Mary Campbell on Intuitive Design and Her Collaborative Tattoo Process

Mary Campbell on Intuitive Design and Her Collaborative Tattoo Process
Credit: Mary Campbell

With a background in art and a career in photography, Mary Campbell has grown up with a penance for creativity and an eye for aesthetic. Her journey to expressing that art through tattooing has been an interesting one, full of influences from a spiritual upbringing, serendipitous meetings, and support from women and queer tattoo artists. She understands the culture surrounding tattoos and doesn’t take its responsibility lightly as an artist.

It’s easy to get a sense of Campbell’s artwork from looking at her Instagram account, but to understand the experience of actually being tattooed by Campbell, it helps to know some background.

Campbell played with many art forms growing up and was an avid drawer until she discovered her passion for photography at fifteen. Although she didn’t grow up around tattoos to see them as a form of art, Campbell has always loved body decoration. Whether it was through henna, temporary tattoos, or glittery stickers, Campbell adored playing with art designs with her body as the canvas. “I don’t really care about fashion,” she explains. “I don’t really care about clothes, but being able to celebrate and adorn the body is something I’ve always been drawn to.”

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for Mkali, an intuitive freehand piece – created while sharing space, story, and spirit together. this tattoo was the highest honor to make with this radiant woman of medicine and magic. ✨ Mkali gave me permission to share some of the words she blessed me with following our session; “You brought the Universe onto my Being, helping me release and work through each emotions stuck inside (touched my organs, muscles, bones), reminding me to breathe with all my beingness, to turn into my inside world and innards in a precious, patient, loving manner…the experience has been a cleanse and a self discovery. I feel clear headed… You brought the Universe, each Elements represented, Cardinal Directions represented, Humanity represented, Each Kingdoms and Queendoms represented, I see the mysteries of a magical sea creatures who is often feared, Revered and unseen (the Octopus). Master of disguise and universe legend reminding me how to live within the mysteries of creation. It is like Start Gazing my very own Milky Way. I see in it the pains and oppression, the said and unsaid, the joy and Triumph of being a Person of color, the heavy history and the liberation in the endthat comes from within, which is then gifter to the All…” 💕 Beautiful, important coincidence brought Mkali and I together on Friday, and I am so thankful and in awe of the gifts that tattooing can bring to people. Thank you, thank you, thank you, Mkali. Thank you Spirit! Thank you to all of you walking alongside me in this journey. . . . #handpoke #qttr #intuitivetattoo #freehandtattoo #freehand #stickandpoke #handpokedtattoo #handpoked #handpoketattoo #dotwork #machinefree #stickandpoketattoo #sticknpoke #machinefreetattoo #losangelestattoo #handpokers #tttism #tattooideas #dotworktattoo #tattooartist #nomachine #minimaltattoo #tattooed #vegantattoo #spiritualtattoo #earthaltarstudio #abstracttattoo

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Campbell’s journey to tattooing began in 2016, the same year she graduated college. While traveling Europe, she set her sights on getting her third tattoo, a color piece visibly located on her arm modeled after a specific strand of lavender she carried with her for reference. While she had two small tattoos in easy-to-hide places already, she viewed this as a more serious investment.

She wanted it to be visible, have color, hold significance and she was prepared to invest in it as a lasting piece of body art. The plan was to get the tattoo from an artist she had been following but after plans fell through, another emerging tattoo artist by the name of Vanessa Core started following Campbell out of the blue. Luck had it that they were both in Milan at the same time and two days later, Campbell was in a “studio full of badass women,” getting her first tattoo by a female tattoo artist.

The encounter was life changing. “It was that experience of her tending the piece so carefully,” she explains. “My other two tiny tattoos had been done by men. The presence of a woman and having the art of a woman on your body is a different experience, or at least for there to be feminine energy in the space of tattooing is a whole other way of holding the experience and holding pain.”

When Campbell returned from her trip, she knew something had changed. “I came back to the states and was like, I don’t know what’s happening, but I think I need to be a tattoo artist… It felt like a vocational calling.”

