In a very male-dominated world, tattooist Jessie Knight was breaking boundries back in the Forties. Ahead of an exhibition honouring her work, Alice Snape, author of Tattoo Street Style, shares her extraordinary story.
The following poem is a glimpse into the mind of Britain’s first female tattoo artist Jessie Knight, who wrote it in her diary back in the Forties.
“I’ve tattooed here, I’ve tattooed there,
I’ve tattooed nearly everywhere.
They call me this, they call me that,
They call me a vampire and a nasty cat.
But a Tattoo Artist I’ll always be…”
Knight’s gender made her an outsider in the industry she chose to work in, and her career made her an outsider in a world that saw tattoos as transgressive – and certainly not for women.
Born into an eccentric family in Croydon in 1904, Knight was the granddaughter of famous poet and journalist, EA Lempriere Knight, and the eldest of eight children. Among other things, her father was a sailor and tattooist, and her mother an alcoholic who spent most of her days in bed nursing a hangover.
From a young age, Knight took on the role of parent to her younger siblings as her family travelled across the UK – her father thought it would be fun to join the circus.
Perhaps these are a couple of the reasons Knight went on to become such a radical trailblazer. She was someone who was unafraid to step outside the prescribed stereotypes of her era. Daring and brave, the teenage Jessie even became her father’s sharpshooter dummy (rumour has it, she was accidentally shot twice) before being promoted to stuntwoman, a role which saw her ride horses bareback.
In 1921, when she was just 18 years old, Knight started tattooing for a living. She had taken over her father’s tattoo shop in Barry, south Wales, when he went off to sea.
While women were expected to get married, have babies and look after their homes, Knight was a young woman in the Twenties running her own business in the very male-dominated tattoo world. Unafraid of pushing boundaries, she was ahead of her time.
Holding her own
Knight sold herself on her business cards as “The World Famous Jessie Knight: Expert Freehand Lady Tattoo Artist”. In fact, she went on to open a number of tattoo shops, and tattooed up until the Eighties. When Knight was in her 60s, a client she tattooed remembers her lighting a match and holding out a flame to demonstrate her steady hand.
In 1955, she entered a huge Highland fling tattoo she had created on a sailor’s entire back into the Champion Tattoo Artist of All England competition. Knight would have been the only woman in the competition, and she came second. Perhaps in a different world, the crown would have been hers, but of course, it went to a man.
Her success didn’t come easy, and as she attracted more customers to her door, her reputation was often slandered. Rivals accused her of not cleaning her needles, something her great grandnephew Neil Hopkins-Thomas says couldn’t be further from the truth. “She even used to bathe in Dettol,” he tells me.
Her shops were broken into and her work stolen, so Knight became very secretive. She closely guarded her work in a trunk, which she sat on top of while she tattooed, so no one could steal her money or her designs.
Many of the men who walked into her shops over the years were drunk, and lots made advances and sexually harassed her. But she had a quick wit and a good sense of humour. She also made several signs to display, warning people not to swear or drink alcohol while in her company. Tattooist Raye Collison worked with her for a while in the Sixties in Portsmouth.
“Sometimes men would come into the shop and ask to get tattooed by me instead,” he explains. “But she was tough enough to take it. If someone gave her lip, she would tell them where to get off.”
Knight’s style of tattooing tells her story too. Her male counterparts drew big-breasted women with blank expressions, but the women Knight drew were very different. Their faces had real expression, they were strong and full of character. Some could even have based on herself: strong women riding horses bareback, wielding guns and dancing.
We still live in a world where women can be judged entirely based on their appearance, so imagine what it would have been like for Knight. To counter any stigma, she carefully curated her own look each morning. Her hair always immaculately styled, and she often wore a suit while she worked.
Tattoos, of course, had an unsavoury reputation in the first half of the 20th century, and were often associated with criminals. So Knight’s own tattoos were thoughtfully considered. Most of those she chose to wear on her own body could be easily concealed by her clothes. Unsurprising perhaps, considering that even now, women are often objectified and sexualised for the tattoos on their body. Concerned about her reputation, Knight didn’t want others to judge her.
She had her family crest tattooed by her father onto her back, a cross on her shoulder and a spider’s web on her belly. The only tattoos on her hand were little dots. She used these to test her colours before she tattooed them onto her customers – she later turned those into a bumble bee.
Although Knight was breaking down barriers, life was tough and she didn’t always get everything she wanted. She married at 27, but her husband didn’t approve of her tattooing and made her give it up. During their seven-year marriage, he abused her and Knight suffered several miscarriages, meaning she never had children of her own.
The final straw came when Knight’s husband kicked her beloved dog down the stairs, prompting her to shoot him with a gun she’d been given in a tattoo trade. He didn’t die, but the relationship did, and Knight went back to what she loved most: making tattoos.
Unfortunately, as is the case for many pioneering woman, Knight’s story was forgotten for several decades. Her legacy was buried underneath the more well-documented tales of her male counterparts – men like Les Skuse (born 1912) and Cash Cooper (born 1927), who became legends in the British tattooing industry.
After Knight’s death in 1992, the contents of the trunk she had so carefully guarded over the years was put in the loft and forgotten about – until recently. Her work is now being celebrated in a huge touring tattoo exhibition.
“Jessie kept safe a wealth of the industry’s history,” explains Derryth Ridge, co-curator of the exhibition from National Maritime Museum Cornwall. “Jessie’s story is so captivating, she’s a true pioneer and a modern feminist icon.” Finally, Knight is being recognised as the influential tattoo artist she always was.
Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed is currently touring the UK and is now on display at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard before it moves to Scotland and then Bristol.
Main image: Getty. Other images: from the collection of Neil Hopkins-Thomas