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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. Gresham continues to tattoo, and though she still takes pride in her work, she hopes to retire by the time she's 70. Pláka, the trendy district in the shadow of the Acropolis, is packed with restaurants and souvenir shops, and is definitely one of the most interesting areas in Athens.
Jimmy's (at 13 Kyristou Street) is the oldest tattoo shop in Greece and was opened by Paul and Anna's father Jimmy in 1977. The clientele at Jimmy's extends to Greek models, soccer players, actors, doctors, attorneys, and sometimes, tourists. As our discussion turned to more modern primitives, Paul surprised me when he began to shed light on the ancient tattooed tribes still living in Greece. I headed first to Kastraki, the town famous for its monasteries perched on pinnacles of rock, suspended in air. One of only a handful of tattooed Aromanian Vlachs living today, 96 year-old Giannoula poses in her garden. 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.
She studied architecture and engineering in college and worked for General Motors designing floor plans for car dealerships. Drawings of tattoos line the walls so customers can choose a design easily, something Gresham says comes in handy at 3 a.m. 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. 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. 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. 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. She also refuses work when she feels it is disrespectful or cruel or suspects the person might regret it later.
Peanut wanted the Zig-Zag man, the illustration that decorates Zig-Zag rolling papers, but Gresham talked him out of it. 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.


If you're into archaeology and historical monuments of the past - not to mention good food and wine - making Pláka your tourist homebase is a wise decision. Jimmy is a legend in Greece, and back in the 50s and 60s he traveled the world as a seaman, picking up the tattooing bug in 1957 in Bombay. Having traveled to Alaska and Borneo in search of traditional tattoos, I never expected to find any in Greece.
It was here, at the monastery of the Holy Trinity, that the James Bond film For Your Eyes Only was shot back in the late 70s. The origins of the Vlachs are obscure and most historians agree that they are the last remnants of a Latin-speaking population that existed in the Balkans since the Roman Empire. 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. 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. 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. At her desk are medical supplies to prevent infections, especially for piercings, which are available in the back of the store. 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.
Paul, who has been tattooing since 1980, enjoys the opportunity to create a lasting work of art.
But after a few sips of wine, my curiosity got the best of me and I rented a car and drove north, searching blindly for the last remaining tribal tattoos of Greece! Inquiring at local restaurants for tattooed elders, I was dumbfounded to learn that my waitresses' 94 year-old grandmother had tattoos! Their unwritten language, Arouman, has Latin origins (unlike Greek) and probably came through working relations with Roman Legionnaires, who trained locals to guard the Via Egnata, a trade route that snaked through the high mountain passes of the Pindhos.
The leg, for example, is curved, so for a line down the calf to look straight, it actually must curve also, she says. The two existing tattoo shops have since closed, making Aart Accent the oldest in New Orleans. He told me, "I've always been attracted to the beauty, the passion, and the spiritual energy of tattooing, and when it all comes together, you express life through artistic creativity on other people's skin. He noted that, "Tribal styles are probably popular too because of the long history of tattooing in Greece.


But I arrived too late and, unbelievably, she was close to death, too ill for me to interview or to photograph. As late as the early 15th century, the Vlachs were a powerful independent kingdom in parts of Bulgaria and Greece. According to Giannoula, these marks not only reaffirmed her Orthodox Christian belief, but also affected powerful charms against the Evil Eye and other misfortunes. You might get lucky and find for yourself a living example of the ancient tattooing traditions of the Vlachs. I couldn't wait to get another!" Jimmy later moved to Toronto and, during 1959-1965, skipped between Canada and New York City as a greenhorn tattooist. Like the nomadic Scythian warriors who at one time lived in Greece; they were covered with tattoos. But, within a century, the Ottoman Turks conquered the area and ruled for the next 600 years. Tattooing is an ancient experience and most of the tribal peoples, like the Scythians, had darker skins, and that's why their tattoos were so bold and dark in the ancient world, so people could see them and be fearful. All I could learn is that she had a large cypress tree tattooed on her forearm and a cross between her eyes.
The only other information I could learn about Vlach tattooing is that carbon was utilized as the pigment and at Vlach funerals lumps of charcoal were thrown to repel the spirit of the recently deceased.
The studio opened four years later, despite that fact that tattooing was an illegal profession in Greece at that time.
These descriptions matched those of Travelin' Mick's discoveries in Bosnia of tattooed Catholics (see Skin & Ink, March 2001)! Jimmy persevered, however, and after five years of fighting city officials, "Jimmy's" was finally licensed in 1982 as the first tattoo studio to operate in Athens, not to mention Greece! Actually, the skin of a typical Greek is 30 percent more difficult to work with than other Europeans.



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