America's First Black Female Tattoo Artist Smudged The Lines Of Segregation
For the longest time in America, getting a tattoo was predominantly a white thing. Not because other ethnicities were too classy to get butterfly tats on their lower backs but because the biker-friendly, working-class tattoo artists of yore were just as racist as the next white guy. Minorities and women simply weren't welcome on both sides of the scary needle machine. But that changed when one African American woman stood up and declared that from now on, everyone, no matter the color of their skin, would enjoy the privileged mistake of getting a tattoo of a skeleton flipping off a judge.
Born in 1951, Jacci Gresham bled ink from the moment she could get it on her skin. For her first tat, she traveled all the way to San Fransisco to get inked by none other than Ed Hardy, purveyor of iconoclastic tattoos and douchey T-shirts. After that first brush with the needle, Gresham started creating bold tattoo art of her own.
Then, as one of only five professional female tattoo artists in the entire US of A, Gresham moved to New Orleans to make history. In 1976, she opened Aart's Accent Tattoos & Body Piercings, the first female-owned tattoo parlor in the country and also the oldest running one in the state, with the official slogan: "Look better naked, get a tattoo."
Of course, Gresham had to overcome as many racist tattoo gatekeepers and their poorly drawn barbed wire as you'd expect for a black woman trying to break into a marginalized white male industry. But by persevering, she developed revolutionary new techniques that almost single-handedly dragged the American tattoo industry out of the not dark enough age.
Before Jacci, even when a black person could find a tattoo artist willing to work on them, the results were often disappointing. Much like with lighting in photography, knowing how to properly ink darker skin tones is a skill all on its own (one the previously mentioned racist tattoo artists were in no rush to develop). Gresham is considered the "pioneer" of making good art on black skin, her presence not just making the industry more accessible to minority and female artists but the African American community at large.
But unlike her predecessors, Gresham never discriminates. White or black, she'll ink up anyone who wants it -- any way that they want. From the most beautifully artistic ...
To the most trailer trashiest of tats ...
She once even obliged a Ku Klux Klan member who asked her for a tattoo (one I hope secretly reads "I'm a hypocrite asshole" in Celtic). "We do quite a cross-section of people," the now 72-year-old Greshaw declares proudly. "I have black artists, white artists, Spanish artists. And people are looking for the art. They're not looking at the who actually did the work." But they really should be doing both, since Jacci Gresham embodies everything that her tattoos are: artistic, life-changing, and badass.
For more weird tangents but no pics of tattoos, you can follow a needle-phobic Cedric on Twitter.
Top Image: aartaccenttat2 via Instagram