Jessie Knight, although not a well-known artist, holds a special place on tattoo history.
A trailblazer from Wales, the UK’s first female professional tattooist was she.
The National Museum of Wales now preserves her heritage.
Jessie Knight was just seven years old when her first tattoo machine was installed over 100 years ago. She didn’t know she would become an agent of change in the industry.
A few years later, however, she opened her own studio in Barry Vale of Glamorgan when she was 18 years old.
Jessie was trained and became a shopkeeper by her father.
She would travel throughout the UK for three decades, inking thousands of skins and establishing her career in an industry almost entirely dominated men.
Her entire collection of tattoo designs can be found at the National Museum of Wales.
Neil Hopkin Thomas, the great-nephew of her, described Aunt Jessie as “quite an eccentric character.”
“She was innovative, ahead of her times, but she also had many stories to tell.
“Before tattooing began, she was a horseback stunt woman and a sharpshooter.
“She was lively and lived a very exciting lifestyle.”
Jessie has been admired for her work throughout the world. In 1955, Jessie was awarded second in the Champion Tattoo Artists Of All England Competition.
Despite her success she was often challenged by women’s perceptions at the time.
Hopkin Thomas stated that the shop had been broken into several times and some designs stolen.
She kept all her tattoo designs safe in a large trunk. When she was tattooing, she would lie down on the trunk to ensure that no one could touch it.
“It was a man’s universe at that time, but she just thought why shouldn’t she be able to do what she loves.”
During her distinguished and long career, she did not ink any skins of other people.
Mr. Hopkin stated that she had small dots of color on both her hands. These were used to test the ink before she tattooed someone. It was almost like a test palate.
“She also had the family Coat of Arms, which was also what her father had. She also owned a spider’s web and a cross.
Jessie is described by Dr. Matt Lodder (a tattoo historian) as a “historical figure”.
Dr. Lodder said that Jessie was the person who made her famous and was able to “kind of forge an individual kinda tough femininity in this very male-dominated field.”
Her bases in the UK included many seaport towns like Chatham (Kent), Aldershot, Hampshire, and Portsmouth.
He stated, “She would have been tattooing sailors passing through”
“There would be lots and lots of drinking, and misbehavior.
“She had to be careful in a field, but she did it with flair and panache.”
Jessie put signs in her shops warning customers about unruliness
In one she noted: ‘If you’ve had one over the eight… you are too late.’
Dr. Lodder stated, “From the material we have about her, we can see she was a tough woman with a real sense for humor.” She had a twinkle of an eye.
Ms. Hopkin Thomas kept her collection of nearly 1,000 pieces, which included family photos and tattoo designs, throughout her career.
Dr. Lodder said that it almost seems like she quit tattooing and put everything in bags.
“All of it exists, and it tells her tale.”
He believes the collection gives a glimpse of life beyond Jessie Knight’s tale.
He said that tattooing can help you learn about people not represented in museums.
“This is a time for change, thanks to the incredible work of this woman.
“A country is experiencing a decline in the empire, a change of status for women, two major wars, as well as many social and cultural changes.
These designs capture all the passions and emotions people feel in their bodies.
Fflur Mourse is Senior Curator of the National Museum Wales. She stated that it was important for us to preserve the stories of women like Jessie Knight who had a major impact on Wales in a world dominated mostly by men.
Today, the situation is drastically changing for women working in this field.
Lisa Turner, a tattoo artist, owns Inkabella in Barry.
She stated that Jessie Knight’s work had made female tattoo artists more accepted in the future.
“I think there may be more female tattooists now than males in Barry. It’s a lot higher than it used to.
“If it weren’t for people like Jessie Knights, I don’t know where we’d be.”
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