Green’s Dictionary of Slang

artist n.

1. (US Und./Irish) an adroit rogue, usu. a pickpocket, sneak thief or confidence trickster.

[UK]W.T. Moncrieff Heart of London II i: Ne’er a set of cleaner fingered rascals anywhere than mine! Quite a pleasure to have such artists under one’s care.
[UK]‘Alfred Crowquill’ Seymour’s Humourous Sketches (1866) 15: My pockets, too, are picked! Yes — some clever ‘artist’ has drawn me while asleep!
[US]Matsell Vocabulum 9: Artist, An adroit rogue.
[UK]Farmer & Henley Sl. and Its Analogues.
[UK]G.R. Sims Mysteries of Modern London 122: The majority are of the lowest order, but there are among them several superior ‘artists’ – men who plan and carry out big jobs.
[US]V.W. Saul ‘Vocab. of Bums’ in AS IV:5 337: Artist — A skillful crook.
[US]Irwin Amer. Tramp and Und. Sl. 20: Artist. — Any skilful crook or confidence worker who inspires respect in his work by other less gifted criminals.
[US]J.F. Bardin Deadly Pecheron in Bardin Omnibus (1976) 79: The ‘artists’ came in later than the ‘drifters’.
[US]Ragen & Finston World’s Toughest Prison 789: artist – Any skillful crook or confidence man or woman who inspires respect in his or her work by less gifted criminals.
[UK]R. Fabian Anatomy of Crime 193: Artist: Clever rogue.
[WI]Francis-Jackson Official Dancehall Dict. 1: Artist con artist: u. min’ de artist fool yuh/do not allow yourself to be conned.

2. (US Und.) a skilful card-sharp.

[US]J. O’Connor Wanderings of a Vagabond 208: Next to him comes the ‘artist,’ whose duty it is to be at all times in the house, ready to operate on any ‘sucker’ who may drop in accidentally, or be roped in by the attachés of the establishment.
[UK]P. Marks Plastic Age 239: That boy wins big pots too regularly and always loses the little ones. I bet he’s a cold-deck artist or something.
[US](con. 1820s+) H. Asbury Sucker’s Progress 14: In the heyday of American gambling, a first-class faro dealer, variously called a ‘mechanic’ and an ‘artist,’ was paid from $100 to $200 a week.