"Women who have been tattooing over 20 years, there ain't a hundred in this country. But they are tattooing now. I think it's good, because women are much more sensitive, or more caring, than men. I think they care more about what they do."
"In Louisiana, you can tattoo at any age as long as the parents consent to it, which is ridiculous ... because kids change, the body changes, the tattoo changes."
"People don't appreciate the skill of the artist. They'll come in at 1 in the morning and they want a deal. But they just left the bar, and the bar didn't give them a deal."
When Jacci Gresham went into business in 1976, she was the first black female tattoo artist not only in New Orleans but in the U.S. The path that led her to owning the oldest tattoo shop in Louisiana — a career that's earned her recognition from some of the most famous artists in the tattoo business — was full of watery U-turns and eraser marks.
"I had no plan," the 67-year-old artist says from behind the desk at her tattoo parlor, Aart Accent Tattoos on North Rampart Street. "I had no thought of ever being a tattoo artist — ever."
A framed photo of a 29-year-old Gresham hangs near her desk. "See me there with the dog?" she says. "There is not a tattoo on me anywhere." Gresham hasn't changed much. She still has a a head of wild hair, though it's graying now. She's tall and has big brown eyes that squint when she laughs, and she wears homemade apron T-shirts with Aart Accent's motto "YEAH! IT HURTS." stitched onto the back. The other motto is "Look Better Naked — Get a Tattoo."
Gresham moved to New Orleans from Detroit when she was 29. That was 38 years ago. She has no regrets.
"The highlight of my whole life is that I get to put a mark on people, and the people are mostly enthusiastic about it," she says. "It's pretty exciting when someone says, 'You know, you did my first tattoo.' And you look at that tattoo and it's as good as some of the work [being done] today."
The tattoos Gresham draws range from realistic portraits of lions with wild manes to bubbly cartoon hearts, honeybees and flowers. She accommodates most requests, though she's known for her ability to tattoo the same way she draws to ensure that what a customer sees on paper won't be far from what ends up on his or her skin. Gresham has distinctive, pretty handwriting, something that's important to people looking to get a loved one's name written across their chests, and the artist's background in architecture has imbued her work with precision even in hard-to-gauge areas of the body. The leg, for example, is curved, so for a line down the calf to look straight, it actually must curve also, she says.
Born in Flint, Michigan, Gresham always liked to draw. She studied architecture and engineering in college and worked for General Motors designing floor plans for car dealerships. She was working at an engineering firm when she met Ajit "Ali" Singh, the man who would become her best friend, at his then-girlfriend's house in Detroit. Gresham was 25 or 26 at the time, and Singh took an immediate liking to her.
"He was cooking Indian curry," she says. "The reason he liked me was because I could eat hot food. I can still eat hot food.
"He was drawing these eagles on the sidewalk, I remember. And I didn't know why. He was drawing them for kids." She asked about the drawings and Singh, who had degrees in engineering and commercial art, told Gresham he was an artist and had learned to tattoo while living in England a few years before.
Gresham and Singh visited New Orleans looking for work in engineering and architecture, but had no luck.
"When we got down here there were only two tattoo shops in New Orleans," Gresham says. "So we thought, 'Hmm.' Actually, he thought, 'Hmm.' I mean, I was just following along." Gresham says she had saved up money and Singh had the skill, so they founded what was then the third tattoo shop in New Orleans.
They opened the shop in 1976 exactly where it is today. Gresham had never given or received a tattoo. She had been sketching and doing pen-and-ink drawings all her life, but she had no experience in the business she was about to enter. The two existing tattoo shops have since closed, making Aart Accent the oldest in New Orleans.
Despite its colorful and appropriately gaudy storefront across Rampart Street from the French Quarter, Aart Accents is tranquil on a Monday afternoon. Drawings of tattoos line the walls so customers can choose a design easily, something Gresham says comes in handy at 3 a.m. At her desk are medical supplies to prevent infections, especially for piercings, which are available in the back of the store.
She and Singh opened a second location on St. Claude Avenue in 1982, but Gresham lost it (and her home) to Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures in 2005 and doesn't plan to reopen it. She now commutes from her home in Picayune, Mississippi.
Singh died in 1995; Gresham now runs the business alone.
"Jacci was ahead of her time in tattooing," says Jim Seawright, who got his first tattoo from Gresham about 25 years ago, when he was 21.
Seawright worked for Gresham as a tattoo artist in the shop for 10 years, an experience he says was unlike any other he's had, where "every day was a different day."
Unlike many artists at the time, Gresham was willing to move beyond the art samples on the walls, Seawright says.
"She was doing tattoos that no one else even thought about doing," he says. "She did portraits of people, animals. That was back in the day when people were still doing hearts with arrows through them."
When Gresham made the transition from sketching in a notebook to drawing on people's bodies, she brought the same art and creativity with her. There were limited colors and shapes available for tattoos back then, Gresham says, and it was rare to find a tattoo artist who could tattoo the way he or she could draw.
"Tattoos at the time were real simple," she says. "They only had about six colors, really. You had your basic colors, your primary colors, but you didn't do a lot of blue, you definitely didn't do a lot of purple. Most of the stuff was red and green, a little bit of orange and yellow. They didn't have all the colors they've got now."
Gresham estimates there currently are 50 or 60 premixed colors, but when she started, you had to order powdered pigment and mix the colors yourself. "You just put, like, some Everclear in it and some pure water and some glycerin in it and you were good to go," she says.
When Gresham had been tattooing for about a year, she flew to San Francisco to be tattooed by the famous Ed Hardy. "I was kind of picking his brain to see what knowledge he had," Gresham says. "He was the one who, in this country, first started doing back pieces and stuff like that."
