Look Better Naked: Interview with Tattoo Legend Jacci Gresham

Look Better Naked: Interview with Tattoo Legend Jacci Gresham

In this interview with artist Jacci Gresham, we talk to the first black woman to tattoo and open a tattoo studio in America.

As someone who is an aspiring tattoo artist, the chance to interview the legend Jacci Gresham, a tattoo artist and shop owner in New Orleans, and hear her experience as a seasoned professional, will have an everlasting impression on me. Jacci has been working in the tattoo industry since the 1970’s. She is the first Black woman to start tattooing at that time and the first Black women to have her own tattoo studio in America.

How did you get into tattooing?

It’s basically an accident. I met a guy from England, and he tattooed, and we were up in Detroit. And, basically, I just assisted him for a couple of years, and then we moved down here to New Orleans. 

Oh wow! I didn’t know he was from London. So, what was the tattoo industry like when you first started tattooing?

When I first started tattooing it was probably about...in 1972. And it was just limited to, generally, bikers more so than anything else...dancers, strippers, stuff like that. Your blue collar, white collar workers didn’t get tattoos at that time.

And what was your experience like being an African American woman in a white male dominated industry at that time?

I would say it was the same as for any white woman, because they didn’t want any of us. They didn’t want women doing this, period. I wear tattoos to show people what it can be like...to be honest with you, that’s how I basically learned. I went to all the tattoo artists, the best at the time, and I paid them, and then they would talk to me. That’s how I learned. Because, before, talking to me? You kidding? Nobodies talking to me. Nobodies talking to women. They didn’t want women in the industry. Look how powerful women are now. Beautiful work! Class act. 

It’s really nice to have the women in it...the women make tattoos more personalized, if you wanna know the truth of the matter. A woman’s gonna say to you, “Look I want this tattoo on my back.” Well, a guy, he don’t know nothin about bra straps, or any kind of straps...so he just takes the design, and bam. He puts it right in the middle of where that strap is. But if you ask you girl, “Well, what do you usually wear? How’s this? How’s that?” Because when I’m doing it: I like my tattoos to show. So I need to put them on the inside or the outside of that strapline. So, you’re getting more bang for your buck. You’re doing...I think, we’re all doing...tattoos as a thing of beauty, right? So, I’m just saying..the women think more about that because they’re living it. They’re wearing it. They’re doing it. I try to tell people, you’re getting a tattoo to enhance your body...so that your body and that tattoo work together.

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Interesting. Can you talk about the history of your shop, and why you opened it in New Orleans? Because you’re from Flint, Michigan…

Flint, right. The reason we opened it down here in New Orleans: there was a limited amount of competition. At that time, I believe there was only three shops. And this is a...well, you know, we’re right on the Mississippi River, so this is kind of like a water town. So, you had business and back then, we also had a lot of Navy bases and stuff like that. 

What are your thoughts on the current industry and what do you think of the community in New Orleans?

I think that, today, people have tattoos because other people have tattoos. Also, all people do not know how to tattoo on dark skin; they kinda need to get it together. 

Yeah, I mean I’ve been fortunate enough to find some people to, obviously, work with my skin tone...so, yeah...that’s a huge thing. 

Yeah, what they haven’t learned is bigger is better on darker skin! Bigger, open...it’s better. 

I feel like my first tattoo, or the first year I got it, I remember that was the first thing someone told me. Go big, or go home. I asked my tattooist if we could make it smaller, and that’s what he said, “Go big, or go home.”

Well, they just hold up better over the years. That’s why. 

Yeah. And what do you think about the community of New Orleans?

I think the community in New Orleans is a roller coaster ride because people price tattoos before they talk about the quality of the tattoo. It’s kind of like that Walmart mentality..meaning there's a big difference in buying a dress from China, and buying a dress from New York.  

I like a lot of the youngsters too..they’re impressive. But my problem that I’m having is that most people are...they get a tattoo today. They don’t think about tomorrow. And you need to think about tomorrow, you need to think about a twenty year run. Because, I guess, people think when you get to be like, say, my age, 70, you’re going to forget about what you look like but you gotta look at that tattoo regardless! 

I feel like from our first phone conversation you were saying you were a painter and that it helped you with your work?

Oh yeah, when I went to school, I went for architecture and stuff like that but all of this stuff helps you work on skin. I mean, the skin is the most permanent factor you could probably get. 

Yeah, that’s a good thing you pointed out: you get the tattoo, but you don’t think about twenty years from now. I actually covered up the first tattoo I got. I was 18, and I was just like...Okay, let’s just get it. 

And I’m with you, that’s how people usually do do it! When you’re 18...but you really be getting a tattoo when you’re 45 or 50, because by that time you’re getting scars that you didn’t choose. Like a hip surgery, or knee surgery, or breast cancer. And then you’ve got these scars and a tattoo would be ideal to cover that with. Who wants a scar? I’d rather have a thing of beauty. 

Yeah. Anything else you’d like to add?

Yeah, I’m gonna say this. People with dark skin: get some sunscreen and stay out of the sun! There’s my final statement. Because if you go out in the sun, those tattoos will match your skin...they’ll get as dark. Actually your skin will match the tattoo. Because I’ve been there, done that. When you’re working on black people: big difference. 

A lot of times, I forget. But you really really want to pay attention to that, because look how your skin changes as you age. Because you haven’t taken care of it! And then, for your tattoos, I mean my favorite saying is you’d look better naked, because when you get older and gain 50 pounds, the beauty that you have is the tattoo. 

Yeah, it’s a really good reminder. 

Yeah, I mean, I even need to hear myself say it. Because you don’t think about it! Because we don’t burn...we just get darker and darker. But, like I tell a lot of people, dark skin is some of the harder skin to work with because different parts of your body are different colors, which means you have to work it a different way! That’s what you get when you get old...you get a streak of knowledge! Just a streak...it ain’t the whole thing. 

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