Tattooing has fascinated us for decades. From the tattooed ladies of circus freak shows at the turn of the century through to the (mostly cringey) tattoo-focused reality TV shows of today, it’s clear that we’ve long been captivated by the art form and its history. Unfortunately, when we recall the history of the professional tattoo industry much of it is focused on the contributions of men, often leaving out the many women who also played a major role. In the last two decades—as tattooing has made the shift from a subcultural phenomenon to a mainstream form of body art and self-expression—there has been a resurgence of interest surrounding the history of the art form and thankfully, now more attention is paid to the women involved. With that in mind, we’re taking a look at seven badass women who shaped the modern tattoo industry in the United States and abroad.
1. Nora Hildebrandt (1880s)
Nora Hildebrandt was the first professional tattooed woman in America. The performer came to the US as a working-class immigrant from London, England in search of new opportunity. She found that opportunity by way of her tattoos.
Her journey in the industry began upon meeting Martin Hildebrandt—whose last name she adopted—a famous New York tattooer from the same era. Martin tattooed Hildebrandt with hundreds of distinct designs. Fully inked, she made her professional debut as a tattooed woman in the spring of 1882 and both the tattoo and circus industries would never be the same. She would go on to grace the stages of venues across the globe as a tattooed lady, but her lasting legacy is not her circus performances. According to Amelia Klem-Olstred, author of The History of the Tattooed Lady, her legacy is the way she challenged traditional gender and beauty norms, and opened the tattoo industry up to more women though her work.
In 1889, Hildebrandt married Jacob Gunther, a tattooed barber, Kelm-Olstred explains. The two travelled together, becoming known as one of the most famous tattooed couples. They performed in circus sideshows until Hildebrandt’s sudden death in 1893.
2. Maud Wagner (1900s-1961)
Born in 1876, Maud Wagner was the first known female tattoo artist in America. She began her career working in circus freak shows as an aerialist and contortionist—at a time when she did not have any tattoos. That changed shortly after the 1904 World’s Fair, when Maud met tattooer (and her future husband) Gus Wagner. In Bodies of Subversion, author Margot Mifflin writes that Wagner allegedly traded a date with the tattooer in exchange for a lesson, and in many ways, the rest is history.
The two soon married and Wagner went on to learn the tools of the trade from her husband, eventually becoming a hand poke tattoo artist. Both Wagners were well-known in the tattoo industry because they chose to tattoo exclusively by hand and not with a tattoo machine, as was far more popular at the time. In addition to their work as tattooers, the pair also performed as a tattooed couple act in several circuses, sideshows, and vaudeville houses. Tattooing was their primary passion, though, and Maud Wagner continued to hone her craft for decades. She was a practicing tattoo artist until her death in 1961.
3. Jessie Knight (1900s-1994)
Across the pond, Jessie Knight became the UK’s first well-known woman tattoo artist. Born in 1904 in South London, Knight was the eldest of eight children and was born into a circus family—her father was a circus performer and many of her siblings were also involved in the business. She started tattooing at the young age of 18 and, thanks to her natural talent, quickly began gaining attention and building up a large roster of clients. However, when she married at 27 years old, she quit tattooing because her husband at the time didn’t approve, according to The Guardian.
Knight’s hiatus from tattooing only lasted eight years, though. By the 1940s, she was practicing again and was better than ever, once again becoming a widely sought after artist. She became recognized for her vivid use of color and detail in her designs. In 1955, Knight placed second in the ‘Champion Tattoo Artist of All England’ competition for a back tattoo depicting several Scotsmen performing the Highland Fling. The stunning design featured vivid greens and reds, and is just one example of the signature style that put Knight on the map. She went on to own several successful tattoo shops throughout her life, becoming a trailblazer who helped break down barriers for the women tattooers who would come after her.
In 2017, many of Knight’s flash designs and other historical artifacts from her career were included in an exhibition entitled Tattooed: British Tattoo Art Revealed at the National Maritime Museum in Cornwall. Knight died in 1994, but the brilliance of her work lives on in British tattoo history.
4. Cindy Ray (1960s-2000s)
Australia’s Cindy Ray was one of the last tattooed ladies of the circus era and was known for her confident, badass style. In Bodies of Subversion, Mifflin writes that many images of Ray featured her “reclining on bear rugs and leopard-skin throws, sporting bikinis, [and] batwing glasses.” That confidence and style led her to develop a large following during the peak of her career in the 1960s and 1970s when she performed under names such as “Miss Technicolor” and “The Classy Lassy with the Tattooed Chassis” while working with circuses in New Zealand and Australia.
