When rough-and-tough bikers strolled into the New Orleans tattoo parlour seeking quick ink, they instinctively avoided Jacci Gresham.
“Where’s the owner?” they’d inquire.
“You’re looking at her,” Gresham would confidently retort.
Most men, after a shrug, would settle into Gresham’s chair, willingly exposing their skin. Some, if inebriated enough, would even remove their shirts or underwear. On the other hand, some would glance at Gresham—a woman, a Black woman at that—and abruptly exit.
Gresham, now 77, is a trailblazer in the tattooing realm. She established her shop in the 1970s, a venture ahead of its time, especially considering the scarcity of female tattoo artists. Now semi-retired and residing on 40 acres in Picayune, Miss., Gresham recently traversed nearly 1,200 miles to participate in the Philadelphia Tattoo Arts Festival.
One woman journeyed from West Virginia solely to be tattooed by Gresham on a Saturday afternoon. Admirers sought selfies, and some opted for Gresham’s signature to be etched permanently as a testament to their encounter, priced at $100. Many dropped by to pay homage to “Miss Jacci.”
“You’re my inspiration,” expressed tattoo artist Mia Thomas of Bensalem. “You’re the reason I became a tattoo artist.”
Born and raised in Flint, Mich., Gresham harboured an early love for art and drawing. Her childhood aspirations leaned toward becoming a fashion designer. Drafting classes at Flint Central High School kindled her interest in architecture and engineering, where she was often the sole female participant.
After studying at Lawrence Technological University in Michigan, Gresham worked for General Motors, where she designed auto dealerships. A chance encounter with a man knowledgeable about tattooing prompted a move to New Orleans in 1976. Together, they launched Aart Accent Tattoos & Piercing on North Rampart Street. This shop was the oldest tattoo parlour in Louisiana until its closure in 2022 following a property sale.
Several tattoo websites proclaim Aart intentionally misspelt to secure the top spot in phone book listings as the first tattoo shop in the U.S. owned by a Black woman. Gresham, aware of only one other woman in Seattle with a tattooing tenure comparable to hers, proudly asserts her position as the longest-tenured Black tattoo artist.
“I know I’ve been tattooing longer than any Black person in this building,” she declared at the recent tattoo convention.
Villain Arts, the organization behind the Philly tattoo convention, reported 1,500 artists from 12 countries in attendance. Although specific statistics on race and gender weren’t provided, the event showcased hundreds of female and Black tattoo artists busy at work.
“She set the path,” attested Trap Wright of Black Ink Orlando. “There would probably not be that many women tattooers today if not for her. For her to be a woman and Black back then, that’s for real.”
Atlanta tattoo artist Paper Airplane Jane highlighted Gresham’s impact, noting that female customers often prefer female artists, and Gresham paved the way, particularly for Black and Brown women.
Gresham’s influence is not confined to inspirational stories. Mia Thomas, owner of the private studio Inktachi, temporarily set aside her tattooing duties at the convention to acquire one of Gresham’s signature voodoo dolls on her leg, along with Gresham’s autograph.
Since closing her shop, Gresham has divided her time between home and guest appearances at various shops and convention booths. Health-wise, she’s been fortunate, though she recently underwent cataract surgery.
While Gresham herself boasts several tattoos, mostly on her legs, she refrained from tattooing her face or hands, considering a potential return to engineering. She recalls her first tattoo—a spear—and admits to avoiding a specific genre of art.
“I don’t do any of that devil stuff. When I did, in the past, bad things happened,” she revealed.
Reflecting on the evolution of tattoo acceptance, Gresham noted significant strides in the 1990s. Before that, the clientele primarily consisted of “biker types” and occasional female companions.
“It seemed like it was bikers for 20 years,” she reflected. “Before the ’90s, there weren’t tattoo shops everywhere, and there still weren’t many women doing it. And it was even harder for Black people to enter the industry before about 2000.”
One of Gresham’s former colleagues, Annette LaRue, shared a booth with her at the convention. LaRue, who worked with Gresham in New Orleans before tattooing in Virginia, likened working for Gresham to “petting a tiger.”
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“She’s beautiful, exciting, charismatic, and you want to be around her, but she can bite you at any minute,” LaRue commented. “She’s a strong woman, and she’s got strong words.”
Elisheba Mrozik, owner of Queen Bee Ink in Nashville, has not only been tattooed by Gresham but was the first woman to have her “Auntie Jacci” tattooed. Mrozik, pleased to witness Gresham’s enduring popularity, emphasized that Gresham deserves respect and recognition for her contributions to the industry.
Though initially wary of the snowy journey to Philly, Gresham found solace in Beck’s Cajun Cafe at Reading Terminal Market, where she savoured some of the best Cajun food she’d ever had. Considering a few more shows this year, Gresham is concurrently constructing a tattoo studio in a treehouse in Picayune. She intends to spend more time there, relishing the tranquillity of country life and welcoming visitors.
“I am old, and I appreciate the peace of the country life,” she concluded. “So maybe people can come see me.”