The Tattoo Industry Is Changing — and Queer-Owned Spaces Are Leading the Charge
"I never imagined someone that looked like me could be a tattoo artist," Raychelle Duazo, a queer femme Filipina artist, told me over the phone. We're rewinding a bit, revisiting what it was like for her to start in the industry before she co-owned the Seattle shop Moody Tattoo with artist Randi Fitzpatrick. "Becoming a tattoo artist felt completely out of reach because of the ways that queer people and queer people of color weren't being hired as apprentices or shop managers."
It wasn't until Duazo was approached by a friend who was a patron of Moody, a canonically queer-owned shop, that she started to see a path carved out for her.
The art of tattooing is an ancient practice, which means it's undergone quite the evolution over the course of several centuries. Depending on where you are in the world, the equipment, style, and meaning will vary, as do the spaces in which these practices are carried out. Traditional studios, especially in the US, boast a certain stereotype: they're dark, grunge, and often driven by heteronormative paradigms that don't leave much room for fluidity. These canons define everything from a studio's dive-bar-esque aesthetic to the music, right down to who makes up the resident staff. But this is changing; slowly but surely, a movement of artists — specifically artists who identify as queer — are subverting the subculture to create a community that welcomes all marginalized bodies.
Although not every queer tattooer's experience coming up in the business is the same, many share similar sentiments: the industry is largely dominated by white, cis, straight men. Whether they were seeking apprenticeships or looking to get tattooed, queer artists have spent years involuntarily collecting stories of transphobia, homophobia, racism, fatphobia, and sexism. Now, this industry that, at its core, is about self-expression is being reclaimed. Queer-owned shops are sprouting all over the country, which not only contributes to an influx in physical spaces that foster a sense of community and care but also adds to the queer tattoo community online. For many, the future of this industry is bright — and the queer community is leading the charge.
"I've experienced prejudice from cis guys, especially when I tell them I do hand-poke tattoos. They would think I'm doing kitchen tattoos in a pejorative way, not in a cool way." — Rosa Laura
How Queer Shops Are Changing Old Stereotypes
Finding a shop that's "queer-friendly" these days isn't painstakingly difficult. Most times, you can take a look at an artist's Instagram bio, a shop bio, or the latter's website. There, you might spot a clear and concise statement that reads something along the lines of, "We welcome all bodies and gender identities."
This may seem like an obvious and necessary inclusion to some but is still somewhat novel in the industry at large. A perfect example of this is Yarrow Studio, a private by-appointment-only shop in Brooklyn: "Our goal is to provide a comfortable space where we can collaborate with clients to facilitate personal agency through the art of tattooing," the homepage reads. "We celebrate all gender-identities and racial backgrounds." A message like this can mean a lot to someone who has yet to have a pleasant experience in a stereotypical tattoo shop.
"Putting that on your website is really important in letting people know that you believe in inclusivity and you believe in having a diverse client base," said Evan Paul English, cocreator of Yarrow Studio. "Michelle [Marie, fellow cocreator of Yarrow Studio] and I both came from street-shop environments, and we both wanted a space that reflects our views and our immediate circle of people who have always supported us, and that's always been people of all sorts of backgrounds and identities."
There are rules and conventions in the industry that put queer tattooers at a disadvantage, like how machine tattooing and apprenticeships are held to high esteem but aren't widely offered to the LGBTQ+ community. Being self-taught or a hand-poker is considered taboo, but queer-owned spaces inherently help subvert this simply by existing and employing those who can't and don't follow these limiting expectations. Although some queer tattooers are able to find someone to apprentice under, others have been left to teach themselves — opting to gain experience in home studios or practice their needlework on willing and eager friends.
"I've experienced prejudice from cis guys, especially when I tell them I do hand-poke tattoos," trans tattoo artist Rosa Laura said. "They would think I'm doing kitchen tattoos in a pejorative way, not in a cool way." Not too long ago, hand-poke tattoos were shrouded in misconception: they were presumed to be unsafe, messy, and usually done with amateur or household equipment. Now, many queer-owned shops are made up of staff and guest artists who range in preferred practices and techniques that are professionally and safely executed.
