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Tattooing

The Tattoo Industry Doesn't Have to Be Dominated By Straight White Men

Instagram has allowed women and people of colour in the UK and US to build alternative routes into a career that has traditionally excluded them.

by Aimee Cliff; illustrated by Ella Strickland de Souza
11 July 2019, 7:01am

As you walk towards New Language, a tattoo studio tucked away in a residential area of east London, two words shout from the lettering on the front door: WELCOME ALL. It's an inconspicuous space. Frosted windows maintain the privacy of the people inside, and it's not immediately recognisable as a tattoo shop – but the words above the shopfront make it clear that anyone is allowed in.

Morgan Myers, the shop's founder, greets me with a big smile and an offer of tea. Myers had an unconventional route into the world of tattooing. She grew up in Philadelphia and began learning from her mum's biker friend before doing an apprenticeship at an underground shop in South Korea. She later worked in Berlin before settling in London, where she tattooed at Sacred Art in Stoke Newington. After that, Morgan wanted to create her own space, which she modelled after Manhattan experimental art space The Stone.

Morgan specialises in precise, fine-line classical realism, and invites a stream of guest artists from around the world to tattoo in their own distinctive styles at New Language – "people that are pushing the boundaries," she explains. She thinks of her tattoo shop like a gallery: "It can stay stale if you don't have the most contemporary people coming through. You have to keep the energy going and inspire people."

New Language Tattoo Studio London
Photo via New Language

New Language is just one example of how tattoo shops are evolving in the digital age. There's no longer the need for flash to be advertised on the walls, nor the requisite pounding heavy metal soundtrack – and, more to the point, there are more diverse people on the other side of the needle. In 2010, Columbia University found that only women only comprised one in six tattoo artists. With unpaid apprenticeships in male-dominated studios operating as the traditional route into tattooing, it's long been a career that felt closed off to anyone outside the boys' network – particularly for queer people, people of colour, and anyone who didn't fit the very narrow, macho stereotype of a tattoo artist. But a new normal for the industry is emerging, thanks to the rise of social media platforms like Instagram and the hard work of entrepreneurial female trailblazers.

In the West, tattooing blossomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a distinctly white, male, working-class industry. Some artists learned how to tattoo on the carnival or circus circuit; others were recruited through ads in men's magazines. First published in 1999 and updated in 2013, Margot Mifflin's book Bodies of Subversion studies the history of women being tattooed.

"American tattooing in the early 20th century was rooted in military and maritime culture, which sowed the seeds of the machismo that dominated it for much of the century," Mifflin explains over email. "Lots of pioneering women tattooists faced harassment in men’s shops and some artists (and clients) still do. Some women have opened female-staffed shops in response to this."

"But at this point, tattooing is so much more mainstream that top quality shops are more like salons, and customer service is part of the professional protocol. Anyone who does their research knows that if a staffer or artist makes them feel uncomfortable when they walk in, they should leave. Social media makes it easier to learn in advance who to avoid, as well as for women artists to share trade information that might once have been guarded."

In Shoreditch, just up the road from New Language, Roxy Velvet is one tattooer with her own women-staffed space. Alive with the buzz of machines and the smell of Purell, Velvet Underground feels every inch the traditional tattoo shop – aside from the splashes of pink lighting falling on the wide fronds of house plants. Velvet has wanted to work in the industry since she was a teenager. "When I was 18, I bowled into the local tattoo shop dressed like Tank Girl and was like, 'I want to be a tattoo artist'," she laughs. "The guy was so horrible to me, I don't think I went into another tattoo shop for about ten years."

After being diverted into a career in circus performance, Velvet re-discovered her love of tattoos and began learning how to do it herself while living in Thailand. She later took up a job in a shop in Stockholm before coming back to London, where she specialises in richly detailed, realist portraits and florals. Before she founded Velvet Underground in 2017, Velvet worked in shops that were less than welcoming to women. Many of the artists who joined her initial roster came from shops where they also struggled with hyper-masculine tattoo culture.

"The girls got picked on, or were made to feel not as important or not as good," she tells me. "I remember this one artist losing his shit because I put a box of tampons in the toilet, and going, 'What, are we going to have next, lollipops?'"

Elsewhere in London, Emily Malice – known for her femme gothic tattoos with bold black lines – also found it difficult to get a foot in the door of the industry when she was starting out. Like Velvet, she walked into a tattoo shop with her designs when she was young (in Malice's case, she'd just graduated from university in Nottingham) and felt laughed at and dismissed. "People were very derogatory towards me and my work, or would just focus on my appearance," she says over the phone. "I got laughed out of a lot of shops."

When Malice eventually landed an apprenticeship in Lincoln and more jobs in the Midlands, she too experienced sexism in the workplace. "Because I wore make-up to work, I was seen as a bloody tart. There were definitely people that went out of their way to hurt me, or to not help me. They just dismissed me, they didn't see me as an equal."

For some artists, apprenticeships just aren't worth the potential harassment and marginalisation. Doreen Garner – a Brooklyn sculptor, performance artist and tattooist known for delicately shaded florals as well as her Black Panther flash series – remembers initially thinking that tattooing wasn't the medium for her.

