A new exhibition celebrating female tattoo artists is taking place at Essex University.

The life and art of Britain’s first prominent female tattooist is explored in the new show which has been curated by art historians at the university.

Skin Digging at Art Exchange tells the story of Jessie Knight (1904-1992), part of an eccentric family including knife throwers, a cowboy act and a poet, who took over her father’s tattoo shop aged 18. In a career from the 1920s to 1960s she went on to run several shops on England’s south coast which drew in clients from around the world.

“Knight’s gender made her an outsider in her own industry and her choice of career made her an outsider in a world that often saw tattoos as transgressive,” says Ingrid Marvin, art history PhD student, who helped Dr Matt Lodder design the exhibition.

“But we mustn’t let our emphasis on her gender take away from the significance of her art,” Ingrid continues. “The tattoos, sketches and paintings she created show influence from across the world. Her work stood out at a time when traditional tattoo art focused on simplicity. Her methods were bold – she worked freehand without stencils and made her own machines.”

After Knight’s death her family assembled a collection of more than 700 items related to her life, including many of her original drawings. Some of the exhibits on display will be seen by the public for the first time.

“When looking through Knight’s archive and reading accounts of those who knew her, her huge personality always stands out. We want this to come through in the exhibition,” says Ingrid.

Skin Digging also features the work of contemporary tattooist Claudia de Sabe, one of a new generation of artists developing tattooing as an art form.

Curator Dr Matt Lodder will be giving a talk on Jessie Knight and tattooing in the 20th century at a special event on February 7, from 6pm. The event is free and there’s no need to book in advance.

Made possible by Knight’s nephew, Neil Hopkin-Thomas, and the National Maritime Museum, Cornwall, Skin Digging is at Art Exchange until February 17. Admission is free.