em sixteen (@em16): "Live tattoo performance at SOHO20, a feminist gallery in Bushwick, Brooklyn with Awilda Rodríguez Lora"
For the final part of its Pride series, TTTism continues to champion the LGBTQ+ community, acknowledging the steps that have been taken towards inclusivity, and highlighting the distance we still need to go to ensure the safety of all members of the tattoo community. Presenting the final round of responses from international LGBTQ+ tattooists, who answered the questions;
What is the current shape of the tattoo world for LGBTQ+ people?
How is the community remoulding this world for themselves?
em sixteen (@em16)
There was only one other out LGBTQ+ tattooer in NYC when I started tattooing in 2009. There were also very few women, and many did not feel they were in a place to mentor me when I approached them. My only available mentors were straight cis men, many of whom rejected me because I didn't fit the role of the high femme tattooer they'd seen on Miami Ink – whom they felt would attract business for their shops. Luckily I found two very rare men who were willing to show me some techniques. I am primarily self-taught because neither of these guys could offer me full apprenticeships or shop jobs.
Even though I had a background in art and design with both a BFA and MFA, it took me five years to get ‘good enough’ at tattooing without the support of other tattooers. I considered giving up many times. I'm someone who does things by the book and it was scary tattooing people on my own with limited knowledge. Eventually, I became skilled enough to get a job at a shop. However, I left the shop because I was singled out by the owner to be an "angry lesbian", after I spoke up about racism that my clients were experiencing at the shop.
Instagram changed everything. I was able to build my own audience and break out on my own. I opened a private studio and eventually my own shop in Brooklyn. Now, there are so many new LGBTQ+ tattooers who are learning quickly with the support of the community they were able to find through Instagram. There are respected Instagram accounts that feature LGBTQ+ artists, like @queer_tattooers. While the old school belief is that older tattooers should feel threatened by new tattooers, I am instead so happy to ‘meet’ new queer tattooers on Instagram on a daily basis! Now, queer folks like myself are able to come into the industry and provide the type of tattoo environment that queer clients are seeking. It's comforting to not be alone in the struggle and to have the opportunity to be a mentor. Things are far from perfect and many artists working at street shops still suffer harassment and abuse, but alternatives allowing tattooers to leave toxic environments are becoming available.
My studio Scarlet Letter (@scarletletterbk) opened in 2016 and provides a safe(r) space for clients to receive tattoos without the gaze of other clients and artists. I host visiting artists who are looking for a safe space to tattoo from during their trip to New York City. Every month I offer an hour towards a cover up for top surgery or self harm scars to a new client. Working on these pieces in a safe, private setting has been so important to my clients. Within my fine arts practice, I often perform live tattoo demos at local art venues covering topics surrounding queer bodies.
em sixteen (@em16): "Scar cover tattoo, 2019"
Brody Polinksy (@brody_polinksy): "Singular pattern for Mitus (@mitus.andronica), a fellow trans and non-binary tattooer – 2019, Berlin
Brody Polinsky (@brody_polinksy)
Queer tattooing is becoming normalized, and folks have the courage and capacity to come out publicly. They can also access their community so much more easily with the advent of digital consumption of tattooing. Ground-level queer spaces in tattooing are popping up in the world, which means they don't have to remain private or hidden. That door is now open; people who came in the back door (without an apprenticeship, or without a studio who would accept them) can now come in to formal studios.
In general, tattooing is becoming more niche. It's not just a queer phenomenon, but it does allow more queer artists to succeed. They can develop their own tattoo style, which may or may not be very radical, and can speak to just a small group of people. With the barriers broken down, and the old guard not in control as it once was, queer tattooers can become very successful without having to appeal to styles that don't tell their story.
We've been running @queer_tattooers as a community project for several years. It's focused on amplifying the voices of LGBTQ+ artists of all styles and levels of experience. It also offers LGBTQ+ clients some options, if they seek a queer artist.
We also endorse Second Skin Tac (@secondskintac) aftercare. First and foremost, it's a great product that every tattooer should try. But it's also a queer-run company that directly supports LGBTQ+ tattooers, and we love that.
