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Britain's First Female Tattoo Artist and the History of Women in Britain's Tattoo Scene

Britain's First Female Tattoo Artist and the History of Women in Britain's Tattoo Scene

If you are looking for a tattoo in London, you might be interested in learning more about the history of women in Britain's tattoo scene. Did you know that Britain's first female tattoo artist was a circus star, a sharp shooter, and a royal favourite? Her name was Jessie Knight, and she was a trailblazer in the male-dominated artform of tattooing. In this blog post, we will explore her fascinating life story, as well as the evolution of women's tattoos in Britain from ancient times to the present day.

The Painted Ones: Tattoos in Ancient Britain

Tattooing has been part of British culture for thousands of years. The name for Britain comes from the ancient Celtic word "Pretani", meaning the "painted" or the "tattooed" ones. The early Britons used woad, a plant that produces a blue dye, to create intricate patterns on their skin. They believed that tattoos enhanced their appearance, protected them from evil spirits, and made them more fearsome in battle.

When the Romans invaded Britain in 55 BC, they were astonished by the sight of the tattooed natives. Julius Caesar wrote in his account of the Gallic Wars: "All the Britons dye themselves with woad, which produces a blue colour, and makes their appearance in battle more terrible." The Romans also adopted the practice of tattooing, but mostly for slaves, criminals, and soldiers. Tattoos became a mark of identity, belonging, or punishment.

The Royal Seal of Approval: Tattoos in Victorian Britain

Tattoos experienced a revival in popularity in Victorian Britain, thanks to the influence of explorers, sailors, and royals who travelled to exotic lands and brought back souvenirs on their skin. One of the most famous tattooed royals was George V, who got a blue and red dragon on his arm during his visit to Japan in 1881. He was following the example of his predecessors Edward VII and Alfred Duke of Edinburgh, who also had Japanese tattoos.

The news of George V's tattoo sparked a craze among the wealthy aristocrats, who saw tattoos as a sign of status, rebellion, and fashion. They hired Japanese artists to ink them with elaborate designs of flowers, animals, and symbols. They also chose discreet locations for their tattoos, such as the chest, back, or legs, so that they could hide them under their clothes when needed. Tattoos became a secret form of self-expression for the upper class.

The Radical Pioneer: Jessie Knight

Among the tattoo enthusiasts of the Victorian era was Jessie Knight, Britain's first female tattoo artist. She was born in 1904 in Croydon, South London, into a family of circus performers. She learned how to tattoo from her father, who was also a sailor and a poet. She started tattooing professionally when she was 18 years old, working in Barry, South Wales.

Jessie Knight was not only a talented artist, but also a daring stuntwoman. She performed as a sharp shooter, a horse rider, and a pistol spinner in various circuses. She also had a rebellious spirit and a strong sense of justice. She once shot her abusive husband in the leg for kicking her dog down the stairs. She divorced him soon after and resumed her tattooing career.

Jessie Knight became one of the most renowned tattoo artists of the early 20th century. She moved to Portsmouth and then Aldershot, where she opened her own shops and attracted clients from all walks of life. She was especially popular among women, who appreciated her gentle touch and feminine style. She worked freehand after drawing the design onto the body with a pencil. She created original designs of flowers, birds, butterflies, fairies, and portraits.

Jessie Knight also won several awards for her work. In 1955, she won second prize in the Champion Tattoo Artist of All England competition held in London. She was the only woman among 70 contestants. She continued working until the 1980s, when she retired to Barry. She died in 1992 at the age of 88.

Jessie Knight's legacy lives on through her designs, which are now part of several exhibitions and collections. She is also an inspiration for many women who want to pursue their passion and break stereotypes in the tattoo industry.

The Modern Revolution: Tattoos in Contemporary Britain

Tattoos have undergone many changes and challenges in Britain over the years. After the Second World War, tattoos were associated with criminality, deviance, and low class. They were also outlawed in many states in the US. However, in the 1970s, tattoos regained popularity thanks to the feminist movement, which embraced tattoos as a form of empowerment, liberation, and beauty. Women started to get tattoos that reflected their identity, personality, and values.

Today, tattoos are more accepted and diverse than ever. According to a 2015 survey, 19% of British adults have at least one tattoo, and women are more likely to have tattoos than men. Tattoos are also more visible and creative, covering various parts of the body and featuring different styles, colours, and meanings. Tattoos are no longer a taboo, but a way of expressing oneself and celebrating one's individuality.


Tattoos have a long and rich history in Britain, dating back to the ancient times. They have been influenced by various cultures, events, and people, such as the Celtic Britons, the Japanese artists, and the royal family. One of the most remarkable figures in the history of British tattoos is Jessie Knight, the first female tattoo artist in the UK. She was a pioneer in her field, creating beautiful and original designs for her clients. She also defied the norms of her time, being a circus performer, a stuntwoman, and a divorcee.

Tattoos are now more popular and diverse than ever in Britain, especially among women. They are a form of art, expression, and empowerment. Whether you want to get a tattoo or not, you can appreciate the beauty and meaning behind them.

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