career or even her tattoos when Viola died in 1977. This fact was often neglected when it came to the passing of our dear tattooed ladies. Though nothing was said about her tattoos, Lady Viola will forever be remembered as "The Most Beautiful Tattooed Lady in the World".