This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Accounts of abusive behaviour in the tattoo industry are typically confined to whisper networks. A close-knit community with a hierarchy that sees the most influential artists positioned – and protected – at the top, allegations of sexual assault and racism often become open secrets and stop there, lingering in a liminal space of accountability. But just like the film, tech and gaming industries, the world of tattooing now faces its own reckoning.
At the end of May, countless women began to speak out about being sexually assaulted and harassed by male tattoo artists in the UK. Sharing their experiences mainly on Instagram, similar accounts came up again and again of men repeatedly using their position to take advantage of their clients, cross boundaries, send sexually explicit messages without consent and act abusively within romantic relationships.
Set up in March, an Instagram account called Tattooists Sexual Assault Survivor Support (TSASS) began to receive hundreds of messages from women coming forward with allegations. Artists from all over the world assembled under the name "Tattoo Me Too Recovery Artists" offering to fix, rework and finish pieces for victims of abusers in the industry. After being called out publicly, two Norwich-based artists acknowledged their behaviour in Instagram posts on the 4th of June and announced their intent to leave the industry. Many other artists who'd had allegations levelled against them went quiet, or simply shrugged them off.
As all this unfolded, conversations about systemic racism also began to take place within the tattoo industry, in the wake of George Floyd's killing and the ensuing international protests against racism and police brutality. Glasgow-based tattooist Charissa, who works under the name Rizza Boo, launched Shades Tattoo Initiative in June as an educational platform and support network for Black and POC tattoo artists in the UK. High-profile UK tattooists like Grace Neutral also used their Instagram accounts to host conversations between Black tattooists like Charissa and Montana Blue, addressing the current climate in tattooing and racism in the industry in general. Meanwhile, New York-based artist Doreen Garner called for people to discuss their experiences of anti-Blackness in tattooing, such as Black clients being turned away, overcharged or told tattoos "don’t look good on their skin".
Tattooing has become increasingly diverse over the last decade, due to its mainstream popularity and accessibility via social media platforms like Instagram. Growing numbers of women, Black, POC and trans artists have been able to enter the industry by working around the more "traditional" and gate-kept pathways to success. However, while the landscape of tattooing may have changed, the dominant culture and attitudes have remained largely the same. Artists advocating for change are frequently met with resistance from those keen to hold on to a western perception of tattoo "tradition" that revolves predominantly around whitewashed imagery of the military, motorcycle gangs and prisoners – all commonly associated with the "white male outcast". While there is a longstanding tradition of borrowing from other cultures within tattooing that can lean towards cultural appropriation, Charissa says the bigger issue is when "folks from those cultures are then not given a voice or a proper place within the tattoo community".
"The narrative that tattooing is a white male industry is only partially true, and I think we need to start re-reading the story," Charissa explains over email. "The industry would not be what it is without people of colour. Historically, tattooing came from us, brown people! Tattooing does not belong to white men, it belongs to all of us, so this shift that is happening is absolutely necessary."
"They're scared of things changing," Fidjit Lavelle, a 30-year-old artist based in Glasgow, says over Skype. A long-time advocate for survivors of rape and domestic abuse, Fidjit is best known for her designs of figures with their heads partially underwater, symbolising anxiety, depression and PTSD, which have come to be referred to as "The Drowning Girls Club".
"They feel like something is being taken away from them, or you're trying to strip them of their rights or tell them what they can or can’t do, but that’s an incredibly intense conclusion to jump to," she says, referring to the industry’s usual response to sexual assault. "There’s this whole idea that ‘no one’s safe anymore’ or ‘everyone’s going to get outed’. I think people are just using tradition as an excuse not to step up and do what needs to be done because they’re frightened, which makes me question them. If you’ve not done anything wrong, then you’ve got nothing to be afraid of."
The prevailing figure of the "white male outcast" is one that often shuts down conversation in tattooing, as a high proportion of men in the industry come from difficult or working class backgrounds, and generally tend to view themselves as being left-leaning or anti-establishment. Many seem to find it difficult to reconcile what’s stacked against them with their capacity to inflict harm on others. When pulled up, they get defensive – and so do their fans. The exact same problem can be seen within alternative music scenes, which the tattoo industry overlaps with, as hardcore, punk and metal communities continue to be rife with abuse, and dominated by white men.
Tattooing is predicated on a mutual feeling of trust and respect. Sessions are physically and emotionally draining and, in addition to being in the vulnerable position of having their physical appearance permanently altered by a relative stranger, clients are also more likely to be vulnerable themselves. Studies have noted that one of the first ports of call for people who have experienced trauma, for example, is to get body modification done as a way to regain control of their bodies and their environment.
"Sometimes there is deep emotional attachment to the piece someone is trying to get tattooed," says Charissa. "We are changing their physical appearance, the visible look of the person's skin, and this requires that we speak about skin, skin tone and colour much more often than other workplaces […] We are then faced with a unique set of issues and specific micro-aggressions, which black and IPOC folks are subjected to within tattoo shop environments."
