Britain’s First Female Tattooist: Jessie Knight

On the surface, Jessie Knight might have appeared an unlikely candidate to pioneer women tattooing in Britain, particularly at a time where tattooing was slandered as being only for ‘whores’ or sailors. The stories say that Jessie was a mere 4 foot tall, standing on delicate size two feet with her hair fashioned into a bun held together by two chopsticks, perhaps adding a little height to her demeanour. This description was how Jessie Knight was said to have looked on the night she shot her abusive husband; revenge for kicking her beloved dog down the stairs.

Jessie Knight, with her family crest tattooed on her back.

Born in 1904, Jessie was the daughter of a sailor, who is said to have tattooed during his time on the seas and around the ports in England. Creativity was entwined in Jessie’s heritage, being bred from a lineage of artists, poets and performers. Jessie’s mother was a long-term alcoholic and her father had a wanderlust for adventure. With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that the Knight family, quite literally, ran away with the circus.

In the circus, Knight was enlisted as her father’s sharpshooter dummy. Jessie quickly outgrew this role (having allegedly been shot twice whilst performing) and moved on to become a circus stunt-woman — bareback horse riding and becoming nifty with pistols as a markswoman. The circus, coupled with her father’s mariner background, would have exposed Jessie to the world of tattooing. Many tattooed people performed as circus freaks in the 20th century, as tattooing at the time was tainted as a mark of criminality or deviance.

American Betty Broadbent, who was made famous by travelling with the Ringling Brothers & Cole Brothers circuses. Betty displayed over 350 tattoos by Charlie Wagner.

Not one to abide by social constructs and expectation, Jessie Knight, sure enough started tattooing for a living by the time she was 18. Jessie was mentored by Charlie Bell in Chatham, Kent, before moving to her own tattoo shops in Portsmouth and subsequently Aldershot. Eventually, Jessie returned to Barry to continue tattooing in her hometown until the 1980's.

Speaking to The Guardian, Jessie’s nephew Neil Hopkins-Thomas said:

It was shocking to people. She was very forward-thinking and ahead of her time. She used to read saucy books to the kids in the family to wind the parents up. She came back to settle in Barry, Wales, when she was in her 60s and turned up with a 30-year-old toyboy on her arm. She was a character, full of stories and adventures.

It wasn’t all plain sailing for Jessie, though. Others in the tattoo industry branded Jessie a whore and spread rumours that her equipment wasn’t sterilised —hearsay that would be enough to put people off going to her. As more people started to find out about Jessie Knight and her work, her shops were burgled with work being tarnished and stolen. After countless break-ins, Jessie was forced to enlist a bodyguard who would accompany her to each bank visit.

An archive image of Jessie tattooing a customer. Further into her career, a majority of Jessie’s clients were women.

Come 1955, Jessie was entering her tattoos in competitions. A depiction of a highland fling across a sailor’s back earned her second place in the Champion Artist of All England competition. Her nephew remains adamant that she only received second place because she was a woman. The first place was, of course, awarded to a man.

The back-piece that won Jessie 2nd place.

In a similar fashion to Pamela Nash, Jessie Knight spent her later years living a reserved life in Barry until her death in 1994.

She never used to shout about her career from the rooftops. I think people looked at her and thought: ‘there’s that strange woman,’ not knowing what she had done in her life. They were always absolutely gobsmacked when they found out.
Some of Jessie Knight’s flash, currently displayed at Cornwall’s National Maritime Museum. Photograph: Paul Abbitt.

Perhaps overshadowed by the likes of Maud Wagner and America’s well-documented, rich tattoo history, Jessie Knight and her turbulent story became somewhat lost and forgotten. Recently, though, Jessie has been picked back up in popular culture.

In 2017 alone, Jessie Knight was featured in an article in The Guardian, was the muse behind Tatty Devine’s latest jewellery collection and even appeared on the BBC.

A portion of Jessie’s work has been resurrected in the exhibition ‘Tattoo: British Tattoo Art Revealed’ at The National Maritime Museum, Cornwall. The exhibition is on until January 7th, 2018.

Photo by Paul Abbitt.
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