Gender & Tattooing with Tamara Santibañez
August 31, 2021
Words by Tamara Santibañez & River Marashi Andrew
Photography by River Marashi Andrew
Tamara Santibañez is a visual and tattoo artist, educator and oral historian-in-training based in Lenapehoking (Brooklyn, New York).
Author of Could This Be Magic? Tattooing as Liberation Work (Afterlife Press 2021), they bring systems-thinking to their work,
visualizing tattooing as a transformative practice, a space for healing, and as a vehicle for resistance to mechanisms of oppression.
River: What’s your relationship with gender been like? I remember you shared your pronouns recently, what has your journey been?
Tamara: It has definitely been a journey. I would say from a young age I was involved in radical politics, was an anarchist feminist and was around a lot of people who were political about womanhood. I’m 34 now, so that was in the early 2000s, and so I think the conversation primarily at the time, especially in those communities, wasn't necessarily about expanding beyond the gender binary, it was about expanding what womanhood could look like or what was allowed in womanhood and to be challenging those constraints. I was always involved in these very masculine coded subcultures like punk, hardcore, metal; so then transitioning to tattooing felt very natural. People would always ask me ‘what is it like to work with all these men? There's not a lot of women.’ I knew that the expected answer was ‘so oppressive’ but honestly a lot of it felt comfortable to me- not always, because a lot of that masculinity was very toxic and there were definitely times where I did feel oppressed by it- but I think it gave me permission to be in relationship with my own masculinity and my own androgyny or gender ambiguity in a way that I wasn’t getting necessarily in other places, and maybe wasn’t naming or seeing for what it was. I often worried that my identification with masculinity was just an internalized misogyny. There's this idea of toughness. There’s a huge pressure to assimilate to the dominant tattoo culture and its macho type of behavior and history, enactment and socializing that is sometimes so potent because I think, especially for the men I’ve worked with, tattooing is a space in which they can experience themselves as tough guys. The shop was a space where everyone could engage with this mythological manhood. So it was extra concentrated and extra intense at times. I would say maybe 6 or so years ago I started recognizing things I was feeling as gender dysphoria. I was starting to ask myself questions about who I was and what gender meant to me and was experimenting with binding and things like that. What happened at the time was that I accidentally outed myself in an interview that was with a pretty mainstream publication and said that I was feeling more genderfluid or nonbinary. It was the truth of how I felt but I immediately got a lot of media requests to talk about that in particular. So I just didn’t talk about it again for a long time because I didn’t feel ready to be made a spokesperson or be made a face of being nonbinary. And that was quite scary, you know, the quickness with which someone would seize on one aspect of something I said in an interview, to have that committed to the record in some way. So I shut up about it, at least in a public sense. It became something that people who were close to me knew about, but I didn’t ask for pronoun changes or anything like that. To tell you the truth I think some of that limitation was because of tattooing. I was starting to find my voice in critiquing the community and being more vocal about its issues, and I realize I have a legitimacy with tattooers and men in tattooing because I've worked alongside them for a long time. This is really sad for me to think about, but I think part of me feared I would lose that credibility if I came out as nonbinary with them because they wouldn’t understand, and that it would make it easier for them to dismiss the critiques I was leveling because they would be like ‘this is just the social justice warrior, alphabet person,’ you know what I mean? Which was definitely residual because of, I don’t know, the transphobic and heteronormative culture that I was so immersed in. For a long time I didn’t care about the pronouns people used for me as long as the people who were close to me and important to me understood that my gender is more expansive than she/her and that was all I needed. Then I got to a point where I was like, actually it's not, I'm really tired of people on the internet featuring me in things about women without even asking me first or getting asked to be in these women art shows just felt really bad. Finally I was like I can't ask people to stop doing this unless they know that I need them to stop. I didn't think of it as coming out, because I had thought of myself this way for so long, but then I realized as I was doing it that it’s kind of a big deal to share with a large following on social media.
