Because this past season of Ink Master, a tattooing-aptitude competition, crowned Ryan Ashley as the first female winner of the show, it seems fitting that we look back on one of the women who pioneered the meticulous art form of tattoos to see how far the craft has come.
Jessie Knight was Britain’s first female tattoo artist, her career ranging from the 1920s to the 1960s. Born in 1904, Knight was one of the most renowned tattoo artists of her time. She worked a series of odd jobs in her lifetime, all within the circus, including her father’s sharpshooting target, a stuntwoman, and a bareback horse rider.
Her career in tattoos truly began when she was 18. Knight tattooed for a living and attracted clients, who were mostly sailors, from many different regions. She learned the technique from her father, and Knight’s own style was to work freehand after she had drawn the design on the body.
Tattoos had a questionable reputation at the time and were looked down upon, commonly known as the mark of criminals. The Guardian aptly states, “That Knight even existed and triumphed in such a macho world…is a particular point of pride.”
Her career was shocking to people, but this did not deter Knight. Her rivals slandered her, her shop was broken into, and her work was even stolen on one occasion. She became more cautious, but still continued.
In 1955, Knight came in second place in the Champion Tattoo Artist of All England competition. She had depicted a highland fling on a sailor’s back. Her nephew, Neil Hopkins-Thomas, believes Knight may have been placed second instead of first only because she was a woman.
By the mid 1960s, Knight officially retired but continued to tattoo friends and family until she died in 1992. Hopkins-Thomas mentions that “her house was like a studio, bits of art everywhere, big glass cabinets of curios and treasured possessions,” along with “letters of marriage proposals from men all around the world.”
From Knight to the newly-crowned champion of Ink Master, Ashley, it has certainly taken considerable time for another woman to be recognized for her work as a tattoo artist, but a trailblazer like Knight would surely enjoy knowing that a woman currently stands at the top in the modern day rankings of the tattoo world.
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