Tattoo like a lady: With a fake arm and an ink gun, Syracuse artist explores history of female tattooists

The main characters of Jamie Santos’ Saturday art lecture included four of the world’s pioneering female tattoo artists, and a silicon arm named “Armothy.”

Santos is an artist and the owner of Eastwood tattoo parlor “Three of Swords,” which she runs with two other women. Sunday she packed up her tattoo guns, inks and fake arm she uses for demonstrations, and headed to the Everson Museum of Art to teach a class about early 20th century female tattoo artists.

“The late 1800s was a really good time for tattooing,” said Santos. “The female tattoo artists that came out of (that era) were a lot of circus performers. They worked in vaudeville, or they worked the circus as tattooed ladies.”

Recently tattoo art has graced the bright, clean halls of curatorial institutions like the Everson, the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but it was first a practice in the carney and barbershop circuits.

The women who broke into those male-dominated circles had to be tough, said Santos.

“They’re gruff old ladies,” she said.

Tattoo Everson

Tori Haag draws a “flash sheet” at the “Tattoo Like a Lady” event at the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, NY Nov. 11, 2022

For women, the modern art form began with “tattooed ladies,” she explained, while attendees to the class studiously copied fleurs de lis onto tracing paper. Those women were sideshows in circuses and dime shows, and disappeared as exhibitionist or sexually deviant, she said.

They were, however, paid nicely, sometimes making $100 to $200 a week compared to the average family’s $6 to $10.

The first American woman to pick up the needle herself was Maud Stevens Wagner, born 1877 in Emporia, Kansas. She ran away to the circus when the was 19 to work as an aerialist and contortionist, then married the heavily tattooed Gus “The Globe Trotter” Wagner, and soon sported her own ink. She started doing others’ tattoos in 1907.

Electric tattooing started up in the late 1800s, said Santos. It was much different than the sterile set up she had organized on a table next to Armothy, the arm. Santos had black surgical gloves, antiseptic and packages of tattoo needles.

Tattoo Everson

“Tattoo Like a Lady” event at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY Nov. 11, 2022.

Artists like Wagner had communal buckets of Lysol to dump their needles into between customers. They might have hooked the tattoo machines directly into the wall circuitry. They had often dirty or poisonous ink. Infection was not unusual.

But many forms of tattoo still exist today, said Santos. Enter her second featured artist: Whang-od-Oggay, an Indigenous Kalinga tattoo artist in the Philippines mountains, born circa 1917. She’s still alive and is teaching young people the beautiful beehive-pattern Kalinga tattoo art.

Oggay’s ink is a mix of charcoal and water that is tapped into the skin using a thorn from a citrus tree. Her tattoos are legendary, explained Santos, and in 2017 she was nominated for the National Living Treasure Award.

Santos’ own art is grounded in traditional and new traditional American tattoo art; it echoes the biker tattoo art of the ’70s. She went to college for design and science but dropped out to become a tattoo artist around 2003. She’s owned Three of Swords for three years.

There are more female or non-binary tattoo artists and parlor owners today than there were 20 years ago, she said. And more people have tattoos: 30% of Americans, according to a 2019 Ipsos poll. Roughly half are women.

Tattoo Everson

Kiara Mignone and Natalie Liu hold up their flash sheets at the “Tattoo Like a Lady” event at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY Nov. 11, 2022.

Santos isn’t specifically a tattoo historian, but it’s hard to ignore the influence of these women on the tattoo world. She started digging through books and archives to find out more.

“It’s actually disappointing how little of their flash I can actually find,” said Santos.

The first female tattoo artist in New York, Mildred “Millie” Hull, worked out of a barbershop in the Manhattan’s flophouse-lined Bowery neighborhood. She started when she was 16, said Santos, and worked from the 1920s to 1940s.

“She was a little bullied by the dudes in the area,” said Santos. “She sort of said, f*** you, I’m going to do what I’m going to do anyway. You’re not going to make money off of me. I’m going to do it myself.”

Hull made about $300 a week, said Santos.

“Not only were these ladies doing whatever they wanted, they were making bank doing it.”

Santos circled around the room, checking out attendees’ in-progress “flash sheets,” the piece of paper with original designs that tattoo artists use to exhibit their work in tattoo parlors. It takes several layers of sketches and tracing paper to hand-draw a design, so a lot of modern artists will draw on the computer or an iPad.

But the paper process is traditional, said Santos, and the best for training.

Tattoo Everson

A photo of Jacci Grisham. “Tattoo Like a Lady” event at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY Nov. 11, 2022.

Her final featured female tattoo artist, Jacci Gresham, only just semi-retired from her storied shop in New Orleans after the building was sold and she had to close. She’s the first female African American artist to break into the tattoo world.

In the ’70s her boyfriend was a tattoo artist, and she became interested in the art from him. But he didn’t want to tattoo women and she did, so Grisham quickly split off on her own.

These four women, and more, paved the way for female artists, said Santos. They made their mark.

She finished the final turquoise strokes on Armothy’s swallow tattoo, and turned to the class, which was mostly young women.

“How many of you have tattoos?” she asked.

Everyone raised a hand.

Jules Struck writes about life and culture in and around Syracuse. Contact her anytime at jstruck@syracuse.com or on Instagram at julesstruck.journo.

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