Most fairy tales begin with an ill-advised trip into the deep, dark woods—home to wolves, witches, and other monstrous beasts. For tattoo artist Noel'le Longhaul, wilderness also serves as the focal point of their art, alongside their intersecting identities as a queer trans person and a witch. Like pages ripped from an old children's book, Longhaul's work combines the gloomy delicacy of an Edward Gorey illustration with the familiar nature iconography drawn from folklore: ravens, twisted vines and wildflowers, and beasts of prey.
The 25-year-old Great Falls, Massachusetts-based artist and musician, who uses "she/her" and "they/them" pronouns, learnt their craft by tattooing themselves and their friends over a period of several years. Longhaul graduated with a BFA in printmaking from the Rhode Island School of Design, though they now work full time as a tattoo artist at Charon Art Visionary Tattoo, where they describe their work as a kind of "blood magic," and tattooing as a ritual that they mainly practice with other trans and queer people to help them carve out a safer, more comfortable home in their bodies. We spoke to Longhaul about witchcraft, trans visibility, and the magical possibilities of tattooing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
BROADLY: How did you first get into tattooing?
I gave myself my first tattoo when I was in high school… Then I started getting tattoos in a shop, but my experiences were universally pretty unpleasant. In the first six months of being 18, I got like four tattoos and [then] didn't get another tattoo from a studio for six years. In that time I was mostly being tattooed by friends and tattooing myself; a lot of it was a way of marking out what I would now call ritual space with people who were trying to find ways of helping each other, tell each other's stories, and inhabit each other's bodies.
**Read more: How Grace Miceli's *Tattoos* Keep Bad Men Away**
Why did you find your first tattoo experiences in shops so unpleasant?
A lot of it was about where I was at. I was still very closeted and had no frame of reference for knowing what I actually wanted or knowing how to engage with my body, so I was clinging on to these little symbols of connection that I would get tattooed on me. But most tattoo artists aren't generally in a position where they're trained to offer is a deeper listening process than just the structure of what somebody wants. I think I needed something different from what that shop could hold. And the particular shop was also just a pretty toxic, hyper-masculine space that just like wasn't at all equipped to engage with the nuances of the fragility of where I was at with my body. Those tattoos are the only tattoos I have that I'm actively covering [with other art].
How does your own identity as a trans person interact with what you do as a tattoo artist?
For me, learning tattooing was really wrapped up in my process of learning to be trans and what that meant for me. It was a way to take a fraught, complicated, and largely unaided relationship with my body and try to have it more on my terms. And other people seeing my tattoos first before they see my gender is a practical, material reason—I've always jumped towards wanting to be heavily tattooed [and] not having my gender being one of the first things that people see and process.
Do you think it's also a visibility thing—is it about asserting space when people see you?
Yeah, I think it's about power. I really relish that being heavily tattooed makes me feel less vulnerable when I'm out in the world. It's a way to have that visibility be more on my terms because my predominant relationship with being seen is opening up a pathway of harm. If people have to move through this kind of dark labyrinth of imagery before they can kinda get to me, that makes me feel safer.
Can you tell me a bit more about how you developed your own aesthetic style?
I drew all the time when I was a kid and spent like tons of time in the woods, building fairy houses and little shelters, just hanging out with plants and animals and being a freak and talking to them. A lot of the art that I make just looks like where I'm from. I grew up in the hills in western Massachusetts and traveled and lived in other places for six to seven years and I live there again. I feel like the things I make art about are the places that carried me.
On your Instagram page, you describe yourself as a witch. Can you tell me more about that?
It was something that I had an intuitive relationship with as a really young person. I spent a lot of time alone when I was growing up—kids are very good at alienating trans kids very young because they can just tell that you're not on the team and something else is going on. Experiencing that alienation through my peers at a very young age and stretching on into my adulthood, I turned to liminal spaces where I could find power in places that people were telling me I shouldn't be looking for power. For me to identify with witchcraft is to identify with a centuries-old struggle against patriarchy. And the church. And whiteness.
How does your identity as a witch fit in with your tattooing, if at all?
My tattooing is an exercise of multiple things of my identity and my practices. It's a nexus of my queerness; at a nexus of my art practice; at a nexus of all of these things that intersect with each other into this structured and ritualized space.
For me, tattooing is as much about feminized labor as it is about witchcraft. It's a way for me to actually engage with capitalism and claim that feminine labor and practice of magic as being valuable and deserving of compensation. It feels like both magic and tattooing are about the construction of secret hidden spaces where we can use ritual and intention to cast up this dome [to] inhabit a position of collaborative power. For me, listening to people [talk about] what their tattoos are going to be and what their stories are feels immediately at the intersection of all my political identities.
You've called tattooing a ritual a couple of times now. What do you find about tattoos that is so ritualistic?
Everything about it. The process of setting up, meeting somebody… For me, a lot of what ritual is about—both in tattooing and generally—is the process of finding the pathways and doors that are usually closed off to us—through factors like the state and other oppressive branches of thought and culture—to imagine how things could be different. They try to funnel us through these narrow corridors; rituals are about pausing in that corridor and opening up autonomous space so that the closed doors can be revealed.
Or expanding those corridors.
Or even just, like, trying to find a way out of the building.