I laughed the whole time I was getting my first tattoo: a giant cherry blossom tree covering the entirety of my left ribs. Maybe it tickled — I always say it did — but maybe the laughter was a symptom of something else; something I didn’t have the words for at the time: At 18, I considered my body modification solely self-expressive. I know now that, for me, it’s also a spiritual practice. I laughed because I was having a transcendent experience.
In America, the tattooing industry has often been presented as a blue collar, old boys club. But thankfully, the industry has undergone some pretty serious shifts in recent years. More femmes and queer folk are visibly taking up space. Machine-free tattooing has surged in popularity once again. And tattooers with deep, nuanced relationships to their work and their clients are becoming easier to find. I spoke to three of those very tattooers, all wonderful artists at the vanguard of their industry’s sea change, to see what they had to say about their practices and making their own ways in the tattoo world. Their as-told-to stories below.
Kelli, 29, has been tattooing for five years. She co-owns Welcome Home Tattoo with Tea Leigh.
I’m a machine-free tattooer; completely self-taught. I started tattooing myself about five years ago now. I didn’t have any intention of being a tattooer at that time. I was working as a menswear designer. I got into tattooing myself because I initially wanted to get my hands tattooed and the shop that I went to wouldn’t do it for me — they said that I didn’t have enough visible tattoos and also that they didn’t have anyone on staff that day who would do it — so I ignorantly thought that I could do it myself.
I went home, Googled “stick and poke tattoos,” and was like, I think I can do this. So I started tattooing myself, and basically for a good month would just go to work and then come home in the evenings and tattoo myself and read up on the history of and the importance of tattooing.
In my early twenties I was definitely struggling with feeling comfortable in my body, feeling like my body was my own, and also finding tattooers whose aesthetic and style aligned with mine. I had only been tattooed by men at that point — it was hard to find female tattooers. I didn’t even know of any non-binary or gender-nonconforming tattooers. By tattooing myself, I gave myself the experience I wanted: doing my own style, getting delicate tattoos that I wanted, having my say in everything.
From there I started tattooing my friends, and then their friends. Instagram helped — my tattooing was kind of picking up through hashtags and that stuff, so I started tattooing strangers. I appreciated that people liked my work and could relate with what I was doing, but I felt uncomfortable because I knew that I wasn’t going about it the “right” way — I didn’t feel like I could get an apprenticeship as a hand poke tattooer, and I didn’t feel like I belonged in the shops that I’d been to. At that point I’d been tattooed in at least six to eight different shops. I could never see myself working there. I barely wanted to be tattooed there to begin with, you know?
I was at a point in my life where I had given myself five months: I was either gonna change up what I was doing in my current industry, fashion, or I was gonna just drop everything and pursue tattooing and find a way.
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As fate would have it, that’s when I met my partner, and I ended up moving to Massachusetts three months later. I’m Canadian; I had to get my green card and I was not legally allowed to work for almost a year and a half. That gave me a lot of time to contemplate what I really wanted to do with my career. That’s when I met Tea Leigh for the first time. Tea and I started tattooing at the same time and had become friends on Instagram.
I explained my situation to Tea. They were super welcoming; said, “Hey, why don’t you come down to New York and work every so often out of my space?” So I would go back and forth between Boston and New York for a while. One day Tea came to the studio and said they had been given 60 days notice and that we had to move out. We ended up finding this dream space and starting a business while I continued to commute for another six months.
Now Tea and I are the co-owners of Welcome Home, and it’s important for us to hold space for anyone who likes or relates to our artwork, but also who has felt unsafe in other spaces before, who has felt unwelcome or unheard or unseen. Tattooing is such an intimate and vulnerable experience, and not only is it important to have a good experience while getting tattooed, where you feel comfortable and safe, but I think it’s important that you work with artists with whom you share beliefs, who want to hold space for you, who truly care about you because you’re carrying their artwork on your body forever.
We keep our address private, so everyone who is there is there intentionally. We only have female, non-binary and one queer male tattooer working in our space. We all share similar views but all come from very different backgrounds, and I think that our dynamic helps ease clients who are coming in, too, because we’re having a good time, and we’re happy and comfortable working in our own space.
Using Instagram as a tool to really show representation has been important for us. Because we’re obviously tattooing people of color and fat bodies and trans bodies and bodies you don’t often get to see on popular tattoo Instagram accounts, where the saturation’s turned up so everyone appears or possibly everyone is white. On popular tattoo Instagram accounts, we’re not seeing any stretch marks. Self-injury, acne — all of these things are being taken out of these photos because… I don’t know, I guess people feel like that’s more appealing? And that’s really dehumanizing. So for us at our shop, our clients are people. They’re all individually important to us, truly.
