Pioneering Women in Tattooing – Jacci Gresham

The first African American female tattoo artist, Jacci Gresham, is the stuff of legends. A true pioneer and an icon, Gresham is now 72-years old and has been tattooing for over four decades. Her shop, Aart Accent Tattoos & Body Piercing in New Orleans, is Louisiana’s oldest tattoo business still running, and the first one ever opened by a Black woman in the US.  

Not only did Gresham break into a predominantly (to say the least) male industry, but she broke into an overwhelmingly white one. At the time, it was difficult for people of colour to find artists who knew how to work on darker skin, if they were even made to feel welcome in shops, to begin with.

One in only five women tattooing professionally

Originally from Flint, Michigan, Gresham moved to New Orleans from Detroit in 1976. Her travel companion, who had been tattooing previously, had shown her how to use a machine back in 1972. After losing her engineering job at General Motors, she moved to Louisiana and set up shop. 

No formal training, and no tattoos, of her own when she first started out, Gresham broke all the moulds breaking into the industry as a Black woman. At the time, she was one of only five women tattooing professionally in the entire US. 

“At that time women weren’t recognised as tattoo artists,” Gresham told the Denver Channel earlier this year. “So, especially to see a black woman doing tattoos was kind of unusual – to see a woman doing tattoos was unusual.”

From hand-poked to machines and technique

Gresham had previously studied architecture and engineering in college, giving her an eye for detail and construction, along with her artistic streak, and her work soon became incredibly popular. 

“Black people had tattoos in New Orleans, but most of the time they were hand-stuck,” Gresham has said according to Inked Mag. “Part of the problem is, I think, the proprietors were unfriendly to us. When you went to a studio and this biker was sitting there, you could tell he wasn’t happy doing that.”

Breaking down barriers

Her studio, Aart Accent Tattoos & Body Piercing, which runs by the slogan “Look better naked – get a tattoo” has seen thousands of people walks through its doors to get tattooed by its legendary proprietor. Jacci however, in comparison to some of her predecessors, does not discriminate and has even inked a member of the KKK. 

Photo: @aartaccentta2 Instagram

She believes in the power of good pieces of body art to break down cultural and racial barriers. 

“I see it every day here,” Gresham has said. “We do quite a cross-section of people. I have black artists, white artists, Spanish artists. And people are looking for the art. They’re not looking at the who actually did the work.”

Gresham took care of that first tattoo of her own soon enough, and a year after she began tattooing, what was to become an impressive collection was underway. Today, she is so much of an icon that some of her most dedicated clients have even gotten portraits of Gresham herself!