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Welcome To The Club: How Women Are Changing Tattoo Culture

white woman's arm with anchor tattoo

Women make up the majority of those getting tattoos. And they’re creating inclusive spaces where everyone feels comfortable.

I got my first tattoo when I was nineteen. A small pink and white lotus on my left hip that represented purity, spontaneous generation, my new found independence and, above all, that I was hopelessly in love with a heavily tattooed Buddhist who I wanted to take me seriously. I don’t see him anymore when I look at the tattoo. Instead, I see myself at nineteen, fresh to New York and so overwhelmed with so many new feelings and emotions that I needed something to permanently remember them. It’s nice to think of it that way.

I also think of the experience getting the tattoo. It was done at a small shop in the East Village by a man who lived in Vermont most of the time, who rolled his own cigarettes and could not have been less interested in chatting with the young woman on the table under his needle. The only time Vermont spoke to me directly once we started was to yell at me to stop moving; because of the location of the tattoo it tickled intensely, and I was stifling a laugh but my body wasn’t quite cooperating. Pretty quickly the friend with me noticed I was on the verge of tears and asked Vermont to give us a minute. We went outside so I could take a few deep breaths while holding my pants up with my hands because I couldn’t button them over the partially tattooed skin. I went in, my girlfriend leveled Vermont with her eyes and he completed the tattoo, all of it in silence.

“I hear so many stories like this. If not once a day at least a few times a week,” says Jessica Dwyer, tattoo artist and co-owner of Nice Tattoo, a woman- owned tattoo shop in Brooklyn. ”People will be happy with the tattoos but not the experience and it’s basically just a permanent reminder of that.”

This isn’t a new phenomenon. Women have played a huge role in the history of body art, but remain underrepresented in the culture. In the early 19th century tattoos became a way for women to take part in circuses and freak shows. Billed as “The Tattooed Lady,” these women were able to assert a financial autonomy not otherwise available to them at the time. In her book, Bodies of Subversion, The Secret History of Women and Tattoo, Margot Mifflin catalogs many of these forgotten stories. Women are so intertwined in the history of body art, Mifflin argues, the Women’s Movement of the mid 20th century is what revived the declining tattoo industry, while removing some of the stigmas of tattoo culture as hyper-masculine and delinquent.

In the ‘70s, women coming from the art school world would teach themselves how to tattoo as a way to make a living and expand the idea of what makes a true canvas, adding new styles and aesthetics to an otherwise stagnant industry. Tattoos also served as a form of protest, with women looking to distinguish themselves from mainstream society or, as famed artist Ruth Marten recalls, recently divorced women who wanted to commemorate their new freedom.

The Women’s Movement of the mid 20th century is what revived the declining tattoo industry Click To Tweet

However, Vyvyn Lagonza, still considered one of the early design innovators in the industry, noted how once the novelty of having a young woman in the parlors wore off, her colleagues became increasingly dismissive of her work and watched as less experienced male artists moved ahead of her in the field. Shop owner Danny Danzl “couldn’t be bothered to fix Lagonza’s broken machines,” Mifflin writes “but he did find time to lovingly inlay them with fake glittering jewels.” Women in the tattoo parlor were one of two things: an adornment, or a nuisance.

It was thirteen years before I got my next tattoo. Throughout that time I had several themes that piqued my interest (some of which I am forever grateful I didn’t get) and would bring my ideas to different shops. Each parlor I walked into the artists, always men, gave me the same response: If I wanted all of the lines I would be committing to a much larger piece, the small delicate lines I envisioned were impossible and if I really wanted this tattoo, I would have to get it done their way. It was a choice between getting a tattoo I wanted but not the way I wanted it, or not getting it at all.

“A lot of tattoo artists do have that holier-than-thou arrogance. And at the end of the day, we’re in a service industry. Yah, you’re an artist but you’re doing art for somebody,” Dwyer says when I relay the story to her. “A lot of times it feels like a club, and you’re made to feel like you don’t belong in it. People will say something can’t be done because they don’t want to do it.”

Last year, I found myself working with several women with the exact style of tattoos I had been told were basically impossible. Clean, thin lines, negative space, pointillism instead of shading. When I asked they were all going to the same studio, Welcome.Home. Located in Greenpoint, Brooklyn the shop, I was told, was run by women who gained a following through word of mouth and Instagram. By the end of summer, I had three new tattoos.