I got my first tattoo on my 18th birthday. I went with a bird from Google Images into my local biker shop in central Canada because there was no alternative. There were no options, and that’s why I love my story, and I don’t feel bad. I don’t regret any of the tattoos I got, but now that you have all these individual people who are starting their own things and just saying, “Fuck what the industry standard is. We’re gonna do this for ourselves and that’s who we’re gonna hold space for,” there are options all over the world.
Doreen, 33, has been tattooing for almost three years. She works at Saved Tattoo.
I am from Philly, born and raised. My first tattoo was a quarter-sized butterfly on my left shoulder. I was 16, and my dad took me to go get it. It’s pretty blurred now and I think that they just had an apprentice do it, so it kind of sucks. I didn’t get my next one until I was like 21.
I think initially I was looking at my cousins’ friends that had tattoos and their noses pierced and I was just like, oh yeah, that’s how I want to look, too. There’s also, I feel like, a subconscious genetic attraction that we as Black people have to ritual and rites of passage activities. I think that there’s something that’s just really hard to explain regarding why you have this feeling of wanting to get body modification, but when you think about these traditions being included in our culture for hundreds of years, I think that just speaks to, I don’t know, the strength of Blackness and genetics.
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I have been practicing art ever since I was a kid — I went to Tyler School of Art for undergrad with a degree in glass and my MFA was at RISD with a degree in glass as well. After school I moved to New York and did a few earnest residencies but it was mostly me struggling financially to try to figure it all out. I’d always been really interested in body modification; I was always trying to figure out how to get into the industry. I knew that apprenticeships, most likely, were unpaid. A lot of the tattoo shops that I had been experiencing were mostly white male dominated and I just didn’t feel like that would be a productive and safe environment for me to be taking orders in as a young Black woman. There was also just this unspoken idea that some dude has to teach you how to tattoo. And then you have to work for him for years until you earn his respect and then maybe he’ll let you tattoo. But, especially for people of color, body modification is a right and this false idea that we have to go through white men in order to be able to do it is kind of absurd.
So I reached out to Tamara Santibañez about whether or not she took apprentices. She was like, “No, but, I can come to your studio and we can talk.” She told me about how she got started — she taught herself — and she was like, “Yeah, you can do it too.”
It’s really weird — I don’t know why I felt like I needed permission, because the thing that’s most celebrated about the tattoo industry is that you are taking control of your identity; redesigning your own body and adorning your body ’til it doesn’t look like anyone else’s. In that way, there aren’t any rules as far as aesthetics are concerned. (There definitely are rules to make sure you’re not cross-contaminating certain bloodborne pathogens or anything like that.) So it was kind of — oh yeah, duh. I just got my license and got all the equipment and just started practicing on myself and started practicing on friends.
I did my first one on myself — a small strawberry on my ankle. It feels so different tattooing yourself. Like, this hurts, why am I even doing this? I don’t have to do this, I can just stop. The strawberry is not even finished. I feel like when it’s someone else, I don’t freak out. The first tattoo that I gave someone else was my friend Danny. He got a little rose on the inside of his arm, in exchange he photographed some of my sculptures.
I was always trying to figure out how to change the ways that people think about tattooing and the ways that Black people acclimate within this form of body modification. I got the idea to open up a tattoo pop-up shop, Invisible Man Tattoo, through Recess’ artist residency program. The focus was celebrating Black excellence and the Black American experience because you don’t really see representation of Black people or Black bodies in a lot of tattoo shops. A few of the flash sheets that I did were about celebrating Black inventions and Black inventors — I was trying to use tattooing as an educational tool.
There’s so many amazing parts of the Black American experience that haven’t been illustrated and celebrated on the body. I think people really celebrate American traditional styles of tattooing and most likely that includes some ship, or flowers, or some busty broad. Why do we even celebrate these images? Why is this so exclusive? I just want to help people to think about the void; the lack of representation that there is for Black people in those images.
After that I worked at Gristle, and then recently I started working at Saved with Tamara. That started on MLK Day, which I thought was pretty cool.
I guess it’s different now because I’m a tattoo artist — I think of getting tattooed less as me making a huge decision to alter my body. I want to have this shared experience with this other person that’s tattooing me. And I’ve been really trying to be more purposeful in choosing who tattoos me. You know, really wanting to get tattooed by people of color, specifically. Just thinking about who I choose to enact violence on my body.
I mean, when you look at the process of tattooing, it’s a needle jamming in between your layers of skin and sometimes blood and plasma come out. It’s basically trauma. Thinking about the physical pain that you experience when you’re getting tattooed — yeah, I consider that an act of violence. You’re choosing to traumatize your skin, but then you also know that your body is going to heal itself. So, in that way, I think of it as self-initiated healing too.
Historically, who has been able to inflict violence on who? I’m at a point in my life where I’m just like, trying to invest in Black business and trying to have more intimate relationships with the people that are tattooing me and piercing me. In that way, I would feel more safe, like physically safe, if it’s a person of color doing it.