Before the tattooed woman acts that led her to become a star of the Australian tattoo industry, Ray was a single mother working as a model to make ends meet. That changed when she got her first piece at the age of 19 from the tattooist Danny Bartram. She went on to marry Bartram, who did all of her designs and even taught her how to tattoo. The couple later opened a tattoo studio in Williamsport, located outside of Melbourne. Following the height of her career as a model, Ray switched her focus to tattooing. She continued to work at her shop through her 70s.
5. “Shanghai” Kate Hellenbrand (1970s-present)
It’s not a stretch to say that “Shanghai” Kate Hellenbrand is American tattoo royalty. In the 1970s, she abandoned a budding career as a graphic designer (she worked at an agency on Fifth Avenue in New York) to pursue tattooing and became a protégé of the famous artist Sailor Jerry. Thanks to her artistic background, she was a natural. She has been tattooing her bold American Traditional style designs for the past 40 years, with still no sign of stopping.
In 2014, Hellenbrand told the Star Tribune about how she got her start: “I’d always loved graphic design and working with tools. In the late ‘60s , I helped my boyfriend Michael Malone [also a famed tattooist] with a tattoo exhibit for the Museum of Folk Art. It was illegal then, and very underground. My grandmother used to take me to all the freak shows and make me sit on the giant’s lap and talk to the fat woman. So I grew up with an affection for those living outside the norm. Of course, circus people had a lot of tattoos, but they were colorful in so many other ways—their experiences, their traveling. I’m drawn to the fringes,” she said.
Affectionately referred to as the “godmother of tattooing,” Hellenbrand has enjoyed an incredibly successful career over the past four decades. She has owned tattoo studios all over the world, has been widely featured in the media, and has tattooed numerous celebrities. And at 79 years old, she’s still working. Hellenbrand continues to tattoo at her shop in Austin, Texas, regularly lectures at universities and colleges across the country about the history of tattooing, and is currently writing a book. She is truly a living legend in the tattoo world.
6. Michelle Myles (1990s-present)
Michelle Myles is an OG of the New York tattoo community. The artist first moved to the Big Apple to pursue an education at the Parsons School of Design and eventually found her way to tattooing in 1991, when it was still illegal (tattooing was only legalized in New York in 1997). Myles is now co-owner of Daredevil Tattoo, one of the most respected and sought-after shops in the city. The studio also doubles as a museum—it is home to the Daredevil Tattoo Museum which features over 100 years of artifacts, antique tattoo machines, flash designs, sideshow banners, and more.
Over the past two decades, Myles, who specializes in American Traditional style designs, has tattooed all across the US and abroad. In addition to her tattoo career and her work maintaining the Daredevil Tattoo Museum, she also operates a walking tour of New York’s Bowery neighborhood focused on the community’s illustrious tattoo history.
7. Grace Neutral (2010s-present)
At just 30 years old, Grace Neutral is one of the most well-known artists in the tattoo industry. A classically trained dancer, Neutral performed with the UK’s Royal Ballet until an injury ended her dancing career. It worked out well for the young creative, since it gave her the opportunity to focus on something even more dear to her heart: body modification. In the years since then, Neutral’s career has exploded.
Initially, Neutral began working in the body modification community as a piercer before making the switch to hand poke tattooing. Largely self-taught because no male artists—who still dominate the industry—were willing to teach her, she started tattooing professionally in 2010. Since then, she’s gained a significant social media following thanks to her impressive large-scale ornamental tattoo designs and her stunning personal style (which includes several notable body modifications such as tattooed eyeballs, facial scarification, a bifurcated tongue, and pointed ears).
Widely respected in the industry, Neutral has also been contracted to host several documentaries about tattoos including i-D’s Beyond Beauty and Viceland’s series Needles and Pins, which looks at tattoo culture globally. She is also the founder of Femme Fatale Studio in London, England—a tattoo studio made up entirely of women artists.
Neutral’s tattooing career has involved defying gender stereotypes and championing other female tattooers. It hearkens back to legends such as Hildebrandt, Hellenbrand, Wagner, and countless others. Neutral is where tattooing’s present meets its past as she continues to test the limits and set by her predecessors.