When I got on the phone with Lorri "Lady L" Thomas, it was her 34th birthday, and she was at work. The buzzing noise in the background clued me in: I was on speakerphone, and the award-winning tattoo artist was skin-deep into a half-sleeve piece—a tree that blended into a root that formed the shape of Africa.
“My earliest memories of tattooing… I actually taught myself,” she told me, not missing a beat. “I was tattooing illegally from my home. Twelve years ago, it was really hard for me to find an apprenticeship.” These days, however, she has clients far and wide who seek her stylistically unlimited hand.
Her story echoes that of many other black women tattoo artists, who unfortunately make up a small portion of the professional tattooing industry. Her success, however, manifests itself in a way that aims to change that. Not only is the mother of two (with another one on the way) a resident artist at Detroit Ink Spot, she’s also the founder of the Ladies of Ink Tour, a summer circuit that sees the artist and six other black females touting their talents in shops across the country. With expanded tour dates just announced for May, Lady L gave me the skinny on tattoo culture, her journey, and how to get in with the of Ladies of Ink.
VICE: So I was watching the Color Outside the Lines documentary, and there’s a really good story about how you got your first clients. Can you tell it to me?
Lorri "Lady L" Thomas: Yeah, I got my first clients from strip clubs. I lived in Michigan, where the climate is mostly cold throughout the year. We don’t get the chance to really show our bodies off. So a lot of my mentors were from down South, and their clients came throughout the year because they wanted to show their stuff off. So I said to myself, Who shows their body off year round? Who will refer me because somebody else will see their tattoos? Um, dancers. So I started going to male and female strip clubs, and they became some of my first clientele. I tattooed them, like, a lot.
You started working out of your home. Do you think that’s an important step toward becoming a professional tattooer?
For the most part, I always had a professional setup, so even though it was from home, I would set it up like I had a tattoo shop. I wouldn’t suggest it, because as far as your safety, having people come visit the place where you lay your head isn’t the best idea. It’s kind of dangerous, especially nowadays.
What was it like when you got your first spot at a tattoo shop?
It was different. I was scared, because you’re so used to doing stuff on your own, and to work around all these wonderful artists, I wasn’t that comfortable at first. But I learned so much that gradually I was able to pick up on things. I learned from others around me. That’s how you get better. I really think that working in a shop is better than working by yourself. Unless you worked in a shop before and you were a great artist and want to have a private studio, that’s different. But if you don’t need to work alone, work with other artists because they challenge you to be better.
Do you think it was more difficult because you’re a woman?
Sometimes, yes. A lot of people still to this day can’t believe that I’m a tattoo artist. Like, some people, they’ll ask for referrals and always say, "Who’s your tattoo man?" Or if I come to answer the door for our shop, they’ll think I’m a receptionist. There’s still a lot of sexism in the industry, and, sometimes, the people that you work with. However, I was blessed to not really have to go through that too much. The guys I’ve been working with, I’ve been working with them for over eight years. I’ve never really had too much discrimination in my own shop, whereas maybe when you get a guest spot and you’re really trying to get in there, others might discriminate. I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m a woman, or the fact that I’m actually a black woman in an industry that’s still dominated by Caucasian males.
Is that why you think there aren’t that many black female tattoo artists?
I believe it’s a challenge. You have to earn your respect in anything you do, but it’s definitely a little harder. We’re not welcomed with open arms everywhere, especially right now. There’s so much racial tension because of our dear president, so it’s kind of making things a little bit worse. But all we can do is just fight through it and do the best we can. I earn my respect with my work, and that’s that.
Have you seen the significance of tattoos change for black people in the past 12 years?
Oh, yes. More people are getting things that are more meaningful. I’ve never really been a flash artist, meaning I enjoy doing custom work for people. I think more people are actually understanding that and getting stuff that really means something to them, rather than just picking something off a sheet of paper that’s already made up.
Have the styles changed?
Yes, a lot. Before, I used to dread doing butterflies. It seemed like everybody wanted butterflies, or the guys wanted old English letters. But sometimes it’s just from not knowing what else is out there. That’s when I say, "Look, there are more flowers than a rose. Let’s look at them." Or, "Who is the person that you want to get a memorial for? Let’s not just get anything. Let’s get something where, when you look at this tattoo, you'll say, 'This actually reminds me of that person.'" I encourage self-expression. I encourage people to actually put some thought into their tattoo.
What compelled you to start the Ladies of Ink tour?
When you get into an industry like this, you want to see somebody you relate to. When I first started, I couldn’t really find any black women back then in the industry, and it was astonishing. I was like, Wow, this is something crazy. You see black nurses, you see black doctors, you see black police officers, but when you go to the tattoo conventions, you don’t see black women. So then when I was on social media, I looked until I found a couple of people. It definitely changed from when I first started—there are a lot more black women—so what I wanted to do was connect everybody, and bring everybody together. I felt like it was needed for our culture, to show them that we can work as one and will. A lot of TV shows portray a lot of ratchet-ness, and everybody’s not like that. We are really trying to earn our respect in this industry. We can work together, and we can be a force. A power. That’s one of my reasons why I wanted to inspire other black women. Now we’re in here, so come join us if there’s something you’re interested in. I want to be a motivation for that.
How did you get in touch with the other ladies?
I’d been following them through social media for a while, and I had the idea maybe about six years ago now. I decided to start following more people, looking at their work as it grew over the years, and then I got people into an Instagram group message and told them my idea. I asked them if they would be interested, and surprisingly most of them said yeah. Not everybody understands or is comfortable leaving their comfort zone—you have some artists that are completely OK with just staying at their location. They’re scared about traveling because they’re scared they won’t have clients and stuff like that. But I have people now who believe in my vision, and it actually works out for the best. We usually have clients everywhere we go.
Nice. Is it hard finding places to work out of?
Sometimes, because there’s still a lot of racism in the industry. Sometimes it can be hard, especially in Texas and on the West Coast, but we have people who are able to welcome us with open arms. We appreciate that. It’s not going to stop us from going to the West Coast. We’re just going to do it our own way, figure it out.
What advice would you give a young artist who wanted one day to be part of the Ladies of Ink tour?
I always tell them that I'll add them to my roster. I have a roster called the Ladies of Ink Collective, and what I do is if their work is up to par, that’s already awesome, but I'll encourage them to work on their art, work on their portfolios, and then I'll put them on our roster. Sometimes people will contact me and ask, "When are you guys coming to this city or this state?" If they’re impatient, I’ll tell them I have artists there that might not necessarily be on the tour but are on my roster, so I can refer them. Right now [the Ladies of Ink Tour is] pretty full because it’s really hard to find a shop that can hold seven ladies already, but we’re adding more people. We’re eventually probably going to split up into units, but for now I'll give my roster to them.
It’s great that you connect people like that. What would you tell somebody who wanted to get a tattoo on the Ladies of Ink Tour?
Get your deposit in early, and tell people that we’re coming. We love when people spread the word.
This story is a part of VICE's ongoing effort to highlight the contributions of black women around the globe who are making a difference. To read more stories about strong black women making history today, go here.
Sign up for our newsletter to get the best of VICE delivered to your inbox daily.
This article originally appeared on VICE US.