The tattoo industry, as we typically think of it, seems like no place for queer people. Even with early pioneers like Cliff Raven and Phil Sparrow, it’s remained an overwhemingly heteronormative, patriarchal, and white field, a fact that was only confirmed by my search to find Chicago queer tattoo artists, especially folks of color, which yielded many a “nobody like that works at our shop, sorry!” But pockets of queer tattooers exist and seem to be growing, forming their own communities and reimagining industry standards, especially to cater to clients beyond those who are typically represented. Queer tattoo artists are around; you just have to know where to look.
Diana Regalado used to get in trouble for drawing naked ladies on her arms during school. She’d get sent to the dean’s office for the fine line black and gray artwork that preceded her tattooing, a style of drawing that she didn’t even know was Chicanx at the time.
It remains her style today, but the Latinx gay/lesbian/queer artist is drawing at Archer Avenue Tattoo instead of in class. Regalado started in the tattoo industry after nearly a decade at a graphic design firm. Between her art experience and her time under the needle (she is heavily covered with tattoos herself), she quickly secured an apprenticeship, something for which she feels incredibly grateful (artists usually need formal apprenticeships, which require working many hours for free, or even at a price).
Archer Avenue Tattoo is located on the south side in Brighton Park, and the clients are mostly people of color. According to Regalado, “Like in any workplace, you just have to find a shop or space that best fits you and makes you comfortable, one with like-minded people. There are so many different kinds of shops out there now that you’ll always find the right place where you’ll fit in. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with very down-to-earth guys, and Archer has always had a neighborhood and family vibe—more like annoying brothers that constantly mess with me.” It’s no wonder that she’s been tattooing there for ten years.
April O’Neil from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was buddy.’s first crush, and one of the first indications of queerness that they remember. They were born and raised in the deep south, though, so it wasn’t until dropping out of high school and moving to Chicago that buddy. felt more at ease being themself. Now, as a professional tattoo artist, buddy. is changing the industry with their activism, inclusivity, and killer illustrative blackwork tattoos.
buddy. has tattooed a huge range of people, seeing clients with severe scarring, clients in wheelchairs, clients with MS, and more. “I cannot say this loud enough: everybody is welcome in my chair—unless you’re racist or an asshole, then be gone. We wouldn’t have a good time anyhow.”
Outside of their regular appointments, however, is where buddy. truly shines. In order to combat the rampant cases of sexual assault on clients and artists in the tattoo industry, buddy. started a Facebook group called “off with their hands.” It serves as a platform for people around the world to call out offenders—particularly repeat offenders who get away with assault by relocating or abusing their industry clout.
On a local level, buddy. is involved with a collective of femme-identifying, nonbinary queer tattooers called “broad squad.” They raise money for various charities and folks in need via art shows, flash events, and more. COVID-19 interrupted plans for multiple events, including one to help at-risk LGBTQ+ youth and women’s shelters, and one for tattooing over mastectomy scars.
To some surprise, Becca Iturralde actually credits their quick success in the tattoo industry to their intersectional identities. They’re a Pilsen native who identifies as a nonbinary queer person of Mexican American ethnicity, which is uncommon in the Chicago handpoke tattoo scene.
Being a tattoo artist was always a dream for Iturralde, but the gatekeeping of the industry was made to exclude people like them. However, after they discovered handpoke tattoos on Instagram, Iturralde fell in love and started doing whatever they could to learn and practice by themself and in their community. It’s only been a year and a half, but it’s now their full-time job.
“How I approach tattooing is definitely shaped by my experience living as a QTPOC,” they say. “My style is illustrative and soft, and my goal is to cause the least amount of trauma to the skin. Black and Brown folks often experience racism in tattooing whether it’s intentional or not, since many tattooers are not well trained when it comes to tattooing darker skin tones. Many artists believe they must tattoo deeper or harder to make the ink stick better on dark skin (this just scars people) or artists will deny potential clients color tattoos based on the color of their skin (this is just ignorant). Because of this, many Black and Brown people are wary of the mainstream tattoo industry, and they want to try handpoke because of how gentle and intentional the craft is when done right . . . Traditionally, tattooing is a sacred practice. It was invented by BIPOC, and I find it incredibly important to honor that.”
Iturralde only allows fellow queer and/or Brown artists to tattoo them, avoiding the “stereotypical tatt bro” and continuing to support and grow the queer and POC tattoo community.
Iturralde works out of a private studio, and their books remain closed due to COVID-19, which disproportionately affects Black and Brown communities. They will announce reopening on their Instagram @softbarrio and website softbarrio.com.
A printmaker by trade, Gabriel Chalfin-Piney is a queer, polyamorous, self-taught tattoo artist with a style all their own.
About three years ago, Chalfin-Piney bought a tattoo machine off a friend, began seeking advice about safety and sterilization, and started offering free tattoos to folks in upstate New York, where they lived. Since then, they have relocated to Chicago and continued learning with each new tattoo. In terms of style, activists, “scratchers” (self-taught artists), and printmakers have been their inspiration all along the way, particularly contemporary artists like Inez Nathaniel Walker, Francesco Clemente, Gwendolyn Knight, Martin Puryear, and Philip Guston.
Chalfin-Piney cites Instagram as playing a formative role in their work as a tattoo artist. They looked to @ritasalt and @framacho, artists who had tattooed them in the past, for guidance in getting started. @inkthediaspora, a platform that highlights BIPOC folks and provides resources and workshops, has helped them learn more about color-matching and communicating with clients when tattooing non-white skin. Hashtags like #qttr (queer tattooer) and #queerchicago provide an immediate network for clients and artists to find each other.
They emphasize the influence of @tamarasantibanez, who’s been very vocal about dismantling white supremacy and anti-Blackness in the scene, as well as providing guidance for informed consent and trauma-aware tattooing—guidelines for which can be found through @disciplinepress.
“I always ask someone coming in for a tattoo if they are comfortable with me touching a part of their body that I am planning to tattoo during the session and letting them know that if they need a break at any time, we can stop,” Chalfin-Piney says. “I do this regardless of location of the tattoo; having a stranger touch your body is intimate and requires repeated verbal consent and check-ins. There is some idea in the tattooing industry that you have to wait to take breaks or ‘we just need to finish this line’ and I disagree with that concept. At least for me, we can stop whenever we need to. There’s no rush.”
Chalfin-Piney says, “I really think there is space for queer folks in the industry. I think realizing that you can ask for help is the biggest step; I had to be patient when I started tattooing, taking time to learn all of the safety procedures and ways of tattooing, and I’m still learning.”