In the same vein, I run UNIV ERSE Studio (@universe_studio) and UNIV ERSE Skateboards (@universeskateboards_). While they're not queer-only brands (we are very pro-inclusion, creating tattoos and clothes for Every Body), it is run by me, who is a trans / non-binary and queer person. So if queer folks want to support a studio or streetwear company run by a community member, we are grateful.
"For the first time I think many of us feel we finally have a seat at the table, and we are joining the conversation of how to make safe spaces for everyone." – Tina Lugo
Tina Lugo (@tina_lugo13)
Tina Lugo (@tina_lugo13)
Tina Lugo (@tina_lugo13)
I think the tattoo world is going through a huge transformation and a big factor in that has been the inclusion of women and LGBTQ+ people. I feel that we are reshaping the industry by making it more accessible. There’s more studios popping up that are run solely by LGBTQ+ people, which in turn is inspiring others to create safe spaces. With that, it’s also inviting new waves of creativity and I think a step away from the traditional model. Everything feels fresh and limitless. More queer art is gaining momentum and we are starting to see the inclusion of different body types being represented, including Trans bodies.
The tattoo industry is getting rebranded. There’s been pushback from older generations and there’s also been a lot of welcoming arms. For the first time I think many of us feel we finally have a seat at the table, and we are joining the conversation of how to make safe spaces for everyone. I think the years of tattoo hazing during apprenticeships, or being subjected to the humiliation of cis white men to gain ‘approval’, is coming to an end. The apprenticeship model has drastically changed and personally I think it’s a great step forward. We aren’t seeing as much gatekeeping from the queer community.
It’s given me and many others a voice. It’s allowed me to start my own private studio that is a safe space for all body types and those who would otherwise feel uncomfortable exposing themselves in a large shop. Many of the projects I take on involve self harm scars or top surgery scar cover ups. Many of these people in the community have already undergone intense hardship and humiliation and the last thing they want to do is expose their bodies in front of a large audience that may judge them. My aim is to create intimate and safe settings where a trusting relationship can form. I seek to create work for the individual in a welcoming environment, further giving my clients the empowerment to reclaim their skin and feel beautiful in it. To me, there’s nothing more fulfilling than knowing I helped someone feel great about themselves in a very impactful way. A permanent reminder of their growth.
Soledad Aznar (@soledad_aznar)
Sara Swanson (@sara_sta.demonia_tattoo)
Sara Swanson (@sara_sta.demonia_tattoo) for StaDemonia Tattoo Stockholm (@sta.demonia_tattoo_stockholm)
Myself and my partner in life and work, Soledad Aznar (@soledad_aznar), ran our studio StaDemonia Tattoo in Barcelona for 12 years, before moving to Stockholm two years ago. We invite queer tattooers and artists to work with us and exhibit their art. We want to share and enjoy the diversity of queer culture and art that surrounds us, and to offer a safer, inspiring, and comfortable space for our community to work and get tattooed in.
For so very long the tattoo world has been an extremely sexist, homophobic, racist environment to cope with. Historically, there has been so much violence to deal with regarding colonization, erasure of tattoo practices, and manipulation of the histories writing themselves and the legacies this leaves. The practice of tattooing here in Europe has been strongly linked to marginalized or alternative identities or societies including the circus, freak shows, prison tattoos, sailors, and sex workers. We now have very little to no histories about queer tattoo practices since readings and retellings of this history have been made through western, white, heteronormative eyes.
When Soledad and I opened StaDemonia Tattoo in Barcelona 15 years ago, it was a rare and strange thing to be a woman identifying tattoo artist. I could count the female tattoo artists in our town on one hand. The idea of getting to know other queer artists was a fairytale to me. Things have changed since then. Artists have had to reconsider their attitudes to adapt to changes in society, but most tattoo studios still nurture heteronormative cultures. Today, I know some very good queer tattoo artists here in Sweden, but too many are still working at home. I see too often that the home practice is not a choice, but instead a necessity as, in some cases, it is still impossible for queers to be welcomed and feel comfortable in mainstream tattoo studios. As a studio addressing our attention to our LGTBQ+ community, we are constantly reminded of how necessary queer places are. People’s stories of discomfort and discrimination tell us that the tattoo world in general still has a lot to learn, as does the rest of society.
