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Tattoo artist Emily Kempf lives in a world of her own. Her shop, Time Being Tattoo, models itself after female artists Kempf looks up to, like Tine Defiore at Black Oak. It’s light, filled with mystical paintings, and has female indie rock pouring from speakers. I walk in with whitewashed jeans and point to where I want a tattoo. I’m after a large image on my arm that reminds me of Virginia Woolf, and I reiterate this hoping it might make Kempf think I’m cool. As she begins, she asks how I’m doing because the inside of a forearm is one of the more painful spots to get a tattoo. “Great, I’m just concentrating really hard right now and not really breathing,” I say. She stops and looks concerned. “That’s the worst thing you can do. Breathe. Please don’t do that.”
The 21,000 tattoo parlors in the United States are dominated by cis heterosexual white male artists. Just one-third of the artists are women, and of that third, the vast majority are white women. There are no easily accessible statistics on how many queer people and people of color make up the industry.
According to many in the industry, sexism in the community has more to do with the schism between old school and new school artists. Historically, tattoos conjure up thoughts of bikers and metal shops, the kind of people you’d see on TV riding motorcycles in dive bar parking lots, dust kicking up around their feet. The tattoo world is largely considered by many artists a boy’s club, one with ins and outs that are hard to maneuver. However, there’s been a palpable shift in recent years toward making the community more welcoming. There are now more women, nonbinary folks, members of the LGBTQ community, and people of color in the industry than ever before.
Women have long been a part of the culture. Tattooing was a form of expression for indigenous women on St. Lawrence Island starting as early as the 1900s. After missionaries arrived to discourage what they considered “disfigurement” for women, the last group of women were officially tattooed in 1923. By the 1950s, tattooing became ingrained in mainstream Western society. People would refuse to tattoo women unless they were 21, and women would often need to be accompanied by their boyfriend or husband.
Sinah Theres Kloß, author of Tattoo Histories: Transcultural Perspectives on the Narratives, Practices, and Representations of Tattooing, explores how female- and male-bodied people are viewed in western culture. Changes to the female body are considered direct attacks against feminine beauty standards and a challenge to patriarchal oppression. Masculinity, however, is reinforced and strengthened through tattoos. While one is considered an act of political resistance, the other is considered inherent to gender. Just boys being boys.
Though the tattoo world looks different today, the unbalanced scales toward female, people of color, and queer artists is still prevalent. Shops differ depending on where you go, but, in general, behavior towards women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community depends on who’s in charge.
“There tends to be a dynamic, and I think it depends on who runs the shop and what they let fly, but sometimes it’s the owner themselves perpetuating bad behavior,” says Julia Campione, a tattoo artist at Good Omen Tattoo who has worked in the industry for five years. “It’s just the experience of being a woman or a nonbinary person.”
Sema Graham is a nonbinary artist of middle eastern descent who has been tattooing for three years, also at Time Being Tattoo. They have integrated their culture into the imagery they tattoo, such as jars and textiles serving their style. Operating outside of the binary, they discuss the hand tattooing had in helping them with their gender identity. Graham desires more diverse artists in the community who understand the struggle trans and nonbinary people have facing such drastic changes to their body.
“Part of why I started getting tattooed is because of queer identity things and you look at the demographic and there’s not a lot of tattooers who are queer people like myself,” Graham says. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s probably still 90 percent white men.”
There’s an unspoken agreement about the right way and wrong way to break in to the industry. People who come up on Instagram and build a following from stick and poke tattoos are considered “new school,” while those who have done apprenticeships and studied under established artists are considered “old school.” For some, the pushback has been less than ideal.
“There’s this gatekeeper-y, bully, ‘protect the tradition at all cost’ attitude,” Kempf says. “It’s not gendered, it’s girl or guy. A guy came up to me when I was bartending and after he learned I stick and poked, he was very rude to me. I was like, why is he so mad, I’m not doing anything wrong.”
The DIY approach towards tattooing is largely popular today. Artists maneuver the Internet to build a following for their brand and style and to grow their clientele. Now, artists have the means to post immediate flash deals to their Instagram story and list their e-mail on their site.
“Social media has been a huge influence on tattooing and that has brought a lot of conversation that pertains to what studios and shops look like,” Campione says. “I see people go out of their way to post, whether it’s social or environmental, shops that practice mindfulness across the board. That’s the magic about tattoos, you can change how people feel in an instant so you need to be aware of your bedside manners because that’s the type of energy that will resonate with that person.”
“It’s not just women, it’s everybody on the rise now because of social media. Femme, queer, nonbinary tattoo artists are on the rise now,” Kempf says. “Anybody who wants to go buy a machine can go on Amazon and do it now.”
Graham emphasizes how important behind-the-scenes behavior is in addition to bedside behavior. Deconstructing inner beliefs in a society socialized towards looking down on women and queer people intersects with tackling issues surrounding race. As a queer person of color, Graham admits some of the worst stories they’ve heard involve racism towards brown skin people. Often, artists will complain about the difficulties in tattooing darker skinned people and deny them opportunities to tattoo.
