Tattooed icons: the badass women of tattooing who paved the way

Tattooed icons: the badass women of tattooing who paved the way

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Even when I first started getting tattooed in the early noughties, it felt like a transgressive act. "What are you, good girl gone bad? " an ex exclaimed as he took in my tattoos when I bumped into him a few years ago. 

"Tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape, and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies – and why," writes Margot Mifflin in her book Bodies of Subversion: a secret history of women and tattoos

But tattoos aren’t just a modern phenomenon. New York 1879 and an article titled ‘The Tattoo Trick’ was published in tabloid newspaper The National Police Gazette. It reported on an unnamed female tattooist “found in an unpretentious but neat house in a respectable locality”, she told the reporter that business was good, and her clients were mostly women… 

I’m obsessed with these stories of tattooed women from the past. I adore coming across old photos of them – decades old sepia images of women with ink on their skin. As I take in each image, I wonder, who was she? What made her fall in love with tattoos? And what kind of prejudice would she have faced? 

To help us step inside the shoes of these badass tattooed women, here’s a run-down of some of those icons. Tattooed women from the past who paved the way for the women – tattooers and collectors alike – of today who are in love with this magical, empowering art form… Some of the tattooed women we spotlight began their journeys in the early 1900s, when women didn’t have many rights at all – both politically and at home, where they were expected to be dutiful wives, mothers and homemakers. Imagine how they felt as they covered both their own and other women’s skin in ink – this is tattoo herstory... 

Maud Wagner

She began her career as a circus performer, an aerialist and contortionist. In 1904, she met tattooist Gus Wagner, and agreed to go out on a date with him – on the condition that he teach her how to tattoo (as you might guess by her surname, she went on to marry him). She started tattooing in 1907 using the stick and poke method, and also became very heavily tattooed herself. 

Jessie Knight

Considered to be the UK’s first female tattooist, Jessie started tattooing in 1921, when she was 17 years old. She learnt from her father, who was a sailor and a tattooist. She took over his tattoo shop in Barry, south Wales, when he went off to sea. To try and counter the stigma she faced, Jessie wore a suit to work and her hair was always immaculately styled. “They call me a vampire and a nasty cat,” she wrote in a poem in her diary during the ‘40s. She tattooed into the 1980s and ran numerous shops throughout her career. 

Artoria Gibbons

Before Artoria Gibbons, the tattooed lady, came on stage, audiences were told a fabricated tale: the woman they were about to meet had married a jealous older man, he tattooed her all over her body so that no one else would find her attractive. In fact, Artoria’s husband Charles “Red” Gibbons was an infamous tattooist, they both decided that they’d make a good living if she became a performing tattooed lady. He tattooed her in full colour with images from her favourite religious art, including Botticelli’s The Annunciation and Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo. She performed for decades from the 1920s and retired in 1981. 

Mildred Hull

Known as Millie, Mildred Hull was born in 1897. A former burlesque dancer, she’s one of the first women to learn tattooing without the help of a boyfriend or husband. She tattooed many women who often requested hearts with lovers’ names inside them and “mother” tattoos. In 1943, she was referred to as New York's only female tattooist – tattooing was illegal in NYC until 1997! In an interview for Foto Magazine, she said: “I think men rather like having a woman tattoo them. They think a woman is likely to be more careful.” Mildred died by poisoning herself in 1947.

Valie Export

In July 1970, artist Valie got tattooed in public in Frankfurt. She marked her thigh with a suspender belt to highlight how women were viewed as sexual objects. “Tattooing the body demonstrates the connection between ritual and civilization,” she wrote. “In the tattoo the garter appears as a sign of a past enslavement, clothing as the suppression of sexuality, the garter as an attribute of a femininity not determined by ourselves.”

Jacci Gresham

Considered to be the USA's first Black female tattoo artist, Jacci is an icon. She learnt to use a tattoo machine in 1972. Not only did she break into a predominantly male industry, but it’s also one that’s overwhelmingly white. Her shop, Aart Accent Tattoos, in New Orleans is the first opened by a Black woman in the US. Jacci’s now in her 70s and still working to this very day. We can totally get on board with her shop’s slogan: “Look better naked – get a tattoo.”

Isobel Varley

“Originally, I was only ever going to have one – a small bird – but I fell in love with it, and developed an addiction," said Isobel Varley when she was crowned the world’s most tattooed female pensioner. A former secretary, she was famous for having 93% of her body tattooed and held the Guinness World Record for being the most tattooed female senior citizen. She got her first tattoo aged 49 at the Hammersmith Palais in 1986. This is where she caught the "bug" that would see her collect more than 200 tattoos over the course of a decade. Her favourite was a family of tigers on her stomach. She died in 2015  when she was 77, after suffering from Alzheimer's disease.