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

Jamie Santos’ art talk on Saturday included four of the world’s pioneering female tattoo artists and a silicone arm called “Armothy”.

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

“The late 19th century was a really good time for tattooing,” Santos said. “The tattoo artists that came out of that era were a lot of circus performers. They worked in vaudeville or worked in the circus as tattooed ladies.’

Tattoo art has recently graced the bright, clean halls of curatorial institutions like the Everson, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but at first it was a practice in the Carney and Barbershop circles.

Women who penetrated male-dominated circles had to be tough, Santos said.

“They’re tough 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 on November 11, 2022

For women, the modern art form began with “tattooed ladies,” she explained, while class participants meticulously copied the fleur de lis onto tracing paper. These women were sideshows in circuses and dime shows and disparaged as exhibitionists or sexual deviants, she said.

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But they were well paid, sometimes earning $100 to $200 a week compared to the average family’s $6 to $10.

The first American woman to pick up a needle herself was Maud Stevens Wagner, born in 1877 in Emporia, Kansas. When she was 19, she ran away to the circus to work as an aerialist and snake woman, then married the heavily tattooed Gus “The Globe Trotter” Wagner and soon began using her own ink. In 1907 she started tattooing others.

Electric tattooing began in the late 1800s, Santos said. It was completely different from the sterile arrangement she had organized on the table next to Armothy’s shoulder. Santos had black surgical gloves, antiseptic and packs of tattoo needles.

Tattoo Everson

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

Artists like Wagner shared buckets of Lysol into which they threw needles among customers. They could hang the tattoo machines directly into the wall circuits. They often had dirty or poisonous ink. Infection was not uncommon.

But many forms of tattooing still exist today, Santos said. Enter her second artist: Whang-od-Oggay, a native Kalinga tattoo artist in the Philippine mountains, born around 1917. She is still alive and teaching young people the beautiful Kalinga beehive tattooing.

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

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Santos’ own art is based on traditional and new traditional American tattoo art; reflects the biker tattoo of the 70s. She studied design and science, but left around 2003 to become a tattoo artist. He has owned the Three of Swords for three years.

Today, she says, there are more female or non-binary tattoo artists and salon owners than there were 20 years ago. 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 their flash sheets at the ‘Tattoo Like a Lady’ event at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY on November 11, 2022.

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

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

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

“The boys in the area were kind of bullying her,” Santos said. “She kind of said, fuck you, I’m going to do what I’m going to do anyway.” You will not make money from me. I’m going to do it myself.’

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Hull made about $300 a week, Santos said.

“Not only did these ladies do what they wanted, they made the bank do it too.”

Santos circled the room looking at participants’ work-in-progress “flash sheets,” a piece of paper with an original design that tattoo artists use to display their work in tattoo parlors. Drawing a design by hand requires several layers of sketches and tracing paper, so many modern artists will draw on a computer or iPad.

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

Tattoo Everson

Photo by Jaccia Grisham. “Tattoo Like a Lady” event at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY on November 11, 2022.

Her last featured female tattoo artist, Jacci Gresham, only partially retired from her famous New Orleans shop after the building was sold and had to close. She is the first African-American artist to break into the world of tattooing.

In the 1970s, her boyfriend was a tattoo artist and she became interested in art from him. But he didn’t want to tattoo women, and she did, so Grisham quickly drifted apart.

These four women and others paved the way for female artists, Santos said. They prevailed.

Finishing the last turquoise strokes on Armothy’s swallow tattoo, she turned to the classroom, which was mostly young women.

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

Everyone raised their hands.

Jules Struck writes about life and culture in and around Syracuse. Contact her anytime at [email protected] or on Instagram at julesstruck.journo.

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