R: Finding those spaces where you can actually reflect on your gender is so hard to do. When I was 8 I was like ‘oh I really wanted to transition’ and then was immediately hit with this wave of internalized transphobia thinking this isn’t okay, I would never see my family again, move to a different country, and for so long I put myself in this masculine space. Also as I got older, with pronouns being more visible, it felt like once you change your pronouns, those have to be it. Everyday in quarantine I would think about transitioning and how that would make me feel. Finally I was talking with one of my friends and they were like ‘I'm pretty sure you're trans,’ I was just so afraid of taking that label and having that it had to be true and I think now, I mean I’m 21 and coming up in a different time, but seeing friends think about gender first and not change their pronouns is really good to see, because at least for me it feels like there's so much focus on pronouns and not what they mean. I saw this tweet that said ‘are you actually thinking of gender and what that means and breaking your ideas of it or are you just memorizing people's pronouns,’ yeah so many people are just memorizing that shit.
T: Yeah exactly. I think asking people to use they/them pronouns for me feels primarily like asking people to think about my gender differently. At this point I don't always feel as reactive to she/her pronouns as I might have a few years ago, but when people defer to them it feels like it implies so many constraints and assumptions. Everything you said definitely resonates, when you’re in communities and relationships or have friends who are cis people, a lot of the times it just doesn't occur to them what you might need or what that kind of care and support looks like and that puts a lot of pressure on the person to have to know firstly what they need and then to ask for it. If you don’t know then you can’t ask, and you know that what you need might change. Being in a relationship with another trans person and having cultivated a really amazing community of trans tattooers allowed me a lot of space to be like ‘wow I didn't even realize this is what I needed.’
R: You touched on it a bit, was there a point at which tattooing became more gender affirming or you thought of it that way or you started getting gender affirming tattoos?
T: I think they were always that way when it came to disrupting femininity. Which was frustrating at the time when I was young, because tattoos went from being something that not a lot of women or femme presenting people had a lot of, to then right around the time where I started getting tattooed was when alternative porn became a lot more popular and visible; things like Suicide Girls or Burning Angels where you were suddenly seeing tattooed women and femmes being hypersexualized. So what started as a way to be less sexually desirable or challenging notions of desirability and womanhood was suddenly including me in this category of fetishization. Strangers’ engagement with my tattoos became to assume I was an alternative model or porn performer, so that was really frustrating because the association with this really eroticized womanhood was just not what I was going for. Ever since I first started getting tattooed, people, especially cis men, just had so many opinions about what I should or shouldn’t do with my body and what areas of my body I should or shouldn’t get tattooed, so it was really nice to have that ultimate agency and be like fuck you, ‘oh you don't like this? Guess what I'm gonna do next.’ This is so gross but I would hear it so much even with people I was dating, people being like ‘your tattoos are cool but don't ever get your breasts tattooed’ or ‘don't ever get a certain part of your body tattooed,’ like you should preserve it or keep it pristine- for someone else's consumption felt like the implication there- and so getting my chest tattooed was a really empowering intervention to be like ‘no this is my body and it isn't how you see it, it's not what you think.’
R: I surround myself with queer people, my friends are super supportive of me getting tattooed but a lot of my family really dislike it and don’t know how to say it. My Grandad’s from Iran, tattooing is against the Quran, it is not as common and so that plays into their resistance to it. My hair is thinning and I have a lot of dysphoria around that, I want to get my head tattooed as soon as I kind of know what I'm doing with my life a little more, but that's something I know I want to do. I’m rejecting this desire [placed on women and femmes] to have really thick hair. I had to explain this to my Mum, that this is something I want to do to deal with my dysphoria. When I get tattooed somewhere, I no longer feel as dysphoric [about that area], like I have a lot of bottom dysphoria but I have my legs tattooed and so when I’m naked I think ‘I have a lot of dysphoria in this area but at least my legs look really good.’ Several of those tattoos on my legs I got with the intention of seeking gender euphoria [done by Sam Ng @jaded_youth_ Maxime Plescia-Büchi @mxmttt and Aimee Niazi @aimeeniazi].
