The oldest tattoo shop in Louisiana is in New Orleans and operated by tattooing legend Jacci Gresham – Very Local New Orleans

Posted in Tattoo Shop on Sep 30, 2020

Published on Tuesday, Sep 29th, 2020

Anytime you do anything, it should be an artform. Jacci Gresham, AART Accent Tattoo

These days, its hard to feel like an original. How do you put a melody on top of chords in a different way? Solve an equation that hasnt been solved? Mix a color that hasnt been mixed? Write a new sentence? Discover a place or a food that isnt already all over the internet? Its tricky. Most things have been done, the groundwork has been laid, so the goal becomes to create and experience things that are as unique as possible, to you.

This is where getting a tattoo can come in. A good tattoo is designed by a great artist who is creating something, by hand, for you. There is no limit to how detailed, how personalized a piece can be. A tattoo, even if its a basic one chosen from a flash sheet, will look different on your skin than it will look on anyone elses. You choose where it goes, what size, what memories you associate with the image, how you feel about that part of your body, which shop you get the work done in, by which artist, and on what day.

In Indonesia, I had an ankle piece done at the Karma House Tattoo Temple where there was a water ceremony performed and an intention set before the inking. I rented a motorcycle to ride across town to the shop. I brought my artist a design I had created, from sketches I had done of local flowers. He put his own spin on the piece 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 ocean cleanup. The next day I left the island and flew to Australia. Now, when I look at my ankles, instead of being reminded of old injuries, I see those new memories.

I wanted my new tattoo to be as special, as unique to me, so, this month, I had the honor of being tattooed at AART Accent Tattoos by a close friend, Erica Wedge, and getting to spend time with the owner of the shop, Jacci Gresham, an absolute legend in her field. When Jacci opened her place nearly half a century ago, there were less than half a dozen female tattoo artists in the U.S. and even fewer African American artists. It took decades for that landscape to shift.

When I arrived, Jacci handed me a mask she had hand-sewn and settled in to speak to me about the evolution of the industry and the artform.

Tell me about the origins of the shop.

We started the shop in 76, right after Mardi Gras. It was a quarter of the size it is now. Just that front entrance, when you come in, thats all there was. We had one main artist and I was learning to tattoo. Tattoos were pretty simple back then but I didnt know how to do it at all. It wasnt hard to learn. Tattoos were roses, hearts, eagles, banners, maybe a black panther, something like that. If you were doing a cover up, it was gonna be a reaper, more than likely, or a skull. Skulls arent as popular today. But that was all we used to do.

Id imagine the neighborhood has evolved as much as the industry has.

The neighborhood is constantly changing [along N. Rampart, in Trem]. It was predominantly Black back then. You had a lot of local families. Now weve got a gay population, a lot of couples from the North, bars, hotels. Its hard to find a family thats been here even as long as I have. Ive been here for 45 years. I did not plan that. I didnt plan on tattooing either. Its all been Gods will. [On N. Rampart itself] weve got so many parades going on, right past the shop: second lines, all of that. In regular times, I dont need to go anywhere. It comes to me. I miss that these days.

Can you talk about the art of tattooing?

When I first started tattooing, artists didnt seem to be too enthusiastic about the art part. They were enthusiastic about making the money. There was no Erica-level art. A rose would be red and green and that was it. When I got into business I put about five colors into a rose. I would highlight it with pink and a little yellow in the center. The stem would be green highlighted with yellow. Tattooing is, can be, should be an artform. Anytime you do anything, it should be an artform.

Im so excited about working with Erica (Wedge) on my new piece.

Hopefully tattoos give people a good feeling. I dont think Ive ever seen Erica do the same tattoo twice and Im impressed. Shes skilled and I like the idea of working together with your artist. The design is part of you, gonna be on you, so you say your part and then you get the input of the artist actually doing the tattoo and I think the two work well together. Back in the day, anyway, you got a tattoo because you were telling people you were an individualist. I think thats what people are still saying, Im doing something that hopefully no one else has got and this is to let people know Im not the same as everyone else. I like drawing in front of people and I like asking for input. Most of the time people dont have anything to say, but whether youre an artist or not, its your tattoo, so you need to speak. Even if its just a little something, it makes it you.

That seems surprising to me, that youve been at it for 40+ years and youre still open to other peoples ideas and suggestions.

Youve got to be. Ill draw a piece two or three times until it feels right. I dont know if its that Im not that good or that maybe I want perfection. Im old school. Im particular. I want to do things the best that I can, then some person might come along and do a little twist and make it even better. Back in the day, in the 90s, when I was training youngsters, we would all work together and, Ill tell you, we did some of our best work. Everybody put a piece into the pie. Even when you go to college, thats what they do there. When they critique your work, it makes it better.

Theres nothing like a good editor, but do you find that sometimes people over-critique?

A lot of times, being a woman and youre working with guys (or even other women), theyll be picky. Theyll do unnecessary picking, not adding creative thoughts. Back then, women didnt tattoo too often, and in my experience, women are more caring, theyre more particular. They want to get it right, so its changing things. In the era that I came through, half the people, they just did tattooing for money. Many of them had been in prison, its where they get their background from. (Some of these people are excellent artists, I may add, but their mentality is different.) A lot of people in tattooing are characters. Theyve been to prison and they brag about it. Ive been to jail one time and that was more than enough for me.

Tell me about your tattoos.

My tattoos were done by some of the best. Ed Hardy did my first tattoo in 79. To be honest, I didnt even want it, but I thought if you do tattoos, you should be willing to sacrifice your body to get tattoos. My right leg was tattooed in my 30s and 40s. My left leg was tattooed in my 50s and 60s. Im getting one final one, of my parents, when they were young, on my left hip. I have to wait for my hip replacement surgery to heal and then thats it. That will be the last. I have never let anyone do a tattoo on me because they were bored but that happens in shops. Some of the best tattoo artists have some of the worst tattoos. It just kills me that they wouldnt go out and seek the artist that they think is best for them and just pay the money. Its worth it because you learn so much. Thats how I learned to tattoo, by going to the best in the business, talking to them, and when you come back, youre so excited and enthusiastic and you know new things.

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The oldest tattoo shop in Louisiana is in New Orleans and operated by tattooing legend Jacci Gresham - Very Local New Orleans

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