A year and a half ago, I visited Emily Kempf’s home in Pilsen to interview her about her then-active cassette label Cool Girl Tapes. The walls of her living room were papered with black-and-white ink drawings of goblets and flowers and four-eyed women—illustrations that looked like they belonged in a deck of tarot cards. Kempf explained that the sketches decorating her walls were tattoo designs—she had begun using her home as a makeshift tattoo studio, hand-poking her art onto friends and a small client base familiar with her work through Instagram.
Kempf is still tattooing, but no longer from her living room: with Keara McGraw and Sema Graham, she opened up Time Being Tattoo last month, an appointment-only studio in Humboldt Park.
Graham, Kempf, and McGraw are all self-taught, and are part of a recent generation of tattoo artists who have used Instagram to build a network of clients rather than going through a formal apprenticeship and then joining an established tattoo shop. All three founders have worked primarily out of private studios up until this point, but they wanted to open a brick-and-mortar shop to provide clients with a legal and safe environment.
The three artists initially knew of one another’s work through Instagram. Graham and McGraw met for the first time in April, when Graham gave McGraw a tattoo. They connected over their shared views on tattoo culture, and they began dreaming up plans to open a shop together. Kempf was brought on in June after she tattooed McGraw and they clicked, and the three secured the storefront for Time Being within weeks—everything fell into place remarkably quickly. “We were all just ready,” says Kempf. “I feel like we were all just on the same path.”
All three founders share a belief that tattooing their art onto another individual is a powerful act, and one they should honor. “I’m definitely really in to the energy exchange between me and the person I’m tattooing,” says Kempf. “It’s not a weird transaction, and I don’t take it for granted.”
The shop’s name is a reference to Ruth Ozeki’s novel A Tale for the Time Being. “In that book [Ozeki] kind of treats ‘time being’ like a personhood, like a noun,” says McGraw. “We as humans are time beings, we exist in time, and I kind of like the way that relates to tattooing.” Her Instagram bio expands on this view of the temporal nature of tattoo art and the quasi-spiritual way the shop’s founders all view their practice: “permanent markings on impermanent vessels.”
Though Graham, Kempf, and McGraw respect the tattoo community in Chicago, they feel that tattoo shops can often feel unapproachable to women and queer individuals. “Something that’s supposed to be a radical counterculture thing has become a boys’ club,” says Graham. All three artists can relate an experience within the tattoo world where they have felt uncomfortable, whether it’s being sexualized by a man tattooing them or condescension from professionals when they’ve self-identifed as home tattoo artists.
Time Being Tattoo models itself after other spaces in Chicago, such as Black Oak Tattoo, that transcend the hypermasculinity of many tattoo shops. It’s meant to be a space where anyone can feel comfortable and marginalized people can feel seen. This is demonstrated through the shop’s sign-in forms, which ask for details such as clients’ preferred pronouns but also reassure customers that disclosing personal information is optional. “We want people to feel safe,” says McGraw. “We want people to feel like their existence is respected.” v