Women who shaped modern tattooing – Jessie Knight

Jessie Knight, Britain’s first female tattoo artist 

Jessie Knight tattooing

Newspaper clipping of Knight tattooing service women during WW II

Hailing from a lineage of counterculture artists, Jessie Knight was one of the most celebrated tattoo artists of her time. Born in Croydon in 1904, Jessie was one of eight siblings, and the granddaughter of the famous poet and journalist EA Lempriere Knight. 

Jessie’s entire family literally ran away with the circus, moving up and down the coast. Consequently, her career began as her father’s sharp-shooting dummy for his circus act entailing pistols and live ammunition. In which he allegedly shot her twice in the shoulder during rehearsals. She then transitioned into a circus stuntwoman, and later went on to rising horses bareback for show, as well as shooting targets herself. 

Family business

The family eventually left the circus to settle down in Barry, Wales, where her father set up a tattoo shop. When he hung up his tattoo gun Jessie, who had always been drawing creatively and engaged in her father’s work, took over the studio. She was 18 at the time.

Jessie’s work quickly grew in popularity and renown, but she gave up tattooing at 27. She was getting married, and her husband didn’t approve… The same husband turned out to be not merely an idiot but also violent and abusive. The marriage ended when the former sharpshooter’s daughter shot and injured her spouse 8 years later. Jessie had traded the gun for a tattoo from one of her clients, to keep protection. The final straw came when he kicked her dog down the stairs. Certainly, with all her firearm training, it is safe to say she did not aim to kill, as her husband got away with minor wounds.  

Returning to the tattoo trade

After her divorce, Jessie took up the tattoo trade again. Once more she became a popular and sought after artist, something her rivals did not take kindly to. They began to slander her, calling her a whore and spreading rumours that she did not sterilise her equipment. Her shops would get broken into and her artwork stolen. Furthermore, she was robbed a couple of times, and at one point had to hire a bodyguard that would escort her to the bank to deposit her earnings.

Jessie Knight Highland fling tattoo

The Highland Fling tattoo that Jessie entered the All England competition with in 1955. Photo: The Jessie Knight Archive

In 1955, Jessie was awarded second place in Champion Artist of All England competition with a back piece with a colour motive of a highland fling. Many believe she should have gotten first place, and would have done so had she been a man. She went on to set up tattoo shops in Portsmouth and Aldershot, before returning to Barry and Wales in her 60s. Apparently along with a 30-year old boyfriend. She continued tattooing from her home right up into her 80s. 

Jessie’s own words

Jessie Knight passed away in 1992, at 88 years of age. Her gender made her an outsider in her chosen field, and her career made her an outsider in a gendered society. Because of this she is considered by many a feminist icon, but

her surviving relatives don’t believe she thought of herself that way.  She just really loved tattooing and wasn’t going to let a small thing like a male-dominated industry get in her way. 

In her diary Jessie wrote:

“I am a tattoo artist, as such I won my fame,

“And I’ve certainly covered a lot of ground

“In the old skin diggin’ game.

“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.

“If it’s good enough for others

“Then it’s good enough for me.

“That ole skin diggin’, gets my bread,

“So I’ll go on diggin’ till I’m dead.”