It takes an admirable bedside manner to make someone feel comfortable for up to eight hours at a time while working with their body so intimately and painfully. But the old school mentality of tattooing is one that puts the artist rather than the client first. Like musicians or performers, people come to them because they like what they do, and therefore they’re in control of the experience. That mentality is still prevalent today, and is further complicated by the deregulated nature of the industry.
Tattooing has no central organised structure, no professional guild, no background checks and nothing resembling a human resources department to oversee employment standards. For many artists, that’s part of the appeal (plus: anyone who’s dealt with the aforementioned bodies will know they do little to combat abuse of power in workplaces where they do exist). That means accountability has to come from within the industry itself, which it rarely does.
It’s no secret that female-identifying tattoo artists, especially Black and POC artists, struggle to gain respect while starting out, especially within male-dominated studios where there tends to be more bravado. Several women contacted for this piece tell me they’ve had to deal with apprenticeships where they’ve been ignored or made to clean the room 25 times in a row with no advice or instruction on how to actually tattoo, worked in studios where male artists have made derogatory comments about clients or had sex with them behind the screens, or been told they might get further with their work if they posted "raunchy photos or did nudes".
The power imbalances in the industry don't just exist among artists themselves, but also between the artist and the person getting tattooed. Beyond a very clear fuck-up with the actual tattoo, there’s little to no recourse for anyone who experiences harm in a tattoo studio or, as is increasingly common these days, a setting where an artist works alone or from home. As a result, predatory behaviour, racist attitudes and abuse of power often go unchecked.
"I really love the fact that it’s an underground industry, even though it’s not so much anymore,” says Fidjit. “You’re free to be your own person and do as you please, and it’s sad that it looks like that’ll have to end, because it really is one of the best parts of it – but there’s a lot of people walking about blindly in tattooing, not even realising that the way they treat and talk to clients is something they need to worry about."
Lucy Pigeon, a 28-year-old tattoo artist from Surrey, founded TSASS in February – initially as a Facebook group, then as an Instagram page in March – to address sexist attitudes in the industry, help victims and share resources. Lucy conceived of TSASS as a safe space for people to vocalise their experiences. "Having an anonymous or benign person to hold onto that for you and share the burden can be really helpful for a lot of people, I think," she tells me over Skype. “I’ve actually been assaulted twice on two different occasions by tattoo artists, and with both of them I was a fan of their work. I thought I wasn’t valuable enough to warrant ruining their reputation or their career, and I still feel guilt over it, almost, but it doesn’t negate the fact that they should be held responsible. That contributes to people being silent for so long.”
A few weeks into May, emboldened by the posts of a few high profile artists, people began to name names. Artists and clients alike started to talk about their experiences of sexual misconduct from men who tattooed them – some publicly, some privately, many for the first time. Within the space of a few weeks, the pages for TSASS and Tattoo Me Too Recovery Artists went from having a few hundred followers to a few thousand. Both groups became inundated with DMs from people coming forward to speak about their experiences. At the end of the first week, Lucy’s screen time showed that she’d spent 70 hours on Instagram alone replying to messages to TSASS. "It’s overwhelming, but obviously shows there’s a massive need for this kind of platform for people," she says.
This is perhaps the closest the UK has come to what happened in North America in January of 2018, when hundreds of women accused men who tattooed them of sexual misconduct. A Jezebel report at the time called it “the industry’s own version of a #MeToo moment”, but nothing on the same level has happened in the UK, where problems within the industry are compounded by strict libel laws that leave those who speak up open to potential defamation.
"I think a lot of these people are afforded rock star status,” Lucy says, arguing that certain artists are put on a pedestal and protected by their friends, large followings and influence. “Why would you believe Jane Doe compared with this Goliath figure in the community? People are scared of taking down these big names.”
“People don’t want to rock the boat or say something about someone they think is influential,” Fidjit agrees. “The whole point, though, is that [artists] know they’re in these positions, so they feel like they can get away with anything they want – and they do most of the time, because people won’t challenge them, and people see them as something far more than they actually are. There’s a lot of abuse of power, where [artists] know full well that young girls look up to them, and maybe want to start tattooing themselves. That’s used and exploited all the time.”
Charissa adds: “There are just too many stories of people of colour having awful experiences in tattoo studios. One of the main words we are hearing thrown around at the moment is accountability. I think that, within tattooing studios, a large amount of this rests on studio owners and managers to make sure there is a level of professionalism being maintained. I’ve worked in a lot of different types of studios and that is not always the case.”
Several studios have opened over the last decade – including Saved Tattoo and Welcome Home in Brooklyn, and east London’s New Language (co-founded by Philadelphia-born artist Morgan Myers) – with a safe space ethos, holding anti-racism, anti-sexism, anti-homophobia and anti-transphobia at the centre of their practice.
"I think tattooing is experiencing a reckoning in that the industry can no longer treat clients as interchangeable or secondary to the practice – we are being required as a field to demonstrate that we value our client’s lives and humanity, not simply their commercial value as clients," Tamara Santibañez, an artist at Saved Tattoo, explains over email. "The practice of expecting all tattooers to approach their craft in the same uniform way can function similarly to assuming that if one treats all clients 'the same' it will result in fair and equal customer service. What this doesn’t acknowledge is that each artist and each client brings their own unique set of experiences and identities to the tattoo exchange, and that what might be fair treatment for one client could be wholly unfair to another."
