Wagner was born in 1877, in Emporia, Kansas, to David Van Bran Stevens and Sarah Jane McGee.
Wagner was an aerialist and contortionist, working in numerous traveling circuses. She met Gus Wagner—a tattoo artist who described himself as "the most artistically marked up man in America" while traveling with circuses and sideshows—at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (World's Fair) in 1904, where she was working as an aerialist. She exchanged a romantic date with him for a lesson in tattooing, and several years later they were married. Together they had a daughter, Lotteva.
As an apprentice of her husband, Wagner learned how to give traditional "hokey-pokey" tattoos—despite the invention of the tattoo machine by Samuel O'Reilly on December 8, 1891—and became a tattooist herself. Together, the Wagners were two of the last tattoo artists to work by hand, without the aid of modern tattoo machines. Maud Wagner was the United States' first known female tattoo artist.
After leaving the circus, Maud and Gus Wagner travelled around the United States, working both as tattoo artists and "tattooed attractions" in vaudeville houses, county fairs and amusement arcades. They are credited with bringing tattoo artistry inland, away from the coastal cities and towns where the practice had started.
Her legacy lived on though; her daughter Lovetta carried on the family trade, despite her mother forbidding her to get any tattoos herself And Maud no doubt inspired countless other women who met or were tattooed by her, to pursue the career themselves.