Based on a 2012 Reuters poll women made up 59% of people getting tattoos. Instagram and Pinterest have certainly cracked the club open a bit, but the industry as a whole still has an air of hypermasculinity and exclusivity. That has a lot of women, and others, heading to places like Welcome.Home and Nice Tattoo for a more inclusive and relaxing experience. Both studios have a living room feel. There’s no front desk so consultations take place on couches, and plants and minimalist art hang on the walls instead of tattoo flash art. The music is usually more soothing and at a lower volume, and artists book out extra time per session so that clients don’t feel rushed and can take breaks if needed.

Instagram and Pinterest have certainly cracked the club open a bit, but the industry as a whole still has an air of hypermasculinity and exclusivity. Click To Tweet

One of the through lines I found when researching different women owned shops was that this sense of community and comfort was front and center in their mission statements. San Francisco’s Black + Blue, which was founded by Idexa Stern in 1995, started as a safe space for women in what was a predominantly straight white male-dominated industry. Originally employing only lesbian artists, in 2005 as the constraints of gender and orientation became looser in the public discourse, Idexa began to change the shop’s original mission. “We didn’t need a ‘women’s space’ we needed an inclusive space,” she says on the studio’s website.

In Minnesota, Jackalope Tattoo, a women and queer-identifying run studio, echoes the same sentiment in their mission statement. “To empower others to be their very best, brightest, most creative selves. To try that one thing you’ve always wanted to try, reach for that huge goal because you know you can, and do it all with a fabulous smile and sense of self that radiates confidence. Jackalope Tattoo is more than a tattoo shop, it’s a family, and a way of living.”

It’s not just a better way to treat clients, it’s also a better business model in the current political and cultural climate. Since the 2016 election and prevalence of the #MeToo movement, many are going back to the idea of body art as a form of protest. In early 2017 over 100 women and men lined up to receive tattoos outside of Brass Knuckle Tattoo in Minneapolis. They were all there to get Mitch McConnell’s now infamous dismissive comment about Elizabeth Warren, “Nevertheless, she persisted” permanently etched on their body, with the days proceeds going to a local organization that supports pro-choice women in politics. Most of the shops I researched were booked for months ahead of time, with either return clients or new clients who were compelled to come in because they heard the spaces weren’t intimidating, and the artists were as interested in the experience as much as the art itself.

While I would rather cut off my arm than have to think about Mitch McConnell daily, I understand the reasoning. Few, if any, women and queer people get through life without carrying the scars of societies projection about our bodies. Tattoos represent a choice, something we can put on ourselves that express our own ideas about who we are. Even if you’re getting a quick tattoo, the ability to assert control over what you see, and society sees, is an act reclamation and exertion of body autonomy.

“I want to have a safe space for everyone,” Dwyer says towards the end of our interview, “I get a lot of straight people and gay people and trans people. Tattoos are not for one type of person anymore across the board. Everyone’s got tattoos, everyone.”

Tattoos represent a choice, something we can put on ourselves that express our own ideas about who we are. Click To Tweet

Before opening Nice Tattoo, Dwyer liked the shop she was working at and had no plans to leave. When approached about opening a new shop she wasn’t convinced until her business partners talked about the kind of inclusive, women run, comfortable studio they wanted, and she realized that she couldn’t pass the opportunity up.

“I want people to know when they come to my shop they’re getting a safe experience, a pleasant experience, and a comfortable experience. I want them to have the experience I wish I had had.”

Compared to this type of welcoming, all-embracing mentality, the notion of the tattoo industry as an exclusive club feels antiquated. Exclusivity as a pillar for any business model has always baffled me; what do you actually gain by leaving money on the table? And when it comes to something as personal and permanent as body art, what value is there in making clients feel more vulnerable than they already do? It’s that distance and vulnerability so many new shop owners understand, either through their own experience or from hearing stories from their friends and clients. The rise in women owned tattoo shops isn’t just an extension of the industry, it’s a reaction to it; creating a new space instead of fighting for what is offered. A club with open membership that people are lining up to be a part of.