Louisiana’s oldest tattoo parlor is in New Orleans and is operated by tattoo legend Jacci Gresham
“Every time you do something, it should be an art form.” – Jacci Gresham, AART accent tattoo
These days, it’s hard to feel like an original. How do you put a melody above the chords in a different way? Solve an equation that has not been solved? Mix a color that has not been mixed? Write a new sentence? Discover a place or a food that is not already everywhere on the Internet? It’s delicate. Most of the stuff has been done, the groundwork has been laid, so the goal is to create and experience things that are as unique to you as possible.
This is where getting a tattoo can come in. A great tattoo is designed by a great artist who creates something, by hand, for you. There is no limit to the level of detail and customization of a room. A tattoo, even if it is a basic tattoo chosen from a flash foil, will look different on your skin than anyone else’s. You choose where it goes, what size, what memories you associate with the image, how you feel about that part of your body, which store you have the work done, by which artist, and on what day.
In Indonesia, I had a piece of ankle made with House Karma Tattoo Temple where there was a water ceremony performed and an intention set before inking. I rented a motorbike to cross town to the store. I brought my artist a drawing that I had created, from sketches I had made of local flowers. He put his own touch on the room and we worked in silence. I left with an incredible feeling, as half of the proceeds from the transaction went to a local charity focused on cleaning the oceans. The next day, I left the island and flew to Australia. Now when I look at my ankles, instead of remembering old injuries, I see these new memories.
I wanted my new tattoo to be so special, so unique to me, so this month I had the honor of getting a tattoo at AART accent tattoos by a close friend, Erica Wedge, and spend time with the owner of the store, Jacci Gresham, an absolute legend in his field. When Jacci opened his home almost half a century ago, there were less than half a dozen female tattoo artists in the United States and even fewer African-American artists. It took decades for this landscape to change.
When I arrived, Jacci handed me a mask that she had sewn by hand and settled down to tell me about the evolution of the industry and the art form.
Tell me about the origins of the store.
âWe opened the store in 1976, just after Mardi Gras. It was a quarter of the size he is now. Just that main entrance, when you walk in, that’s all there was. We had a lead artist and I was learning to tattoo. Tattoos were pretty straightforward back then but I had no idea how to do it at all. It wasn’t hard to learn. The tattoos were roses, hearts, eagles, banners, maybe a black panther, something like that. If you were covering yourself up, it would more than likely be a reaper or a skull. Skulls are not as popular today. But that was all we did.
I imagine the neighborhood has evolved as much as the industry.
âThe neighborhood is constantly evolving [along N. Rampart, in TremÃ©]. It was predominantly black at the time. You had a lot of local families. Now we have a gay population, lots of northern couples, bars, hotels. It’s hard to find a family that has been there as long as I have. I have been here for 45 years. I hadn’t expected that. I hadn’t planned on tattooing either. Everything was the will of God. [On N. Rampart itself] we have so many parades going on right in front of the store: second lines, all that. Normally I don’t need to go anywhere. It comes to me. I miss it these days.
Can you talk about tattoo art?
âWhen I started tattooing, the artists didn’t seem too enthusiastic about the artistic part. They were excited to make money. There was no Erica level art. A rose would be red and green and that was it. When I first started in business I put about five colors in a rose. I would highlight it with pink and a little yellow in the center. The stem would be green with a yellow highlight. Tattooing is, perhaps, should be an art form. Every time you do something, it should be an art form.
I’m so excited to be working with Erica (Wedge) on my new piece.
âI hope tattoos give people a good impression. I don’t think I’ve seen Erica get the same tattoo twice before and I’m in awe. She is talented and I love the idea of ââworking with your artist. The design is part of you, is going to be on you, so you say your part and then you get input from the artist doing the tattoo and I think the two work well together. Back then, anyway, you got a tattoo because you told people you were an individualist. I think that’s what people still say, “I’m doing something that no one else has, hopefully, and that’s to let people know that I’m not like everyone else.” I like to draw in front of people and I like to ask their opinion. Most of the time people have nothing to say but whether you are an artist or not it’s your tattoo so you have to speak up. Even if it’s just a little something, it makes you.
It seems surprising to me that you have been here for over 40 years and are always open to ideas and suggestions from others.
âYou have to be. I will draw a room two or three times until it looks good to me. I don’t know if it’s because I’m not that good or maybe I want perfection. I am from the old school. I am particular. I want to do things the best that I can, so a person could come in and do a little twist and make it even better. Back then in the 90s, when I was coaching kids, we were all working together and, I’m telling you, we were doing some of our best jobs. Everyone has put a slice in the pie. Even when you go to college, that’s what they do there. When they criticize your work, it makes it better.
There is no such thing as a good editor, but do you find that sometimes people criticize too much?
âA lot of times, being a woman and you work with guys (or even other women), they’ll be picky. They’ll do unnecessary picking, without adding any creative thoughts. Back then, women didn’t tattoo too often, and in my experience, women are more caring, they are more particular. They want to do things right, so that changes things. Back in the time I lived, half of people got tattoos for money. A lot of them had been in jail, that’s where they got their backgrounds from. (Some of these people are great artists, I might add, but their mentality is different.) people who tattoo are characters. They went to jail and they brag about it. I was in jail once and that was more than enough for me.
Tell me about your tattoos.
âMy tattoos have been done by some of the best. Ed Hardy got my first tattoo in ’79. To be honest I didn’t even want to, but I thought if you do tattoos you should be willing to sacrifice your body to get a tattoo. My right leg was tattooed in my 30s and 40s. My left leg was tattooed in my 50s and 60s. I get a last one, from my parents, when they were young, on my left hip. I have to wait for my hip replacement to heal and then that’s it. It will be the last. I never let anyone get a tattoo for me because they were bored but it happens in stores. Some of the best tattoo artists have some of the worst tattoos. It just kills me that they don’t look for the artist they think is best for them and just pay the money. It is worth it because you are learning so much. This is how I learned to tattoo, by going to see the best in the business, talking to them, and when you come back you are so excited and enthusiastic and you know new things.