Common are comments about clients’ skin tones being hard to work with or, “oh, this piece would be really cool if it was done on someone who wasn’t as dark skin,” says Graham. “I want to acknowledge I’m very white passing so the fact I was able to get an apprenticeship and work in a shop I’m very thankful for. But my friends who are Black and tattooing deal with racism way worse than I ever will.”
Starting off drawing from a young age, both Kempf and Campione moved to tattooing later in life. Kempf’s mom pushed her to follow her talent and she eventually began stick and poke for people on tour with her band Dehd. For Campione, the lifestyle started immediately.
“You can’t just tiptoe into tattooing. You have to throw yourself in and that is psychologically, physically, emotionally, and financially difficult,” Campione says. “There was always that fear of am I ever going to get booked up? What’s the next step? All those things.”
Apprenticeships are considered the “right way,” but they are not always the friendliest environments. Graham, who worked an apprenticeship for a year, said overall, it was a good experience. Though, there were moments that stuck out as less than ideal.
“For the past year I was working at this shop two days a week that was definitely a boys’ club,” Graham says. “It’s a stereotype for a reason. I would say the majority of tattoo shops are that way, lots of dicks jokes and derogatory comments made about women and queer folks.”
All three agree, in a city as big as Chicago, where discrimination in shops still exists, it’s important for artists to stick together in moments of hardship.
“Dealing with individuals during my apprenticeship who thought they could say certain things that were highly unprofessional and definitely offensive made me feel fortunate for all the different female artists I’ve been able to connect with,” Campione says.
Culturally, women in the tattoo world are expected to act a certain way. Words like “tramp stamp” and “biker babes” have hypersexualized the way people view women with tattoos. Living up to the “cool girl persona” in general affects how women turn a blind eye to bad behavior.
“This one shop there was a woman I talked to who was super old school about tattoos who told me, ‘oh, I’ve never had a problem with the guys because I’m one of the boys,'” Kempf says. “It’s a lot of internalized misogyny.”
“One of the guys” is considered a rite of passage for some, and it is one that affects relationships in the tattoo world. Catering to the male gaze is something deeply embedded in how many women think, and that mindset can result in putting down fellow artists.
“To be in the boys’ club it feels like you must be the token hot chick tattoo girl, and you work a million times harder than them to be there,” Kempf says. “I’m not saying that’s bad, but you don’t need to put down other women in the process.”
Outside of working in shops, many tattooed people experience nonconsensual interactions. Body art encourages people to comment, poke fun at, and even grab bodies whenever they please. Consent is eradicated and for some the ability to stand up to people can be difficult. Both Kempf and Campione have experienced their fair share of this happening on the street.
“I notice how guys comment on my tattoos on the street,” Campione says. “You have to be the force in that situation to let that person know do not touch me because there is plenty of ignorance and people sometimes do not understand how uncomfortable they make that person when they call out their tattoos.”
Men can be victims of gender-based bias in the tattoo world as well. “There were a couple guys I tattooed early on who you could tell weren’t OK , and when I asked to make sure they were OK with being tattooed I could tell they had been conditioned to just swallow the pain as a man in the world,” Kempf says. “I’d try so hard to be like, It’s OK if it hurts, you can cry if you need to and we can take a break. But they’d just do the tough guy thing.”
For Graham, an area of growth they’d like to see in the industry would be more brown skinned people on the scene.
“Racism in tattooing is so normalized,” Graham says. “I would just really love to be a part of a change in my industry.”
The tattoo industry reflects a bigger problem in society but the community, more than any, grew from roots of an image leaning towards a gentleman’s club, one where signs of “don’t cry” and “man up” pepper their work space. Unlike shops of the past, places like Black Oak, Ash & Ivory, Copper Plate, Them, and Butter Fat are women- and LGBTQ-run shops that encourage clients to cry when they need to and speak up when something’s wrong.
“Tattoo shops are extremely masculine spaces, and I think people have negative experiences, so we strive to make it a positive one,” Graham says. “For a lot of other queer tattooers I know that’s a huge part of their practice.”
The pamphlet Kempf gives me before I leave is the same she gave before my tattoo appointment. It details how her shop provides a safe space for consent between client and artist: speak up if it hurts. Tattoos hurt! Don’t be afraid to cry! Adamant about putting my safety first, she makes sure I read it before we begin. It details how important the ebb and flow between artist and client is, how ambience, trust, and patience all intersect. She asks if she can take a photo of my arm, giddy about the art she’s created, and asks if she can turn it towards the light, holding up her hand and asking if it’s OK with her eyes. I send my friends her Instagram of my tattooed arm, reveling in the feeling of being let into her inner circle. Women and queer people are no longer on the outskirts of the industry. They are the industry. v