It's not just how tattooers create their art that queer-owned shops are opening their doors to but also the kind of art being created. Amid the pandemic, Celeste Lai, now a tattooer at Yarrow Studio, had been practicing their art privately but had followed English and Marie's work for a while. The universe eventually aligned, and an opportunity to join the team presented itself.
"A lot of what I draw is gender — not just that, but imaginary stuff and a lot of doodle-y, landscapes — and I was looking for a space that had clientele that want that," they said. "If I worked at a more traditional shop, I'm not even sure if the clientele would like my stuff."
Shops that are run and staffed primarily by queer tattooers ensure a unique sensitivity during the appointment — and not just in regard to the kind of artwork the clients are looking for. Getting tattooed involves trust, and knowing you're being tattooed by someone with a shared experience can make that appointment a lot more comfortable.
"A lot of queer people have experienced harm around their bodies, and anywhere there's harm, there's also this potential for healing," queer California-based tattooer Avery Osajima said, adding that these appointments are also an opportunity for a queer person to exercise agency over their body or come into their power. "I've made a lot of tattoos, but I don't want it to ever be lost on them that this is a big deal for someone you don't even know to trust you with their body and their stories." No matter what, this moment will be intimate, Duazo added; the suffering and time that goes into it really is a meaningful transaction between the artist and client.
Building a Future for LGBTQ+ Artists and Clients
Besides queer ownership and a primarily queer resident staff, what makes a shop "friendly" and respectful to its clientele? The starting point for some includes payment accessibility and affordability, especially for queer BIPOC clients. Ensuring that clients aren't financially held back from getting the chance to express themselves through tattoos is the kind of value artists like Parker Benayoun, co-owner of Midnight Tattoo in Portland, OR, believe should be standardized across the industry.
"There hasn't been access to apprenticeships, and then people are sort of demonized for learning on their own, when actually, they didn't have the option to begin with." — Avery Osajima
"Tattoos are intimidating in general, but especially for POC," she said. "You just have to realize that you're in a position where you can make amends and reparations and give people this beautiful piece of artwork that they wouldn't normally be able to have if this conversation didn't start."
The burgeoning queer tattoo community, especially BIPOC artists, is opening up the industry to color tests — the lack of education around tattooing darker skin is prevalent — as well as accessibility to education. "There's been a lot of gatekeeping of knowledge," Osajima said. "There hasn't been access to apprenticeships, and then people are sort of demonized for learning on their own, when actually, they didn't have the option to begin with."
While many queer tattooers are self-taught and embrace that, they know how difficult it is just to learn how to tattoo the "right way" (i.e. through shop apprenticeships). Now, many tattooers are not only opening up their DMs for eager novices looking to learn but also allocating funds from their own business to educate queer tattooers who have been cut off from the mainstream institutions in the past.
Addressing Anti-Blackness Within Queer Spaces
While an inclusive shop ethos is significant for queer clientele looking for a space in which they can expect a comfortable and respectful experience, the commitment to inclusivity and creating a sense of community goes far and beyond words. "I don't necessarily think that being called a queer space is automatically a safe space," Benayoun said. Osajima agreed, adding, "There are so many layers. It could be a space run by white queer people that doesn't necessarily feel comfy for queer BIPOC [clientele]. I think that's sort of the crux of it: trying to make room for these different ways of being that are actually really precious and vital."
The two echoed the sentiments voiced by other artists: although these spaces may have the intention of being more inclusive, safety is subjective, and it's not up to the owner or even staff to decide if it is or is not for their clients. Lai explained that you don't always know what other people's experiences are, and maintaining the badge of shop safety can be an unrealistic one. This is especially true when talking about the many gaps the industry still has to fill, specifically around colorism and anti-Blackness.
Although this conversation isn't a new one — prejudice against dark skin in the industry has persisted for decades — it is at the forefront of many queer tattooers' minds. Duazo shared that she often hears about the anti-Black and racist behavior her Black and brown clients have experienced at other shops, whether that was an artist claiming they couldn't tattoo their skin, a color wouldn't work for them, or shading wasn't an option. While the racist excuses vary, statements like "my work looks better on white skin" are ones Duazo has heard and read before.
