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Unveiling the Inked Legacy: Extraordinary Female Tattooists in History


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Please allow us a moment (a whole month actually) to indulge in celebrating women! National Women's History Month, celebrated annually in March, is a time dedicated to honouring and recognising the achievements, contributions, and historical impact of women. The purpose is to highlight the invaluable role women have played in shaping societies, cultures, economies, and to shed light on the often-overlooked narratives of women who have broken barriers, challenged norms, and paved the way for future generations.

 

Despite Women’s History Month being celebrated predominantly in America, on March 8th each year is International Women's Day, a global celebration that advocates for gender equality and women's rights. It serves to raise awareness about the ongoing challenges faced by women worldwide and to promote positive change. International Women's Day is a call to action, urging individuals, communities, and organisations to strive for a more inclusive and unbiased world where women have equal opportunities in all aspects of life.

 

Celebrating National Women's History Month and International Women's Day, serves as an important reminder of the progress made in the journey towards gender equality, while acknowledging the work that still needs to be done, and as such inspire future generations to continue the pursuit of a fair world for all.

Here at KTREW Tattoo studio, we wanted to take a moment to focus some attention on celebrating the prominent figures who have paved the way for women in the tattoo industry.

Tattooing has long been considered an art form primarily dominated by men. However, hidden within the records of history exists a rich tapestry of talented and ground-breaking female tattooists, who defied societal norms and left a lasting mark on the world of tattooing. In this article, we’ll embark on a journey through time to explore the inspiring stories of these trailblazing women who forged their paths in the realm of ink.         


Maud Wagner: The First Female Tattoo Artist


Portrait of Maud Wagner - first female tattooist
Maud Wagner. Image courtesy of Universal History Archive/Universal Image Group/Getty Images

Our journey begins with Maud Wagner, often regarded as the first known professional female tattooist in the United States. In the late 19th century, Maud captivated audiences as a circus performer, renowned for her breath-taking contortionist and aerialist acts. It was during her performances that she met and soon fell in love with tattoo artist Gus Wagner. Fascinated by the artistry, Maud became his apprentice, eventually mastering the craft herself and leading the way for future generations of female tattooists.

 

As a merchant seaman, Gus Wagner witnessed traditional tattoo practises from many different cultures during his travels, claiming to have learned to tattoo from tribes in Java and Borneo specifically. Upon his return to America in 1910, he had acquired more than 250 tattoos, and thus described himself as “the most artistically marked up man in America”. It wasn’t long before Maud became covered in tattoos herself.

 

Maud remained in the circus, though performed as a tattooist with her husband instead, choosing to use the traditional stick and poke method despite the growing popularity in tattoo machines. It was the stick and poke method she taught to her daughter, Lovetta, though curiously, Maud refused to allow Gus to tattoo their daughter, and as such Lovetta was one of the few tattoo artists who have never been tattooed themselves – it is speculated that Lovetta felt that if she couldn’t be tattooed by her father, then she wouldn’t be tattooed by anyone.


Maud & Gus Wagner tattooing customers.
Maud and Gus Wagner tattooing clients. Image courtesy of Stories & Ink

Jessie Knight: The Tattooed Lady and Artist


A photo of Jessie Knight with her back tattoos on show.
Jessie Knight. Image courtesy of The Guardian. Photo credit: Jessie Knight Archive and National Maritime Museum Cornwall

Jessie Knight, known as "Britain's Queen of Tattooists," was a true pioneer in the tattoo industry. In the early 20th century, Jessie began her career in the circus where she performed as a sharpshooter, stuntwoman, bareback horse-rider, and pistol-spinning markswoman. She also captivated audiences with her vibrant body art, and by the time she was 18 years old she was tattooing for a living, skilfully adorning others with her intricate designs. Her talent and resilience shattered stereotypes and inspired many women to pursue tattooing as a profession.

 

Jessie stopped tattooing when she married her husband at the age of 27 as he didn’t approve of the craft, such was the attitude towards tattooing at the time. The marriage lasted eight years and, according to family legend, Jessie (the sharpshooter that she was) shot her abusive husband in revenge of him kicking her dog down the stairs – he didn’t die, which wasn’t Jessie’s intention anyway by all accounts.


Jessie Knight's Highland Fling Tattoo work on a client's back.
Jessie Knight 2nd place highland fling tattoo. Image courtesy of The Guardian. Photo credit: Jessie Knight

From the 1940s onwards, Jessie enjoyed a thriving tattoo career, though the stigma around tattoos remained. Jessie also battled against rivals conspiring against her, maligning her name and her work the more popular she became. Her shop suffered from break-ins and her work stolen, resulting in Jessie acquiring her own bodyguard.

