Foremothers of the Tattoo Trade: Legendary Female Tattooers

By Valerie Farabee
These are the ladies who sometimes fell into it, and sometimes fought their way in, kicking, screaming, punching and biting – it’s hard to be a lady in a man’s world!  These women were tattooing before we were born, a few even before our parents and grandparents were born.  Many started as circus freaks in sideshows.  Others after being introduced to the trade by a boyfriend or husband.  Any way you take it, these women blazed a trail for women tattooists to follow into the 20th century and beyond, to today’s troops of female artists. It’s time to pay tribute to some of these often looked-over lady pioneers… 

Maud Stevens Wagner

A contortionist and aerialist, she met her husband Gus Wagner at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.  He wanted to date her, she wanted to learn how to tattoo, a bargain was struck and Gus taught her how to hand-poke.  A few years later they married and had a daughter, Lotteva, who jumped onboard the family tradition of hand-poked tattoos and started tattooing when she was just nine years old.  Lotteva is one of the few career tattooists to have completely bare skin; her mother originally forbid her father to tattoo her, relenting only after his death, and at that point Lotteva did not wish to be tattooed by anyone if she could not be tattooed by her father.  Maud passed away in 1961, leaving her daughter to carry on the family tradition until her death in 1993.

Mildred Hull, “Queen of the Bowery”

Unlike many of the early female tattoo artists, Mildred learned not from a boyfriend or lover, but from first scratching tattoos out on herself.  She struck-out on her own and built a business that stretched out over 25 years until her untimely death in 1947.  Initially a burlesque dancer who was first tattooed by a boyfriend, Millie later apprenticed under Charlie Wagner, inventor of the electric needle.   Hull, like many tattoo artists of the time, worked from a closet sized booth in the back of a Bowery barbershop.  In 1943 she was referenced as the “New York’s only woman tattoo artist.” She died of self-poisoning in a Bowery restaurant in 1947, a sad bookend to a career that laid the groundwork for women tattooists to come.

Rusty Skuse

A member of the Bristol Tattoo Club, Rusty Skuse (Janet Field) held the Guinness Book of Records title as Britain’s most heavily tattooed woman for over two decades, from 1970 through the 90s. She got the first of many traditional style tattoos when she was still in the army on a dare from a friend, and then got along so well with her tattoo artist, Bill Skuse, that he asked her to come work for him instead of joining the circus as a tattooed lady. He subsequently trained her in the art of tattooing, and later he asked her to marry him. The two worked together until her death in 2007.

Jacci Gresham

One of the matriarchs of the tattoo industry, Jacci Gresham became the first prominent black tattoo artist when she opened her New Orleans shop in 1976. Like many of the first women tattooists, she learned the trade from a former boyfriend (later business partner) Ajit Singh.  When they opened their shop, Singh instituted a rule against tattooing women because he felt that tattooed women were socially unacceptable.  Gresham nixed that rule quickly and now women account for 70 percent of her clientele.  She remains the most well-recognized black woman artist in the tattoo industry, and says she didn’t meet any other black artists until the late 90s.  You can find her tattooing at the shop she opened in NOLA in 1976, Aart Accent.  More information Jacci and her shop can be found in the excellent documentary Color Outside the Lines, a film about the history of black tattoo culture in the United States.

Kate Hellenbrand (Shanghai Kate)

A legit godmother of the industry, Kate Hellenbrand, also known as Shanghai Kate, took up the trade in 1971 after dating tattooist Mike Malone.  A brief apprenticeship with Sailor Jerry Collins certainly shaped her traditional style, but it wasn’t until a decade of working with the likes of Don Ed Hardy and Jack Rudy that her career gained full momentum.  She was the first female American artist to travel and work alone in Europe in 1979, and is one of the first of the growing number of tattooists who studied fine art at an art school.   She has since managed or own tattoo shops in five different states. Kate currently tattoos at Shanghai Kate’s in Austin, TX.

(Valerie is a blogger and Digital Media Intern for Tattoo Artist Magazine.)

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