Before the pandemic, Saved Tattoo held events with the Women’s Prison Association in New York, offering free cover-ups and reworks of tattoos on women who have been justice impacted. In collaboration with the WPA, Tamara put together a workshop informed by the needs of clients who are trauma-impacted or survivors of violence. It was recently consolidated into a free pamphlet called Trauma Informed Tattooing, which describes ways to integrate informed consent into the tattooing process, practical ways to be mindful of boundaries and tips for active listening.
"I notice a huge disconnect in how tattooers perceive themselves to be doing a fine job and how they might be – often inadvertently – harming their clients," Tamara says. "The artists perpetuating harm are likely not getting feedback or disclosure of this fact, and the people who are being trusted with that information tend to be women, queer and trans artists, as well as Black, Indigenous and other people of colour, who are then disbelieved or dismissed by the dominant culture tattooers when they try to advocate for change."
These pamphlets have begun to make their way around the industry through word of mouth, and are an example of the kind of educational material that could guide studios and artists in the future. But the power dynamics that cause abuse to go unchecked in the industry can be invisible and difficult to name and unlearn. As Tamara explains, they can extend to "cultural capital, industry seniority, shop favouritism and a culture that prioritises a tattoo artist’s position as the professional provider and minimises the lived experience that a client has in getting tattooed". Deconstructing that is a long and slow process, but one that is currently underway – little by little.
It can be a painful learning curve for some. After interviews for this piece were conducted, some survivors said they received replies from TSASS and Tattoo Me Too Recovery Artists that were dismissive, minimising and contained apologist sentiments in instances where the person responding knew the accused tattooist personally.
Both accounts have since posted apologies. Responding to a request for follow-up comment, Lucy directed VICE to a public statement later published on the TSASS Instagram page: "I have still made mistakes in my effort to provide support, and for that I am truly sorry," Lucy wrote. "I’m just a tattooist and a fellow survivor trying desperately to provide a service that is clearly needed." A similar statement was issued by Tattoo Me Too Recovery Artists, which reads: “We have since learned a lot about how to deal with these situations and survivors and work closely with charities to be able to help the industry in the future.” (Tattoo Me Too did not respond to VICE's initial request for comment).
Perhaps above all else, this highlights just how many people have been affected by abuse within the industry and how few opportunities there have been to vocalise it. While this isn’t the first time women in the UK have spoken out, it is one of the most unified efforts to address the issue. There have been several suggestions on how to improve things – one being an enhanced DBS check that would flag if someone has been arrested for a sexual offence – but Fidjit worries about the impact that would have on people with criminal records in general.
"I also just don’t think it would work, because these people generally don’t have any legal convictions for this because it’s so hard to get one," she says. "Most people don’t have a conviction for rape, sexual assault or domestic abuse, and a lot of people haven’t been arrested for it either."
Tamara agrees: "Though I do believe tattooers should have more resources for navigating professional needs, I simultaneously believe that trying to standardise those needs and serve them with a single organisation would leave out and further marginalise many of the people practicing tattooing who aren’t acknowledged by tattoo artists in shops."
Charissa, Fidjit, Lucy and Tamara all believe that the responsibility for accountability ultimately lies with the artist, but that studios can certainly do more to set community standards, expectations and consequences for bad behaviour. As tattooing becomes more diverse – both in terms of its clientele and its tattooists – it's more important than ever for all artists to be respectful and sensitive to people's individual needs. Rather than trying to impose a more formalised structure onto an industry that has never had one, though, tattooists seem to agree that the way forward is through better studio diversity, education and a zero tolerance policy.
"Studios can set the tone for the cultural norms that exist within their walls, and can act as contact points for feedback on their clients' experiences," Tamara says. "If tattooing wants to be so individualistic and self-regulating, individuals need to step up to actually being accountable, rather than using those industry qualities to avoid responsible engagement."
"I think that change comes from people adopting a zero tolerance policy," says Fidjit. "That’s how you stop predators becoming successful in the tattoo industry. When you’re informed of what they are don’t excuse their actions because of their status. Stop letting them in your studios, stop putting them in magazines, stop having them at conventions, stop reposting their work on social media. Call them out on their bullshit and get rid of them. No double standards either, the same rule applies to all predators."
"There must be education for tattooers about how to speak with their clients of colour in a way which is more respectful, and that they are aware of what micro-aggressions they could be inflicting on another person," Charissa adds. "If you can’t take the time to see that, then I really don’t think you should be permanently altering that individual's body at all."
If you or anyone you know has been affected by the issues raised in this story, please use the following resources for help and support. In the UK Refuge ’s freephone 24-hour National Domestic Abuse Helpline is 0808 2000 247. The Rape Crisis Helpline is 0808 802 9999 (England and Wales), 08088 01 03 02 (Scotland) and 0800 0246 991 (Northern Ireland).
Editor's note: this article was updated at 00:31AM on July 7th to include an additional quote on zero tolerance policies from Fidjit.