The timeline of Tattoos: Women in the Industry

Looking back on the tattoo timeline, the idea of a woman having a tattoo was basically the original Scarlet Letter. People thought tattoos were linked with promiscuity, and it's a misconception some women still battle now. Without women in the past having the nerve to go against the status quo, tattoos wouldn't be half as accepted as they are now.  

Cover image by Kal Visuals.



Maud Wagner was just a woman who wanted to express herself through ink, but she did this in a time when tattoos weren’t widely accepted, especially not on women. She didn’t know at that moment how much she would be shaping the tattoo industry for other women. It was actually a side show attraction, she would get tattooed and people would “ooh” and “ah” as if she was being set on fire. 
She met a man, Gus Wagner, who at the time was a successful tattoo artist and he wanted a date, while she wanted tattoos. In exchange for a tattoo, she went out with Gus and over time their relationship grew into him teaching her how to tattoo. Eventually they got married and had a daughter who would go on to be a tattoo artist herself.  The interesting thing about their daughter, Lotteva, was even though she became an artist she never received a single tattoo. When her Father passed away she explained if she couldn’t get a tattoo from him, she didn’t want one at all and stood by that principle her whole life. Even though they lived in a time when tattoo machines became popular, Maud and Gus remained among the few artists who only tattooed by hand. 

In the beginning of tattooing many sailors were either covered in tattoos or worked as amateur artists on the side, (like Sailor Jerry.) It’s not that surprising that one sailor’s daughter, Jesse Knight, became the first known female artist in the U.K.  Similar to Maud Wagner, Jessie Knight was once a circus performer. Despite her world-renowned talent, Knight’s story is seemingly unknown to the 20th century. This might because she faced heavy slander at one point; people accused her of not using clean equipment along with scandalous name-calling. But really she was ahead of her time, a free thinker and a woman who wasn’t afraid to go against the status quo. She lived well into her 80’s, still making jokes and telling stories.
Photo by: João Silas

Jacci Gresham became the first prominent black tattoo artist and opened her own shop in 1976 in New Orleans. She was more than the first African American female tattoo artist in the city, she was the first known in the country. Born in Detroit, Michigan she transitioned to New Orleans for the agriculture, having a background in engineering. There were only two tattoo shops in the state, so her and her boyfriend decided to open a shop. For years she ran the shop but didn’t work as an artist-even though she had talents in drawing. In time she started tattooing, conducting an apprenticeship under her significant other. Now her shop is the only remaining one in New Orleans.

And we can’t accurately explain the history of women in the tattoo industry without introducing the Godmother of the industry, Kate Hellenbrand, Shanghai Kate. In the early 70’s she had an apprenticeship with Sailor Jerry and is one of the only surviving artists to study under him. Her style has traditional roots, with vivacious color and brilliant detail. She also attended fine arts school and went on to open several tattoo shops of her own. Her dedication earned her a spot under 101 most influential persons in tattoo history, according to vanishingtattoo.com. Even when tattooing was illegal she helped educate society about body art, by working with Michael Malone create a tattoo exhibit for the Museum of Folk Art. She's always opened her heart to those who lived outside social norms and has always had a dedication to art. She's been well-known across the world, still actively traveling and tattooing today. Kate is closely connected to other powerful, ambitious female tattoo artist such as Apache Jil, Judy Parker, Vyvyn Lazonga, Juli Moon, Suzanne Fauser,  Pat Sinatra, Jamie Summers, and Jill Jordan. These women had to be tough to survive the obstacles and trials of being a female tattoo artist when it wasn’t an acceptable trade. They went through it all because they loved the work they did and should all be remembered as the forerunners of the tattoo industry.  
In more modern times, after eight seasons of Ink Master, there was the first female winner. Ryan Ashley achieved the title of first female winner and went on to host Ink Angels- an expansion from the franchise. Ink Angels features three top female artists, who were once competitors on Ink Master. (Kelly Doty, Nikki Simpson, and Ryan Ashley) Ryan Ashley started out with a degree in Fashion Design in 2007, accomplishing an award for the Critic's Choice of her class. She resided in NYC, working as a designer for a prestigious clothing company until 2011. She decided to leave the city to return to her roots in PA, chasing a new aspiration: tattooing.  Kelly Doty was also a contestant on Ink Master, and ended up in the top three of her season. It only takes a minute to realize what a down to Earth and genuine soul Kelly Doty is. The final ink Angel is Nikki Simpson, a stand out talent who was featured on season 8 of Ink Masters. Nikki has always excelled in illustrative realism, she started out working in the heart of California: Hollywood; sharing her passion for tattooing, travel, and art. She saw an opportunity in New York, where she currently tattoos at Grit and Glory. This trio obtains their amazing sense of humor and humbleness regardless of any negativity they've endured.

There is no “boy versus girls” outlook in the industry. Women seek equality, not supremacy. Though the industry has grown and transformed, opening more opportunities for females the fight for equality isn’t over yet. On record, there are still more male artist, but the statistic is not written in stone. The foundation-women like Maud, Jacci, and Kate have created a strong base for modern artists, like Ryan Ashley, Kelly Doty, and Nikki Simpson to continue building up.
Now we're seeing female artists come together and support each other. These women of industry will keep pushing forward and we can't wait to see how the percentage of female artists will grow!

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