 

Jessie earned second place in a Champion Tattoo Artist of All England competition in 1955 for a highland fling design she tattooed on a sailor’s back. Jessie’s nephew, Neil Hopkins-Thomas, believes had it not been for her being a woman, she may have won first place.




Mildred ‘Millie’ Hull: From Circus Performer to Tattoo Icon

 

Millie Hull Tattooing in action.
Millie Hull in her studio. Image courtesy of Art Blart. Photo credit: unknown

Millie Hull, a remarkable figure in the tattoo world, started her career as a burlesque dancer before transitioning to a circus performer, showcasing her contortionist skills. However, her true passion lay in tattooing. Millie transformed herself into a living work of art, covering her body with breath-taking tattoos. She eventually opened her tattoo studio, becoming one of the first female tattooists in the United States and leaving an enduring legacy.

Between the 1940s to the 1980s, tattooing was banned in New York City (unbanned in 1997), though despite such preventative measures, the city remained a hub for tattooing. The Bowery, a district in New York City, was a particular hot-spot, and it’s where Millie worked – her shop was inside a barbershop, which was quite common for the time.   

 

Tattooing in the parlour drained Millie financially however, and she recounted how a circus tout “told me I was a sap to be like the other girls. Why, if I’d get tattooed all over I could make $80 a week with the circus, and that would be only the start. The figures made me a trifle dizzy.”


Millie met Charles Wagner (a legendary American tattooist in the 1890s-1950s), who set about tattooing Millie’s entire body, as well as teaching her the craft, and thus she enjoyed the riches her new appearance garnered from her circus act, much like the circus tout had claimed she would.

                                       

Millie eventually left the circus behind to build her own illustrious career in tattooing, opening her own shop, The Tattoo Emporium, which existed for 25 years.  


Millie Hull's studio shop window.
Millie Hull studio frontage. Image courtesy of The Tattoo Archive. Photo credit: unknown

Kat Von D: Reviving the Tattoo Renaissance


Kat Von D portrait photo
Kat Von D. Image courtesy of Los Angeles Times. Photo credit: Mariah Tauger

In more recent history, Kat Von D emerged as a prominent figure in the tattoo industry, revitalising its popularity and breaking barriers as a female tattooist. With her extraordinary talent and magnetic personality, Kat gained international recognition through reality television shows and her iconic tattoo studio.

 

Kat got her first tattoo at aged 14, and soon quit school to pursue a career in tattooing. She began by creating designs for friends, using a homemade tattoo needle (not advised!), and once she was 16 she sought out professional work.

 

Armed with a sketchbook and portfolio filled with Polaroids of her work, she got hired to work in an all-male parlour located in a ghetto area of San Bernardino, which was down the road from a prison and as such many of her clients were ex-convicts.

At the age of 23 Kat had begun working at True Tattoo in Hollywood, and it was here she was approached to take part in a reality tv show set in a tattoo parlour titled Miami Ink. She appeared in two seasons of the show until she left and got her own TLC series, LA Ink, which centred around her own tattoo shop, High Voltage Tattoo. The show lasted four seasons, ending in 2011.

As of 2020, Kat began the lengthy process of covering her tattoos, stating, “I had many tattoos that represented a part of my life that no longer aligns with who I am today” … “I personally grew tired of waking up to them, and seeing those constant reminders every time I looked in a mirror.” … “Also, I really love the [aesthetic]. I know it's not for everyone but it is very satisfying to me to see a clean slate when I look down onto my arms.”

Kat explains her exploration into laser removal, but ultimately concludes the process was not for her.


A screenshot from Kat Von D's Instagram account
Image courtesy of Instagram/@thekatvond

In the present-day tattoo landscape, numerous talented women artists are making waves, shaping the future of tattooing. Despite the low numbers, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of women entering the field of tattooing worldwide. More women have been establishing themselves as skilled tattoo artists, breaking traditional gender stereotypes associated with the industry.

 

Despite progress, challenges such as stereotypes and biases can still exist. The acceptance and popularity of tattoos among women vary across cultures, but a global trend of increasing acceptance and diversity in tattoo styles can be observed.

 

It's important to recognise that the tattooing landscape is dynamic, and societal attitudes will hopefully continue to evolve.

 

Happy National Women's History Month!



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