For years, the tattoo industry subscribed to the old boys club moniker. Shops were staffed predominantly by men and by design they were open, rough, and often intimidating. Recently, more women and gender fluid people have come into the industry, shaking up tradition and, at times, find it difficult to respect a craft with long-accepted behaviors. But diversity in who works in the industry is only one piece to opening it up to the masses. Shops and artists need to ensure their spaces are safe for anyone who walks through their doors.
In the United States, hate crimes are on the rise, and similar incidents are occurring the world over as places of worship and LGBTQ+ gatherings are confronted with frequent violence. Universities are taking measures to give minority groups safe places to congregate while keeping discourse in the classrooms civil, even when opinions diverge. While universities, churches, and clubs create inclusivity in a controlled environment, tattoo shops are arguably one of the most vulnerable places a person can find themselves. By walking into a tattoo shop or studio, you’re exposing yourself, both in how you express yourself and how you display your body and so it’s critical that before asking a person to show their skin, they know they’re in a place where they feel safe.
But how can an artist or studio show this without making contact with a prospective client? Fortunately, many artists and tattoo shops develop their brand using social media and their personal websites. When Em North, a queer tattoo artist in Brooklyn, New York, got their start tattooing, they “didn’t relate to the imagery of most American Traditional tattoos,” which “depicted women in compromising ways or required copying the work of tattooers of the past, such as Sailor Jerry.” They were told that, as a trainee, mastering American Traditional tattoos, even ones where the imagery made them uncomfortable or compromised their beliefs, was necessary to make it in the industry. Instead, Em forged their own path and opened Scarlet Letter, a private tattoo studio that uses its website and Instagram feed to make their values clear. On both channels, the studio is described as “a safe(r) tattoo & art studio… dedicated to feminism, queerness, body-positivity, and anti-racism.” Em also makes it clear, by introducing their own pronouns, that they’re conscious of the spectrum of their customers’ identities and no assumptions will be made.
Although Em is currently the only resident artist, they do accept applications for guest spots. At the end of June, Natasha, a hand poke artist always on the move, will spend two days at Scarlet Letter. Though Natasha is a new(er) artist, she has already made clear that anyone sitting in her chair will be accepted and made to feel safe. In addition to identifying herself as a queer person of color in her bio, she uses her feed to post photos of non-binary tattoos she’s done. While not all people identifying as LGBTQ+ or people of color will want a tattoo identifying that, posting photos of these tattoos signals that anyone who is looking for a safe space to get tattooed will find one with her.
In Minneapolis, Minnesota, Emi Nijiya operates Jackalope Tattoo which, like Scarlet Letter, uses its website landing page to let potential clients know what they’re about. “Jackalope Tattoo provides a space where our clients can feel free to comfortably and fully express themselves. We are forever all-inclusive of all genders, races and lifestyles.” On the FAQ page, there is also a section on mastectomy and top-surgery scar coverups, which answers what is, for some, an uncomfortable question to ask a tattoo artist before booking. Clients are even pointed to the artist who may be best suited for their particular needs.
Another move many studios are making to ensure privacy and safety is to disband with the quintessential tattoo shop storefront altogether. Instead, the addresses of the studios are kept secret and only after clients book their appointment are they given the actual address. This ensures random passersby won’t walk in and interrupt a private session or that the person getting tattooed can take comfort in knowing only people who really want to be there can be.
Jes Valentine is another, and left Nice Tattoo Parlor in Brooklyn to open a private studio, which affords her the ability to restrict the number of people in the space at any given time. While some clients are okay with bearing all as their friends and family look on, that kind of exposure is not for everyone — and shouldn’t have to be. After booking online with Jes, you’ll receive an email with instructions including the address as well as a warning not to bring your entire crew. In addition to restricting entry into their studios, artists also make clear that drapes or screens can be set up to ensure maximum privacy.
Who and what tattoo artists and shops align themselves with visually is important when it comes to engagement and promoting a safe space to express yourself. Those who take the extra step in making clear their studio is welcoming, that they’ll ask you questions about how you like to be addressed, when and where it is okay to touch you during the session, as well as checking in on you throughout the process, are the artists you can trust. As more women and LGBTQ+ people choose tattooing as a profession, we can expect to see more visible signals of artists not just acknowledging but actively creating a safe space for all who wish to be there.