Most of my clients are actually Black women and every time I tattoo them, they’re like, “Oh I’ve been looking you for so long.” Not me specifically, but a Black woman that they felt comfortable trusting their body with. There’s definitely been a lot of Black women that are like, “No, I actually want to change this idea of me being tattooed by some random ass white dude.” And I want to do it for the culture and keep it all conceptually sound.
As someone who’s also a fine artist, I haven’t really been in a position where I was really seeking “acceptance” in the tattoo industry. In some ways I feel like it’s an extension of my art practice. And the people that I’ve surrounded myself with, like Tamara for instance, have been so welcoming and down for tryna figure out how to push the industry into a place that’s more in conversation with contemporary art that I feel like I can dance around the border of the tattoo industry rather than getting totally submerged and affected by the microaggressions and toxic behavior.
Tamara, 31, has been tattooing for 10 years. She works at Saved Tattoo.
My dad is American, my mom is from Mexico. I grew up with my mom in Georgia. The south was a really complicated place to grow up mixed race; to grow up not really feeling like I had a community of people who were like me. But I feel fortunate in that I had a really strong home environment; we had a very staunchly Mexican household. We were making homemade tortillas, watching novellas, speaking only Spanish in the household.
I came to tattooing mostly through subculture — being into punk, hardcore and metal. Everyone I knew had tattoos, everyone in the bands I was seeing had tattoos. I think a lot of people have this experience of feeling that the subcultures they’re interested don’t align with their origin culture. Moving to New York and starting to see places where there was more specifically not-white punk culture happening, being in a more multicultural community was really important for me. That’s when I started connecting more with different artists and different shops through friends. As soon as I started getting tattooed I really wanted to learn how to do it, because craft process is a really big connective thread that runs through all my work. At the time I was into printmaking; I felt like the processes were not dissimilar.
I knew that you could get an apprenticeship to tattoo, but at the time there were not a lot of women tattooing. So I started on my own: I got a machine and was doing homemade tattoos, asking questions, trying to take it seriously. I had a couple of people who worked in shops giving me some guidance; I did that for like a year. Then this shop saw a tattoo I had done on one of their clients, and they called me and asked if I wanted to start tattooing there. I did that while I was still in school, kind of working the same way you would work at the end of your apprenticeship. Once I was done with school I started working there full-time.
I reflect on that a lot. Like, a lot of people who are making the tattoo industry as diverse as it is now are also self-taught, because it bypasses the gatekeepers. Usually you have to start at the bottom of the food chain and work your way up, work at the places on St. Marks until three in the morning every night. But I feel like I was able to get to a place of being a custom tattooer pretty quickly, after like four years of tattooing.
I think the internet has a lot to do with the shift. The internet makes space for different narratives and perspectives to be heard. But I think tattooing has always been a more multifaceted practice than it’s been presented as. I personally think that tattooing often trades in a self-created mythology of what it is and what it was, that perpetuates a lot of very backwards, outdated notions.
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When I first started, color traditional flash was considered the standard. That was what I was mostly doing, because it was simple and covered all the basic technical knowledge. But I was more interested in a lot of the black and gray flash that I was seeing. Understanding that there’s a tattoo style that’s by and for Mexicans, specifically, was really exciting to me. And it made a lot of sense to bring that into aspects of that into my work. I’m trying to bring all aspects of my own existence into this cohesive artistic practice.
I’m reading this book, Trauma Stewardship, that’s helping me better understand how I tattoo. Because — and this is not true for all tattooers by any means — it’s really important for me to hold space for what clients want to talk about as long as it can feel mutual and respectful, and not just like someone’s showing up just to dump on me.
I actually did this trauma counseling training to be on a crisis hotline, and I was like, oh my god this is teaching me so much about how to tattoo. The phone calls we get are really similar to what people are talking to me about when they’re getting tattooed. And I tattoo mostly POC or women, queer people, undocumented people. So dealing with trauma is a really big part of what I do. But I’m trying to think about ways to make that sustainable for me and mutually fulfilling for everyone involved.
I think respecting our process in terms of the rules that we set, logistically, is really important. Just abiding by the guidelines that tattooers are setting, because they’re for everyone, not just for us. Try to bring a sense of exchange to the session, rather than just seeing us as a resource. It actually means quite a lot when people are like, “Hey, thanks so much for letting me talk about that today.” That goes a really long way.
A lot of my clients have come in like, “This is my first time getting tattooed since this one bad experience I had in a shop.” So I think a lot of the work I do, too, is to be like, “It doesn’t have to be that way.” I try to be really conscious in my practices now, like telling somebody if I need to move their clothes, or asking them to do it themselves, or telling people if I’m going to put my hands on them, or even just trying to frame things as an option.
I think the industry as a whole is being held to different standards. Which is a good shift, a good sea change.
Photos by Bridget Badore.