Hardy drew small red phoenix on Gresham's wrist using a single line of ink, another innovation Gresham introduced to New Orleans.
"He was the first one doing the one-line, single-needle tattoo work," Gresham says. "He was doing a lot of small tattoos. ... It's not popular anymore. In my tattoo, it's got too much detail for a small amount of space. It kind of runs together. Women weren't getting tattoos then, and when they got tattoos, they wanted teeny tiny tattoos. Nobody wanted big tattoos."
Not only were women not getting tattoos, they also weren't giving them. When Gresham opened her shop, there were a total of five female tattoo artists in the U.S.
"Women who have been tattooing over 20 years, there ain't a hundred in this country," she says. "But they are tattooing now. I think it's good, because women are much more sensitive, or more caring, than men. I think they care more about what they do."
Being the only female tattoo artist in New Orleans was a pretty good deal, Gresham says, "because the men are going to come in whether you can tattoo or not. They don't care, not really. They didn't then, so it gave me a lot of experience. The tattoos (available then) were so terrible that I said, 'I could do better than that,' and I did."
There also were very few black tattoo artists at the time and, Gresham says, few African-Americans getting tattooed by a professional.
"Black people in Louisiana have always gotten tattoos, but they're hand-stuck," she says, citing musician Aaron Neville as an example. "I think the reason black people didn't get tattoos was because the tattoo trade was predominantly a biker group, and they were not women-friendly or black people-friendly or any of that."
Today tattoos are as common on Tulane students as they are on bikers, but you can still see the salty clientele that has been with Gresham through it all at Aart Accent, selecting skulls and birds and panthers from the wall of art options to adorn their biceps for eternity. Gresham has kept in touch with many of the men, some now grizzled and heavily inked, that she first tattooed in her shop when they were teenagers.
Tim Primeaux got his first tattoo when he was 16 years old. He went to a few tattoo shops looking for someone to draw his name as a tattoo, but he couldn't find anyone willing to ink him so young. "They wouldn't do it, and she did it, so that started our friendship and we've been good friends ever since," he says.
Primeaux estimates about two-thirds of his body has been tattooed by Gresham. "I've had other people work on me," he says. "Different people have different styles; it's hard to compare. I like her work. That's why I've been going there for so long."
Though she was willing to tattoo a teenaged Primeaux, Gresham isn't afraid to speak up when she hears a bad idea. She also refuses work when she feels it is disrespectful or cruel or suspects the person might regret it later. She understands the permanence of her work, and though it's one of her favorite things about tattooing, she's aware that such permanence comes with responsibility.
"It depends on who they are and how old they are," Gresham says. "I remember a young kid came in and he must have been 12 years old, and the mom said that he needed this tattoo. A psychiatrist said he needed a tattoo, because he was cutting on his skin. ... (The kid) wanted Casper the ghost. And I said, 'I'm sorry, I don't think that's a good idea.' In Louisiana, you can tattoo at any age as long as the parents consent to it, which is ridiculous ... because kids change, the body changes, the tattoo changes. You see how your skin changes over the years?
"I never thought of getting a tattoo. I got a tattoo to learn how to give tattoos originally. Now I get tattoos to promote the product, to show people that it can enhance your body. But I also tell them, 'Don't do this too young.' Technically speaking, most of my business is under 25. But the people who should be getting tattoos are the people over 25."
Peanut, one of Gresham's cust-omers, still appreciates her refusal to give him a tattoo he requested. He got his first tattoo when he was 16; he's 47 now.
"Tattoos are forever, and she made it known that whatever you put on, it's going to be on you for the rest of your life, so you better like it," he says. Peanut wanted the Zig-Zag man, the illustration that decorates Zig-Zag rolling papers, but Gresham talked him out of it.
"Some guy came in one day and he wanted '666' on his forehead and I refused that," Gresham says. "That's negativity to me. ... I don't like tattooing any satanic stuff. It's just not me. But people get them every day. I had a guy come into work and he's a piercer. ... Next thing I know, he had horns (tattooed on his head). I just can't have that."
Youth and booze can lead to bad ideas — and bad tattoos.
"Most towns, they say if you've been drinking at all they don't want to tattoo you," she says. "You couldn't work in New Orleans if you did that. You have to."
Gresham continues to tattoo, and though she still takes pride in her work, she hopes to retire by the time she's 70.
"I still enjoy it and I wonder if there's something wrong with me because everyone I know is burned out," she says. "If I'm putting a drawing on you, what could be more important than that? Because it can't be erased — easily."
Though she still has fun producing body art, Gresham says she can see why the business wears down artists after a while. She saw it happen with her business partner, Singh, before he died.
"People don't place the importance on tattooing as much as they should, compared to other things," she says. "People's priorities, especially in New Orleans, are different, and it should be your priority because you are stuck with whatever (tattoo) you get for life.
"People don't appreciate the skill of the artist. They'll come in at 1 in the morning and they want a deal. But they just left the bar, and the bar didn't give them a deal. I think the thing that made me successful at this tattooing was that I care about what it is I do. If I have time, I research stuff, I'll draw two or three times to get the best product, but I think that today, people I'm working with, they don't care. They bring in some garbage off the phone [Internet] and want you to do it exactly like in the phone, and I think that's frustrating to the artist as well."
Even when she retires, Gresham plans to continue tattooing in her newly built tree house at her Mississippi home. It won't be on the same scale as Aart Accent, but it will be on her own terms.
Gresham is glad tattooing found her. She talks about the past the way she talks about the artwork crawling up her left leg, an ever-growing chain of faces and figures representing the storied life she's led. How has she decided what to tattoo on herself? "Generally, I see something I like," she says, adding that she's happy with the results of her whimsies.
"I think I'm doing a lot better than I would be drawing buildings."