There are, of course, small but significant steps artists are actively taking to ensure their shops remain respectful and welcoming to everyone, as their mission statements declare. This should include the aforementioned sliding scales, ensuring healed artwork on dark skin is represented on their Instagram pages and website galleries, and that their staff is as diverse as their clientele, specifically including more queer Black tattooers.
"You have to walk the walk. I think for a lot of these shops that don't have queer clients and queer tattooers, that don't have clients of color or coworkers of color, you have to ask yourself why is that?" Duazo said. "Something that you're doing is contributing to this space where people aren't being witnessed as fully themselves. You have to have some self-reflection and self-awareness of where you're standing in the world." Benayoun added that this level of intersectionality and inclusivity is evolving and will continue to grow — as it should, especially if many shops are not owned by BIPOC artists.
"You have to walk the walk. I think for a lot of these shops that don't have queer clients and queer tattooers, that don't have clients of color or coworkers of color, you have to ask yourself, why is that?" — Raychelle Duazo
Healing and repair within the community need to start somewhere. Supporting Black artists and Black-owned studios is one step, but holding white — cis and queer — tattooers who contribute to this oppressive dynamic accountable is as crucial as keeping yourself available and open to feedback. This is something Benayoun hopes more artists, including herself, can be more proactive about: "At some point, you have to check yourself and realize [I'm] privileged, I live in a white body, and it's my job to make myself vulnerable, because other people don't have the space or platform to advocate for themselves."
Expanding the Queer Tattoo Community
The queer community doesn't only exist in these physical spaces scattered all over the country; it also exists online. Queer artists are weaving a worldwide network for connection on social media that's rerouting the course for many up-and-coming artists who would ordinarily be excluded from the industry as we know it. Instagram may not technically be a search engine, but hashtags like #qttr and #qpocttt assist in, if not totally conduct, increased visibility for queer tattooers all around the world.
Personal relationships with Instagram are nuanced, of course. On the one hand, it's a space for artists to connect to one another and clients, to educate and become a part of a larger learning and informed community, but it's also a space that can breed negativity and hate. Originally from São Paulo, Laura began his career in Brazil and even now finds that speaking up on social media about certain topics, like gender-neutral language, garners a gamut of reactions: from loving, shared experiences to a lot of violence. "I think [social media] is super useful. That's how I met a lot of people and how a lot of people connected to me. It's also a place where talking about my identity and talking about being trans-masculine, and being out as trans, brings complications as well and a lot of hate."
In some instances, Laura knows that social media can also be a great tool in exposing oppressive or violent behavior. The tight-knit online community serves as a premium space to share stories and hold other tattooers or clients accountable for any traumatic experiences they may have caused or enabled. In these cases, visibility extends to degrading actions or practices that are overlooked, even by white queer tattooers who seek to be allies.
Accounts like @inkthediaspora are ensuring folks with dark skin are getting the kind of visibility the industry rarely allows for. Founded by tattoo consultant Tann, @inkthediaspara helps create space for artists looking to share their healed work on dark skin, specifically giving priority to documenting tattoos on queer women and trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people, while also finding shops for clients where they can get tattooed without being discriminated against. Efforts like Tann's and other accounts that combat anti-Blackness that exists in the industry, even within queer spaces, help instigate discussions around persisting issues that go deeper than colorism, like how whiteness manifests within the community, culturally appropriative artwork, and unaffordable pricing.
Osajima put it perfectly: "Social media has allowed people to find their people." This is especially true for anyone who doesn't live in a major city, like New York or Seattle, where queer-owned shops and queer-friendly spaces are more commonplace. If you are looking to get tattooed by a queer artist, or specifically someone who may hold shared experiences as yourself, English suggests digging through Instagram. There, you can do your research, comb through hashtags, and message artists about their work (keep in mind that booking via DM is usually a no-no, unless specified otherwise).
So with the demand for more queer spaces, more queer art, and more queer artists growing, what does the future of this industry look like now? It's nebulous and, frankly, not exactly something tattooers are able to define yet, but the consensus is positive. The gates were kept shut for decades, but the LGBTQ+ community has blown them wide open.