She spent the better part of the next year trying to find a way to get her foot in the door, which is no easy feat. To get into most traditional shops, generally people have to hang around for a long time before they can even begin apprenticing. If they get lucky enough to find an apprenticeship, the process can be grueling, exhausting, and full of intimidation. Even if Campbell had been able to find that kind of apprenticeship, she wasn’t sure she wanted it. “What kinds of values are you putting into your tattoos if intensity and exhaustion are the ways you’re going to judge someone on their capability?”

So Campbell sought other avenues, following tattoo artists she admired, researching online, and asking anyone who seemed open to talking. For the most part, she got a lot of vague encouragement with no concrete steps on how to actually start. Like so many industries these days, the tattoo industry is a difficult one to gain entry to without prior experience, but accepted experience is restricted to industry-approved work. If a tattoo artist decides to self-teach, they run the risk of ruining future apprenticing prospects. It put Campbell in what felt like a no-win situation. “How do you even get the door to open when no one tells you how to open the door and everyone’s door opens differently?”

One tattoo artist advised Campbell to just keep drawing, creating flash designs, and to “stay serious about it.” At the time, it seemed as infuriating and vague as the rest of the advice she’d been given. A few months later though, she took it to heart and gave her first tattoo to a good friend, feeling “really blessed with people who trust me more than I trust myself.”

Soon after, she spent several months on a road trip where she tattooed friends and strangers along the way, building her skill and confidence. Once she started, it didn’t take long for things to take off.  She spent the following summer juggling photography work with tattoo sessions, all while living on a sailboat. As things picked up, she reconnected once again with her desire for more guidance and mentorship.

Picture of the first tattoo Mary gave to her friend, Emma.

In the winter of 2018, she connected with her current studio, a queer, inclusive space where she is currently apprenticing with an intuitive tattoo artist. Although she’s thrilled to have connected with EarthAlter Studio, Campbell’s ideal session includes spending a lot of time outside the space itself.

In her perfect world, each tattooing session would involve spending the better part of the day getting to know each other and building trust in one another. Although a lot of people might want to go into a tattoo session with a design clearly laid out, Campbell prefers for it to be co-creative. She invites people to come in with ideas, but loves when those ideas lead to a discussion and a unique design custom created to the individual themself. Gut feeling plays a huge role in Campbell’s process, from design and placement, to making sure the person is completely comfortable before Campbell starts their tattoo. “People will tell you what you need to know, and it’s not through words,” she says.

Campbell didn’t grow up in a tattooed world. In fact, she grew up knowing no one in her family with any tattoos and saw them as a mark of a bad neighborhood. “The stories around tattoos were that people would regret them, or they were scary or just poorly done, and tattoo shops were always really intense looking and really unappealing,” she explains. “It’s the classic stereotypical thing, like hardcore music, and big guys and sailor Jerry nude women as the flash on the wall.”

In contrast to those kinds of tattoo stereotypes, Campbell was raised with a different approach to life. “My dad is a Presbyterian pastor. Both my parents are therapists, so I come from a pretty intense intersection of spirituality and healing.” Guided by her parents’ beliefs, Campbell was told that if she were to get a tattoo before graduating college, she risked losing their support. While the restriction didn’t thrill her at twenty, hindsight has shown that her parents’ caution came from a love of her future. The choices people make when they’re young, especially when it comes to permanent body art, stick with them when they’re older. People grow and evolve so if someone is going to carry something through life, they should make sure it can grow and evolve with them. 

Perhaps because Campbell’s own connection to tattoos has been so fluid, she seeks to create pieces that can change just as the person does. As a result, many of Campbell’s pieces come with stories of personal healing, growth, and acceptance. As Campbell reminded me, healing means repeatedly showing up and doing the work. While getting a tattoo can be part of that healing process, it won’t magically heal someone all on its own. Rather, Campbell prefers to see tattoos as offering “spiritual direction” rather than a mark of finished healing. 

As people navigate life, change course, and find significance in new ways, she hopes the pieces she creates can be a part of that. As she combines her own love of drawing, photography, and tattooing, Campbell is exploring her evolving connection to art and its place in our lives. “Moving into this world is an inquiry for me,” she says, and she is grateful for all the people willing to take this journey by co-creating meaning with her.

Related: Mo Ganji on His Deep Connection to Tattooing and Why Art Always Comes Before Money

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