Belgian tattoo artist Charlotte Legrand uses comics to demystify the tattoo industry—and to help relieve her own personal anxiety. The artist is the mastermind behind the popular Instagram account The Anxious Tattooer. The account, which she started in April 2019, began as a way for Legrand to work through her day-to-day experiences as a tattoo artist. Her colorful comic strip style illustrations touch on self-doubt, anxiety, and the sometimes difficult realities that come with being a woman in a male dominated industry (the tattoo industry is dominated by white, cisgender men). Although it started as a personal release for Legrand, the account has resonated with thousands of people—both tattoo lovers and fellow tattoo artists—around the globe.
To date, The Anxious Tattooer has featured over 100 posts, all illustrated and captioned by Legrand herself. The relatable content of those posts has led the account to amass nearly 60,000 deeply engaged followers—all in just 10 months. Legrand, who is also the owner and resident artist at Arcana Body Art in Belgium, credits her following to the comics’ humor and honest depictions of the life of a tattoo artist. Despite the light-hearted nature of the comics, though, Legrand has also tackled some heady issues through her drawings, such as sexism and the lack of inclusivity in the tattoo industry.
Here, Legrand talks to us about how she got her start in the industry, how The Anxious Tattooer helped propel her tattooing career, and her process for creating her popular comics.
Note: this interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Inside Out (IO): For starters, can you walk us through your journey as a tattoo artist?
Charlotte Legrand (CL): “My career actually started by way of a barber shop. My uncle is a barber—a traditional Italian barber—and during the summers when I was younger I would work for him washing hair, making coffee for clients, and sweeping the floors. On the floor above his barber shop, there were two tattoo artists. My uncle knew I loved to draw and he always told me that I should get into tattooing because it would be a good way to earn a lot of money—he loves tattooing because he associates it with Las Vegas and he’s like super obsessed Vegas.
Anyway, my uncle always liked my drawings and he was the first person to actually tell me that he believed I could make a job out of this. He was mostly focused on the financial part while I was focused on the artistic part of it, though. So he started telling me to bring coffee to the tattoo artists upstairs. I would walk up with a cup of coffee and my hands trembling, like, ‘Sorry to disturb you, sir! I brought you coffee!’
Eventually he told one of the tattooers there, a guy named John, that I liked to draw. John asked me to show him my work so I brought up my sketchbook and showed him my drawings. When he looked at them, he went completely dead silent. I was starting to sweat and thought he was going to rip me apart, but he looked up and said to my uncle, ‘She draws better than me.’ John ended up becoming my very first connection in the tattoo community.”
IO: That’s quite the compliment! Did your relationship with John ever turn into an apprenticeship after that?
CL: “It was supposed to, but it didn’t. After John saw my designs he asked if I wanted to learn how to tattoo, and of course, I said yes. So, he told me that I could become his apprentice. But this was at a time in my life when I was still very influenced by my parents who didn’t believe that tattooing could be a real career. They wanted me to become a teacher. So right when I was supposed to start my apprenticeship I ended up accepting a four year teaching job instead.
During the second year of my teaching job, I had a boyfriend who was heavily tattooed. He loved my drawings and supported my dream of becoming a tattooer. So when I kept talking about how I wished I could have done the apprenticeship instead of teaching, he decided to buy me a tattoo machine so I could learn at home. I did my first tattoo on him in our kitchen and it was a total disaster. The tattoo was absolutely atrocious and I was deeply ashamed of it. But as soon as people found out that I had tattooed him, I gained a couple of thousand followers on my art account—people who wanted tattoos from me, too.
So instead of doing a proper apprenticeship, I started out as a scratcher [an at-home, self-taught tattooer]. I’ve always had a bit of a complex about not doing an apprenticeship, though, because I would have loved to have that experience.”
IO: It seems that increasingly, people have a similar experience to yours. So many people are self-taught now. But you mentioned you wish you had a proper apprenticeship—why was that so important to you?
CL: “I do wish I had a real apprenticeship and that I could have learned from a professional tattoo artist, honestly. Being self-taught is hard. I was the definition of a scratcher; someone who tattoos in their home with no previous knowledge. To be fair, I did have a separate space for tattooing and made sure everything was clean and sterile, just like I do now as a professional artist. But as a scratcher, you really don’t know what you’re doing. And you don’t have a mentor to help you out. I knew how to be hygienic but I definitely did fuck up some tattoos and I probably hurt some people as well—I hope if they ever read this that they will forgive me because I’m so sorry.
Back then I was so scared about doing a bad job that I wouldn’t let any of my clients pay me because I didn’t feel like my work was good enough yet. When I finally felt like it had improved enough, I started looking for a job at a proper studio.”
IO: What’s your creative process for creating tattoos? Do you do mostly custom work?
