Born in Croydon in 1904, Britain’s first female tattooist Jessie Knight was the eldest of eight children and granddaughter of writer E.A Lempriere Knight. Her father Leonard travelled the world as a sailor for five years, before settling down in London and marrying Ethel Rice in 1901. After witnessing electric tattooing in the US, he began working as a professional tattoo artist in 1902. A few years later he was approached by showman Charlie Bell, who wanted him to tattoo a young girl he managed. Bell had persuaded her to become a tattooed lady and later became a tattooist himself, so they could both earn money in traveling shows.
Having learnt to shoot on his travels, Leonard Knight also decided to join the circus, alongside tattooing. His family travelled with him along the coastal towns and cities of the south-east and Jessie was recruited into her father’s act in her teens. She started out as his sharpshooter dummy and is rumoured to have been shot twice during their show. She then performed as a stuntwoman in her own right, riding horses bareback and later toured as a side act with her brother, a lasso artist. However, her real passion was not performing, but tattooing.
While living in Wales at the age of 17, Jessie learnt the tattoo trade from her father, who tattooed their family crest on her back. Later, she also had a spider tattooed on her thigh and several smaller tattoos on her shoulders and arms. In 1921, when he went back to sea, Jessie took over his tattoo shop in Barry when she was just 18. Both her age and gender surprised many of her clients, but she continued pursuing her interest regardless. Described by her great-nephew Neil Hopkins-Thomas, as “always drawing”, Jessie later apprenticed under her father’s old friend Charlie Bell in Chatham, Kent, to hone her skill.
At the time Jessie was starting out in her career, tattoos were not widely accepted in Britain. Popular with the upper classes in the late Victorian period, Sutherland Macdonald’s invention of the electric tattoo machine made the tattoo process much quicker and cheaper. A 1926 article in Vanity Fair highlighted how the tattoo trend had: “passed from the savage to the sailor, and from the sailor to the landsman, and is now found beneath many a tailored shirt.” However, this may have led to the negative stigma which surrounded tattoos by the early-mid twentieth-century. Art historian Dr Matt Lodder explains: “one of the potential drivers for the tattoo’s fall from grace may well have been this opening up to people with less means.”
In fact, Jessie’s own husband didn’t approve of her profession. Married at the age of 27, she temporarily stopped tattooing at his request. However, he was abusive and Jessie sadly suffered six miscarriages in as many years of marriage. Their relationship ended after he kicked her beloved dog down the stairs and she furiously shot at and injured him with a gun she’d been given in trade for a tattoo. Soon after, Jessie opened her first tattoo shop in Aldershot in 1936, where she tattooed both soldiers and civilians throughout the Second World War. In an interview with the Yorkshire Post in 1940, George Burchett aka “The King of Tattooists” spoke of a tattoo revival during wartime. He claimed that in his forty year career, he had never known such a demand for tattoos than that which existed amongst the troops.
A pioneer of the industry, Jessie Knight was the first and only female tattooist to work professionally in Britain for over forty years, until Winnie Ayres started working alongside her in the 1960s. During her career, Jessie ran studios in Barry, Aldershot and Portsmouth. She was affectionately nicknamed “Guiseppina”, an Italian variant of Josephine, by her seafaring clients. Her flash sheets were drawn out in coloured pencil and included a variety of traditional designs, such as butterflies, serpents, peacocks, eagles, ships and floral motifs. Jessie’s bold artwork stood out at a time when traditional tattoos was still quite simple. The women she drew were full of character, in contrast to the typical big-breasted, cartoon-like women with blank expressions designed by many of her male counterparts.
Jessie worked without stencils and branded herself as “The World Famous Jessie Knight: Expert Freehand Lady Tattoo Artist” on her business cards. Margo Demello, author of Inked: Tattoos and Body Art Around the World, explains how Jessie’s unique freehand method involved dipping a matchstick in ink and then drawing designs directly onto her client’s skin before tattooing them. She also reportedly designed and made her own tattoo machines from doorbell mechanisms.
In 1955, Jessie Knight won second place in London’s “Champion Tattoo Artist of All England” competition for a colourful highland fling design. The piece was created for a sailor who wanted a permanent reminder of his Scottish homeland. Coming runner-up in such a competition was no mean feat for a woman during the fifties. In an article for Total Tattoo magazine, Margot Mifflin explains that at the time, there were probably only five full-time female tattooists working across the US and Europe combined, making Jessie’s achievement even more impressive.
Despite being an outsider in the industry, Jessie had her designs stolen several times as she became more renowned. In order to protect her artwork, she stored it in a chest which she sat on whilst tattooing. Her popularity was so far reaching, that according to her family, Jessie received letters of marriage proposal from men all over the world. However, having dealt with harassment and drunk men while running her shops, she was witty and certainly no push over. In an interview for the One Show, her old colleague Raye Collinson recalled how: “She was tough enough to take it. She was never afraid… She’d look at you and you’d know she meant what she said.”
In 1968, Jessie moved back to Barry to look after her brother’s house while he was at sea. Although now retired, she continued tattooing friends and family in her home until the 1980s. Ever the professional, at the age of 65 Jessie lit a match and held out the flame to prove to one of her clients that she still had a steady hand despite her age.
Jessie Knight died in 1992 at the age of 88. Her great-nephew Neil, who recalls her wicked sense of humour, inherited her large collection of artwork and tattoo memorabilia. Amongst it was this poem, written in the 1940s, which wonderfully demonstrates her daring character:
“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.”
A strong, forward-thinking woman who broke down barriers and pursued her passion despite her critics, Jessie Knight was a true feminist icon. As Britain’s first female tattooist, she set the standard for the next generation of tattoo artists and left a lasting legacy on the industry.
Jessie Knight’s collection is currently being showcased as part of the “Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed” exhibition at the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth until 8th March 2020.
Margo Demello, Inked: Tattoos and Body Art Around the World Vol. 1: A-L, ABC-CLIO, California, 2014, 343-344.
Margot Mifflin, “Jessie Knight”, Total Tattoo, May 2013, 76.
“Tattooing the Troops,” Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligence, Monday 20 May 1940.