"I had preconceptions that I absolutely had to complete an unpaid apprenticeship in order to learn how to tattoo," she reflects in an email. "What kept me from pursuing the practice for so long was the fear that I would have to be taking orders from white men and be expected to do whatever they say, silently enduring inappropriate comments and physical interactions that could possibly compromise my values and personal standards as a woman and as a black person in America."

That was three years ago. It was only when she met Tamara Santibanez, a New York-based tattoo artist who encouraged Garner to teach herself, that she realised she could have a tattoo practice on her own terms. "After my conversation with Tamara, I went and got my tattoo license, bought the equipment and began practicing on myself and friends."

Garner says that the western culture of tattooing centres whiteness with flash images and 'traditional' styles that rarely acknowledge "black people or the culture of the Black American experience". She has tried to build a tattoo practice on her terms that offered an aesthetic counterpoint to this. "I attempt to fill in some of the gaps where images of blackness have been purposefully left out of the industry."

In bypassing the traditional apprenticeship, many artists are finding they have space to develop a more experimental style. For Suki Lune, a self-taught tattooist who works out of the southeast London studio South City Market, DIY spirit is integral to her art. "I owe all my roots to DIY culture, which is mostly where naive, ignorant, contemporary tattoo styles are being born from," she says in an email. Her tattoos are sprawling, playful single-line drawings; each one she creates is totally unique.

Lune learnt to tattoo after a tattoo artist ex-boyfriend suggested that she get a hobby. "Now he pops up to ask me for advice," she quips. She worked front of house at a "super old school" tattoo shop, where she learned about book-keeping and hygiene – apprenticeship skills she acknowledges as important. But, she adds: "What else can you do when you can’t afford to live in London for two years before you start getting paid? [Tattooing is] such a gated and inaccessible industry, it makes tattooers look like gods. There’s a lot of ego and secrecy. There’s so many incredible artists emerging that want to be taken seriously, and deserve a space and a platform to do that."

The question of unpaid apprenticeships is inseparable from the question of why the industry is so white and male. As Garner puts it: "In America, who is allowed to inflict pain on other people? Who can survive unpaid for up to three years for an apprenticeship? Who are the victims of racial profiling? Who are the victors of racial profiling? Who are victims of sexual assault? Who are rarely exposed and held accountable for committing sexual assault? These are just a few points that in my opinion explain why this system where white men occupy the majority of full-time positions in tattoo shops throughout America has sustained itself for so many years. Gatekeepers in the industry are dedicated to preserving that system."

For Myers, the idea that someone has to complete an apprenticeship to qualify as an tattooist is old hat. Her "WELCOME ALL" ethos is exactly that – she says that young artists at New Language often refer to her as a "tattoo mom", as she'll gently teach them best practice if they haven't learned it elsewhere. "It's just part of welcoming people and not being critical of their practice," she says.

Social media is integral for artists like Garner and Lune who disdain traditional apprenticeships and want to operate outside of the intimidating machismo of tattoo shops – especially for attracting customers. "Back in the day, you'd have to walk into the shop and look at the portfolios there,” Malice says. "Now, Instagram is the portfolio."

In Velvet's experience, social media has opened up tattooing to people who never thought they could get tattooed. Women in their 40s and 50s find Velvet Underground online and seek it out, feeling safe to get tattooed there as opposed to in a shop run by men. "I don't want them to feel like they have to belong to any kind of walk of life in order to be allowed a tattoo," Velvet says. "It's interesting, because some of them say, 'I've always wanted this, I've always just been too scared'."

Instagram can help clients browse portfolios and book appointments, but it also gives female artists the entrepreneurial tools they need to bypass sexist workplace structures. "Tattooing is an industry where a woman can build a career because they're self-employed," Velvet reflects. "The artists aren't on a salary, they don't have to go through HR and interviews in a big company to be chosen for a job. The individual client chooses them – and if lots of clients choose them, they become busy and successful. Who's to stop them?"

Velvet describes herself as a keen feminist, but doesn't necessarily label her shop that way – you're not going to get an earful of Simone de Beauvoir or bell hooks if you come to Velvet Underground. It's like any other tattoo shop, minus the harassment or macho posturing. "People assume we're these bra-burning, rampant feminists," she says, "But we're all different. All the [artists] have their own opinions, their own values. They all respect each others' different personalities, and they all benefit from being able to come into work and not get sexually harassed by anyone."

Myers also emphasises the inclusivity of her studio, but veers away from labelling it a "safe space". In her view, tattoo studios are art spaces, and art should be challenging. In the future, she hopes New Language will encompass tattoo machine building ("there are no female machine builders dominating the industry"), talks, lectures and even a bookshop.

While Morgan she welcomes the changes that social media has brought to the industry, she is also aware of its drawbacks. "Instagram itself is very neoliberal,” she explains. “It's revolutionised the industry, to have a platform that is really visual – that's incredible. But then you're at the mercy of that platform."

What's more important than being on a platform where an algorithm change could quickly render you obsolete, she says, is the building of physical spaces, where an alternative and welcoming tattooing community can be nurtured.

"I don't want to rag on this kind of metal-blaring 'angry' tattoo shop – that's their thing," says Myers. "But Instagram allows people to pick and choose, and see that some spaces might be more catered to them and make them feel safe... Now, there's so many alternatives."

@aimeecliff

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.