Did you know that there’s only one artist left in the world that still practices the ancient Filipino tattoo method of batok, or that one of the earliest known female tattoo artists in the United States got her start way back in the early 1900s? Tattoo history is one that spans across cultures, centuries, and styles, and while it’s absolutely fascinating to learn about key players like Charlie Wagner and Samuel O’Reilly, we also want to learn about the female artists that helped to shape tattoo history throughout the years. While they’re often overlooked for their contributions, female artists have always played a key role in tattoo culture, and we think it’s about time they’re shown the recognition they deserve.
Millie Hull: Millie Hull was the only female tattoo artists on the Bowery at the turn of the century, and is widely credited as the mother of modern tattooing in America. Learning to tattoo under Charlie Wagner, Hull even owned her own shop front, tattooing sailors, gangsters, and the like. Had Hull never picked up a machine, who knows what might have become of modern tattooing?
Jesse Knight: After a brief stint in the circus, Jesse Knight became Britain’s only female tattoo artist sometime during the 1920s. Learning to tattoo under Charlie Bell, Knight tattooed up until 1963. While Knight’s work might not have received the widespread recognition it deserved at the time, she pioneered a way for female British artists that can still be felt to this day.
Whang-od Oggay: As the last practicing batok style artist left in the world, Whang-od Oggay’s efforts in preserving this ancient practice are essential to not only her culture, but its history. Using a pomelo thorn attached to the end of a stick, Oggay taps a combination of charcoal and water into the skin to create tribal patterns. At age 97, she continues to shed a light on her country’s rich tattoo traditions.
Shanghai Kate: “Shanghai” Kate Hellenbrand may not have wings and a magic wand (unless you regard her machine as such), but she’s widely credited as the tattoo community’s godmother. Apprenticing under the one and only Sailor Jerry in 1971, Hellenbrand was one of the only female tattoo artists at the time, paving the way for the countless female artists to come.
Kat Von D: When Miami Ink first came on to the scene in 2007, tattoos were popular within counterculture, but not necessarily recognized as a legitimate art form among the mainstream. By bringing tattoo art into the homes of nearly every American household, Von D helped create a dialogue around the long controversial art of tattooing.
It's taken a little while to get here, but thanks to the tireless efforts of pioneering women like these, modern female artists are finally getting the recognition they deserve.