T: Yeah that's real, with my family they were mostly concerned when I started getting tattooed because at that time if you had a tattoo it was like ‘how will you get a job,’ any job. So as soon as I started tattooing as a job it swayed my Mom's anxiety that I had a career. Funnily enough I think that was the biggest thing she was worried about, rather than what I actually looked like. My family and I dont have the type of relationship where I talk to them very profoundly about gender and sexuality, and not necessarily out of fear, I feel relatively confident that my family would be pretty accepting, my brother’s gay and my sister is really supportive, but there’s a bit of a cultural and language barrier because my Mom and I communicate in Spanish. Spanish is such a gendered language and I feel pretty limited in my language [to be] sophisticated enough to communicate the full scope of what I want her to know, but I guess that’s an ongoing process.
R: I was talking to my friend about this, who is also Iranian and grew up in America, Farsi is a non-gendered language and my friend was talking about trying to explain their gender and pronouns to their Dad in a language where there are no pronouns. Our families come over and have to learn pronouns. I started using she pronouns simply so my family could have something to refer to me as. It feels a little more symbolic, I kinda prefer they/them if I'm gonna pick, I definitely use [she pronouns] as a way to signal to people who I am.
R: I have specific tattoos for gender euphoria, this one on my arm is a portrait of my future self [done by Melody Methakul @methcakes] and I remember coming home and using that to explain to people like ‘this is me.’ Did you have a specific gender euphoria tattoo?
T: Not that I can pinpoint exactly. I don't know if that was necessarily a conscious choice in the same way. I definitely have some tattoos that do make me dysphoric that I got before I was thinking about my gender in this way, that reference womanhood or femaleness that I want to, not cover up, but intervene upon in some way. I have this one that didn’t age well, it's in reference to this very particular historical witch identity but now it just looks like weird second wave terfiness because it’s “womyn” with a Y. So yeah, not for me.
R: I have been thinking a lot about Photographing Objects as Queer Archival Practice by Ann Cvetkovich, it mainly talks about photography, I read it for uni and then re-read it while thinking about tattooing. I thought of this “archive of feelings,” that's pretty much tattooing. Reading your book [Could this be magic? Tattooing as Liberation Work], one of the core ideas that stood out to me is how tattoos relate to body as archive. What does archiving mean to you?
T: I love the idea of archive, because archives of different types have given me so much and really been a way for me to trace my own relationships and identities and situate myself in relation to past and to history. I think we can become so anxious about the current day, who we are, feeling like everything is a new and challenging endeavor. [Acknowledging that] these questions have existed for so long is a really useful antidote to that anxiety. Being reminded we were not the first people to do most things and practice these practices. I also try to be less precious about it because I don't want to approach the archive from a fear or scarcity mentality- I don't want to feel like I have to preserve my present with an iron grasp to make sure that I'm remembered or my friends are remembered. There's something about that ongoing self-memorialization that can make you really self conscious and impede you from living freely. I have friends who work with archiving as an artistic medium, who I deeply admire and respect, and are able to preserve such incredible things and I love that. But maybe similarly to what I was saying about tattoos being elusive, I'm interested in audio archive and storytelling archive and that’s why I’m going back to school to be an oral historian, because that type of preservation feels a little more complete to me. There's an excitement to tracing breadcrumbs and finding this one photo or one poster from so long ago, but being able to capture a person's story in its entirety- I feel a crucialness to that. Especially in a field like tattooing where there's a lack of that kind of thing and there is so much self aggrandizing mythology. But that is part of what makes tattooing cool right? It's about tall tales, it's about creating mythos about yourself and your friends, but the thing about that is that it's so easily manipulated, and is being manipulated to the ends of the dominant culture. It feels like an important way to push back against that to make sure there are records of people that can’t be written out of existence by a revisionist mythology of tattooing. Recording queer and trans narratives as they’re happening so people can’t be like ‘there’s never been trans people in tattooing’ a few years from now, I don’t think thats the trajectory that we’re on, but just to make sure, or even so the people in the future have something to look back on without feeling alone.
Documentary Essay Photography Tattooist This and that