Jes Valentine on Apprenticeship, Safe Spaces for Women, and Why She Loves Fingernail Tattoos

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Jes Valentine began her career as a tattoo artist by way of a bar, which, she later explains, was also how she came to talking about her sobriety on her podcast “Seltzer Squad Pod.” Having been fascinated by tattoos since she was a kid, at 21 Valentine was bartending where many of her regulars were tattoo artists and she found herself asking them for a job–a shop assistant–and one day it clicked. Three Kings Tattoos in Brooklyn, New York was getting ready to open and needed someone to answer phones, clean the artists’ equipment, the bathrooms, and any other grunt work thrown her way.

The owner noticed her hard work and that, because the pay wasn’t great, she must have had her heart in it, so he told Valentine, “As long as you keep doing what you’re doing, I’ll apprentice you.” That was 14 years ago. Since then, Valentine tattooed in shops in the East Village, Jersey City, Nice Tattoo Parlor in Brooklyn, and now she operates a private studio Haven, also in Brooklyn, which opened in March. 

Valentine was brought into Nice as a part-owner of the shop but her focus remained on tattooing while also maintaining a space is warm and accommodating to anyone who may otherwise be intimidated or uncomfortable in a traditional shop. The environment is one reason why their roster of artists is only women–a choice that was not entirely intentional but, as things progressed and Valentine saw how comfortable people were with an all-women staff, they decided to just go with it.

Due to the close quarters inside Nice, Valentine and the owners decided “it’s best if we do keep this location female-only because if a girl has to have her top off or something like that, we’re so on top of one another and we wouldn’t want to make a girl feel awkward by having a male tattooer.” Remarking on the shop Instagram page, I asked if these kinds of decisions were made because Nice is all-female run, but Valentine quickly stopped me. “At the end of the day, it’s run by a guy who doesn’t tattoo.” There are three male owners in addition to Valentine and one other woman. What Instagram portrays and the reality of Nice’s management is a frustrating point for Valentine, who holds honesty in the highest regard. To make sure what her clients saw over Instagram was what they experienced in-person—a female-run, safe, and accepting studio—Valentine ventured out on her own to open Haven.

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Left unattended

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“I never thought I would own or work in an all female shop. But after doing it, especially with the climate that we’re in lately, as far as feminism goes and equal rights and the #MeToo movement, I do think that it’s important to have,” which was the catalyst behind leaving Nice to open Haven, where she hopes the private studio environment will, unlike a public shop, give each client a better experience.

She shared a recent anecdote where a client arrived with seven, loud friends who wandered around the shop, looking at other clients who were getting tattooed at the same time. Another woman brought her toddler in which is sometimes necessary when childcare is expensive and difficult to secure. But the child spent the entire appointment screaming and jumping on the couch, disturbing other customers. In a private studio, clients can bring whomever because they wouldn’t be disturbing anyone else.

“I want women to come to, but I also want it to be kind of like a safe haven for all people that can sometimes be intimidated walking into a shop. I want a space to be very body positive and people of color and queer friendly. That’s my biggest line. I feel a lot of trans people don’t really know where to go.”

As accommodating as Valentine is in terms of who she wants to tattoo, her designs also run the gamut. Her talents extend far beyond the small, tight needle-work we’re accustomed to seeing on Instagram, which she only started posting more of knowing how in-demand this style is; in the past, she wanted to focus on her traditional and bold work and clients assumed fine line work was not something they could get from Valentine. “You’ll see me posting more fine line work. These are things I would never even think to post but people like them. It’s so simple, in my mind. I really like being versatile and working a bunch of different styles of tattooing. I dabble in it here and there, but it’s usually combined like almost like a neo-traditional style. I like to show off that I can do a wide range of tattoos.”

Valentine has also been dabbling in freckle and fingernail tattoos. She sees fingernail tattoos are a nice alternative to a manicure, for someone who wants to dip a toe into getting inked without the permanence. “It goes on top of the nail and grows out at the speed of your nails–usually two months.” These tattoos don’t fade, but can easily be covered by nail polish if needed.

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Tattooed @hnnhtattoo nails!!!! #grlpwr

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In many ways, a tattoo artist can play the part of therapist. When you’re tattooing someone, they tell you “stories of stuff they’ve dealt with and maybe… other shops in general weren’t as welcoming or comfortable. I find that like more and more women are opening up about stuff that’s happened to them in all different scenarios.” Her clients candor is what helped Valentine, a typically private person, open up about her own struggles with drinking by creating a podcast where she talks about being a young professional in New York where most social engagements revolve around drinking–tattoo shops being no exception. “I worked at this one shop where one of my coworkers would come to work so hungover that his hands would be shaking he needed to drink to be able to touch you with steady hands. And I’m like, ‘I don’t want this to become me’.”

Since she launched the podcast in 2018, Valentine’s clients have opened up to her about their own struggles with substance abuse and sobriety. “My drinking is not something I ever would have discussed with clients before but now people feel safe coming to me. I’ve done sobriety tattoos, which I’ve done throughout the years. But now people like feel safe talking about their sobriety and asking questions and stuff.”

Although her tattoo career started in a bar, Valentine has flourished without the weight of alcohol. Her tattooing improved since she swapped her post-work drink for a night of drawing. Valentine’s willingness to talk about her personal life has only strengthened her ability to put her clients at ease–and choose her own special Haven over another shop whose vibe isn’t as kind.

Related: Meet the Man Who Tattoos Scars Full-Time

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