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

Highlights of Jamie Santos’ Saturday art talk include four of the world’s leading female tattoo artists, and a silicon arm called “Armothy.”

Santos is an artist and owner of Eastwood tattoo parlour Three Swords, which she runs with two other women. On Sunday, she packed up her demonstrative tattoo gun, ink and prosthetic arms and headed to the Everson Museum of Art to teach a class on early 20th-century female tattoo artists.

“The late 1800s were a great time for tattoos,” says Santos. “The female tattoo artists that came out (of that era) were a lot of circus performers. They worked in vaudeville, or they were tattooed ladies in circuses.”

More recently, tattoo art has graced the bright, clean halls of curatorial institutions like Everson, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but it first toured Carney and Barbershop.

Women who break into male-dominated circles have to be tough, Santos said.

“They were rude old ladies,” she said.

tattoo everson

Tori Haag draws a ‘flash sheet’ during the ‘Tattoo Like a Lady’ event at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY on November 11, 2022

For women, the modern art form began with “tattooed ladies,” she explained, while class participants deliberately copied lilies onto tracing paper. The women, she said, were circus and dime-show sideshows, relegated to exhibitionists or sexual perverts.

However, they get paid well, sometimes making $100 to $200 a week, compared to the average household income of $6 to $10.

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The first American woman to pick up a needle herself was Maud Stevens Wagner, born in Emporia, Kansas, in 1877. At 19, she went to the circus as a trapeze and contortionist, then married heavily tattooed Gus “The Globe Ranger” Wagner, and soon showed off her ink. She started tattooing others in 1907.

Electric tattoos began in the late 1800s, Santos said. It’s a far cry from the sterile device she’s organizing on the table next to her arm, Armothy. Santos has black surgical gloves, antiseptic and a pack of tattoo needles.

tattoo everson

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

Artists like Wagner had communal Lysol barrels where needles could be poured between patrons. They probably hooked the tattoo machine directly into the wall circuit. They often have dirty or toxic ink. Infections are not uncommon.

But Santos said many forms of tattoos still exist today. Enter her second featured artist: Whang-od-Oggay, an indigenous Kalinga tattoo artist from the Philippine mountains, born circa 1917. She is still alive and teaching young people the art of Kalinga tattoos with beautiful beehive patterns.

Oggay’s ink is a mixture of charcoal and water, infused into the skin using thorns from citrus trees. Santos explained that her tattoos are legendary and in 2017 she was nominated for a National Living Treasure Award.

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

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

tattoo everson

Kiara Mignone and Natalie Liu present their flash table at the “Tattoo Like a Lady” event at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, NY on November 11, 2022.

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

“It’s really disappointing that I can actually find so little sparkle,” Santos said.

New York’s first female tattoo artist, Mildred “Millie” Hull, works at a barber shop in Manhattan’s low-cost Bowery neighborhood. Santos said she started working at the age of 16 and worked from the 1920s to the 1940s.

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

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Santos said Hull makes about $300 a week.

“These ladies are not only doing what they want to do, they are making the bank do it.”

Santos walked around the room, checking out the attendees’ ongoing “flash sheet,” a piece of paper tattoo artists use to display their work in tattoo parlors with original designs. Hand-drawn designs require several layers of sketching and tracing paper, so many modern artists draw on a computer or iPad.

But Santos said the dissertation process is traditional and best suited for training.

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

Her last female tattoo artist, Jacci Gresham, had just semi-retired from the sale of the building at her legendary New Orleans store, which she had to close. She was the first African American female artist to break into the tattoo world.

In the 70s, her boyfriend was a tattoo artist and she became interested in his art. But he didn’t want to tattoo women, and she did, so Grisham soon parted ways of his own.

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

She completed the final turquoise strokes on the Amoshie Swallow tattoo, then turned to the class, which was mostly young women.

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

Everyone raised their hands.

Jules strike Write about life and culture in and around her anytime [email protected] or on Instagram julesstruck.journo.


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