CL: “I actually only do custom pieces, so usually my process is quite simple. Customers come to me with an idea in mind—usually something that works in my style, which is mostly floral and ornamental, although I do sometimes deviate from that. I will never blatantly copy an existing piece, but I encourage clients to show me examples of work they like so I can really pinpoint the elements they want. From there, I always try to guide them through the design process in order to find the perfect balance between my technique as an artist and their expectations as a client.”
IO: Do you find that the experience of tattooing in Europe is different from the experience in other places, like the United States?
CL: “Honestly, I’m only just starting to guest-spot internationally—my first guest-spot is the UK in March and then I’m going to France in April—so it’s hard for me to say from personal experience. I haven’t really worked outside of Belgium before. The reason I’ve waited so long to travel is because I still consider myself sort of a novice—I’ve only been in the tattoo business for five years, and to be quite honest, before The Anxious Tattooer I had a really hard time building up my client base. It was really difficult for me to build a roster of clients using social media. But even though I haven’t travelled for guest spots yet, I have had some international artists come to my shop and share their stories with me.
All the international guests who have come to my place were very kind. I guess I attract artists with similar values to mine—like very open minded and progressive and inclusive. Part of the reason I’m like that is because it was really tough as a woman to break into this industry. It’s a very male dominated business. A lot of the women guest artists who have come to my shop have had a very similar experience; a lot of them have dealt with abuse at studios run by men.”
IO: Yeah, a lot of tattoo artists talk about the sexism and misogyny that exists in the industry. Have you experienced any of that?
CL: “Definitely. Before opening my own studio I worked in three different shops. I was at the first shop for two months and I was just an observing apprentice. The guy who ran the studio was alright, but he wasn’t really teaching me anything. I left because I wasn’t progressing as an artist there.
The next shop I went to was actually owned by a woman. She accepted me for an apprenticeship but asked me to start tattooing clients right away. She told me I’d ‘learn while doing it,’ so that’s where I started tattooing professionally. Unfortunately, early into my stay she became convinced that I had an affair with her partner, who also worked at the studio—I didn’t. It made my experience there really awful and she ended up kicking me out because she was sure that I was the reason for her ruined relationship.
From there, I went to work at another shop that, aside from me, was exclusively male. From the first day I set foot in that space, it was awful. One of the tattooers grabbed my hair and pulled my head back and came at me like he was going to kiss me on the mouth. He stopped, just like a fraction of a centimeter away from my mouth. I was completely frozen. But back then I was so eager to join a shop with a good reputation so I could evolve and learn, so I sort of let it slide. From then on, I never felt safe there, though. There was a lot of sexual harassment.”
IO: Those personal experiences you’ve had as a woman tattooer have been the inspiration for all of the posts on The Anxious Tattooer account. Can you walk us through your process for bringing those experiences to life in your comics?
CL: “Usually the process starts when I get up in the morning. If I’ve had a dream about my job, I’ll write down what I dreamt about so I can remember it in detail. And if it’s something that really stresses me out or causes me anxiety, I try to work through it by going into what I call ‘The Anxious Tattooer headspace,’ which is where I think about how I would illustrate the scenario. But the comics aren’t always based on my dreams, obviously. They’re also based on real life experiences. Anyway, I’ll spend the rest of the day thinking about the illustration and then in the evening I’ll finally draw it.
Drawing out my experiences, fears, doubts, and anxieties helps put me at ease. It also helps put a lot of my customers at ease, because they see my comics and realize that we have a lot of common fears—like about a tattoo being super painful or not looking right on their skin tone. The tattoo industry has been closed off for so long and artists are notoriously bad at communicating with their customers, but I’ve found that The Anxious Tattooer has helped make my practice more approachable.”
IO: For people who aren’t familiar with The Anxious Tattooer, what would you like them to know about the account?
CL: “I guess I’d like to make it clear that everything I post on The Anxious Tattooer I make with the best intentions. To me, it’s a way of sort of creating a community between artists and clients, and really anyone who finds a comic that resonates with them. I also post intentionally about my anxieties so that people who share the same feelings know that they have an ally in me.
I think the account has also been a good way to challenge the usual tattoo humor that you find online. Most tattoo-related humor is sort of aggressive and negative, and I really dislike that. So this is a different way for tattoo artists to share their experiences with their clients—I think it shows customers that artists go through daily frustrations and difficulties and doubts, but we still love our jobs and our clients.
For the customers, I hope it shows them that we’re approachable—because they can sometimes be afraid of us—and that we’re human just like them. I hope it shows them that it’s okay for them to share their fears about getting tattooed with us because we can help demystify the process and ease their minds. At the end of the day, communication is key in the tattooer-client relationship, just like in any other relationship.”