At the beginning of the 20th century few women learned how to tattoo, usually from their husbands. They mostly taught their wives this craft in order to extend their business and gain more customers. Some wives colored the outline their husbands made, while others tattooed directly from the ‘sample book’ from where the client chose their favorite design.
Maud Stevens worked at a circus and met her husband when she agreed to go out with him if he taught her how to tattoo. Maud started what later became a family tradition: “manual” tattooing (aka hand poking). Although she practiced this more like a hobby, Maud would be the first woman tattooer recognized in the recent history. Her daughter, Lotteva also started tattooing at the age of 9. Her last tattoo, at the age of 83, was a rose on Ed Hardy’s skin.
Irene “Bobbie” Libarry was first tattooed by her husband in 1918. In 1930 she learnt to tattoo and even opened her own shop on Market street in San Francisco. She declared for Ms. Magazine in 1971 that she got tattooed “because she realized it would be something of the future”.
Mildred Hull, as opposed to many of the first women who started tattooing in collaboration with their husbands, took this road by herself in 1920, self proclaimed as the “only lady tattooer”. She was both respected and ridiculed for her success in a 25 year career. She declared for Foto Magazine that men will always be jealous if a woman will do just as good as them at a job, and that some of them would actually cut on their prices just so she could lose business. However she had just as many clients (14-15 a day) regardless, because some men prefer to be tattooed by a woman, considering that a woman is more careful. Her shop was behind a barbershop on Bowery street in New York, where for 25 cents you would get a haircut and a shave, a shower or a small tattoo. Her success in one of the roughest neighborhoods in New York city was not only owed to her artistic talents but also because of her street smarts.
Mildred Hull’s British contemporary, Jessie Knight, started tattooing in 1921 when she was just 17. born in Bristol, she learned this art from her sailor father. She pursued tattooing on her own when her father left on a ship to work as a chef. Jessie was, and remained for a long time, the only British female tattoo artist having multiple tattoo shops. In 1955, Jessie won second place at the “Champion Tattoo Artist of All England” competition for a depiction of a highland fling on a sailor’s back.
Nell Bowen. Remarkable among the first female tattooers not just because she managed on her own in a man owned profession, but also because she monopolized the tattoo scene in San Diego during and after the Second World War. She was known as “Painless Nell” and she ran five tattoo parlors, working with her husband and sister. Her style was classic and traditional with bold lines and even bolder fills. Zeke Owen, her direct rival stated that Nell represents “the dawn of the old school tattoo”. Her last shop, located in Point Loma, which was opened in 1947, was bought by Zeke Owen in 1970 and became “Ace Tattoo”.