StaDemonia Tattoo Stockholm
Sara Swanson (@sara_sta.demonia_tattoo)
The queer community is working very hard to take care of ourselves, to create virtual and real spaces where we can breathe and talk about positive and negative things. We see a backlash in so many ways in terms of closed borders, far-right politics, and people questioning rights that have already been won. At the same time, pinkwashing and increased visibility during Pride month is, to many, proof that we have already won our fights – it can be detrimental to hiding rates of depression and continued struggles in the queer community. It is clear we still need spaces where we can laugh and enjoy ourselves, and where we can talk about our wounds without having to defend ourselves.
Thanks to social media, artists and clients are able to find each other. This is revolutionary, but it also takes a lot of time and effort – which could be dedicated to our closer real life surroundings. Social media is necessary and positive, but also easily provokes stress and answers that are too simple answers for the complex problems we face.
In the studio, we invite and collaborate with other queer tattoo artists, but also artists working with other techniques (painters, poets, writers, and performers). We organize art exhibitions which often run for a couple of months at a time. The exhibition openings are important moments for bringing together people interested in tattooing and/or art in general. It provides the opportunity for queer people to exist among other queers for a while. This art nurtures the ambience of the studio - it is the first thing our clients see when they enter the door, and is there for them to contemplate while they are waiting to get tattooed. The exhibitions provide a space for us to bring non-normative images to a wider audience. We place a lot of importance on how we code our walls – as well as providing a welcoming and inspiring experience, what we display is a way of setting standards for behaviours that are and not acceptable in the studio.
Coming back to Stockholm was beautiful in so many ways. I rediscovered old activists and artists, and enjoyed a new generation of artists who dare to talk about racism and cis-norms in ways impossible in Sweden only 15 years ago. However, queer bars and cafes here are still closing down; there is a huge need for places where we can meet and strengthen.
This year we initiated a dream of mine – the first Queer Art Fest Stockholm. It is a small two day festival with music, performance, poetry, art, and tattooing. We had the pleasure to work with Touka Voodoo, Ciara Havishya (la_tigresse_), Kai Knowfolly (@knowfolly), Uve the Kid (@uvethekid), Alex Cfourpo(@alexcfourpo), and Bahicho Diaz – an incredible mix of genius artists and generous persons. I have been working with Soledad at a lot of tattoo conventions, and I sometimes miss the sound of many machines buzzing simultaneously. But, it can be a lonely feeling being the only visibly queer artists there. Creating this festival was a reclamation, but also a celebration of what I enjoy about the tattoo community. Within the project, we also organized a public conversation with some of the tattoo artists about tattooing, art, and how we can create safer and positive spaces as queer artists. We have to start talking about our difficult and erased pasts, to heal, look forward, and understand how we now use images and create situations with customers and colleagues. These can be sensitive and painful discussions, bus as tattooing leaves permanent marks on our bodies, it is important to discuss how we can be a creative and responsible community, without shame. People share their stories, often about situations and connections between tattooer and tattooed, but also about the strong feelings of bodily autonomy enacted through tatttooing.
I am very lucky to have found Soledad, who learned to tattoo by herself the very long and hard way, before the internet and before women were welcomed in the community. She exposed me to this profession and I am very grateful for the way I have been permitted to learn and experiment at my own premises. Personally, I love old school tattoos. I love for example pinups, as in my mind they can be strong, funny, and self-loving – while in contrast they can also be sexist and racist. I am inspired by something I often dislike, but, since I am also heavily influenced by drag culture, femme culture, and queer culture, I take these influences and create what I love and would like to see. I suppose that is queer tattooing for me – learning from the rich culture and history we have as queer artists, and creating spaces and conversations with clients where we listen and do not take things for granted.