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Re-Thinking Tattoos

News & Features | February 5, 2018

Content warning: sexual assault

“My tattoos are me, and reflect my gender in a way I wish my mirror would. They’re reminders to love myself, whoever I may be, and to stay fixed in a state of softness and changing and growing,” shared Matthew Wilson, a senior.  The industry of transforming one’s body into a living and breathing canvas has gained popularity in our modern era. According to an article in The Atlantic released in 2016, about one in five people in the US have a tattoo. They are even more popular among millennials, with nearly 40 percent having one.

Although tattooing in Massachusetts has transformed from an illegal activity to a mainstream industry, a closer look reveals an often sexist workplace in a business dominated by White men. The tattoo industry is yet another institution fallen victim to larger systems of power, including systematic sexism, racism, and transphobia. From a collection of personal anecdotes and tireless searches, as an article in Ebony presents, tattoo artists of color are underrepresented in the industry.  In 2010, a Columbia University study revealed that one in six tattoo artists are women. While there is little data on the female to male ratio of tattoo artists, there is even less on transgender and gender non-conforming tattoo artists. But the consensus is clear: the tattoo industry is an unwelcoming space for marginalized gender identities. In addition to being underrepresented in their field, tattoo artists with marginalized gender identities are faced with more scrutiny by their male counterparts, especially in their early years in an already grueling and unforgiving business.

Despite the targeted and misogynistic treatment they receive, these tattoo artists prove their tenacity. Roz Thompson, a tattoo artist at Boston Tattoo Company, talked about the difficulties of her apprenticeship: “There were a couple of tattooers there that did really try to discourage me, which is part of the apprenticeship process. You have to have a thick skin, people will criticize your work; in that sense, some of the things that were said did target me in that way.” These verbal comments did not dissuade her from moving forward. “I didn’t really dwell on it. I buckled down and worked harder.”

Sandra Burbul, a tattoo artist at Kaleidoscope Tattoo, described one discriminatory encounter. “When I entered the workforce, one male coworker would be like, ‘yeah if I opened a shop, I would never hire a woman, maybe to answer the phones’, being serious.” However, he didn’t faze her. “He was a very small man with a giant ego, so it didn’t surprise me. You could tell what kind of person he was.”

For people getting tattoos, including Tufts students, tattoos tell vignettes of their diverse identities and want an experience that respects their significance. Senior Ray Bernoff got a Common Eastern Gardner Snake tattoo because, “it as a symbol of transformation and renewal because I’m trans.”

MJ Griego, a senior, said their tattoos reflect their continued struggle with self-care. “Spoons are regarded as indicators of energy in disability communities, and being able to accept my mental illness and struggles with chronic fatigue has been important to the constant work of taking care of myself. Tattoos have given me a way to literally make art a piece of my body, and by connection attach my friendships to myself forever.”

From the perspective of the artist, Thompson said, “The favorite tattoos I have done are the ones people getting them are most excited about, so even if it’s not something I would not get personally myself, [it’s] the most meaningful to them.” Burbul has a different viewpoint, saying, “It doesn’t have to have some cosmic significance. You like it: that’s significant!”

Thompson recognizes her identity affects her relationships with clients. “Women and marginalized people, especially part of the LGBTQ community—whatever the impression of a male tattoo artist is, they would just be more comfortable in the hands of women.”

Sophia Isadore, a first-year, said she had reservations about having a male tattoo artist because “the way men have historically projected themselves in the tattoo world is aggressive. I can imagine myself being under the needle, feeling not so empowered and if it’s going to be on my body, I want to feel that I can voice myself completely.”

One Tufts student in the class of 2021 is a trans tattoo artist and finds the interactions between others of marginalized gender identities the most meaningful aspect of his work. “You get to sit down and learn from that person. That’s something really significant because there are so many different ways that people are trans and it’s really cool to listen to people’s stories.”

Trans and gender non-conforming students echo the need for tattoo artists who are not cisgender. Yoji Watanabe, a sophomore, said, “I want to empower artists I appreciate, so the artists I try to choose generally share some of my own gender, spiritual, and cultural experiences. I’ve definitely been thinking a lot about getting pieces from femme, non-binary, and trans people.”

Hayden Wolff, a first-year, shares. “I live in the Bay Area and my biggest regret is not getting my tattoo in San Francisco in a queer-friendly tattoo shop.” Hayden is planning on getting a tattoo related to queer identity, and is planning on finding an artist who is “female or queer,” explaining that “it means more if that person gives me the tattoo.”

Mar Freeman, a junior, reflects on an experience with a queer woman tattoo artist. “I felt a lot more comfortable. I just felt I didn’t have to worry so much about the way I presented myself.” They also think about their future tattoos in terms of their position as a consumer. “I definitely want to keep looking out for other marginalized identities. I want to make sure that I am supporting people that I can because that’s what putting my money means to me and I am spreading wealth equitably.”

In addition to marginalized gender identities, students of color seek artists with marginalized racial identities. Wilson, a Black student, said that for his next tattoo, “I would likely search for a Black artist to support the community and more likely ensure a comfortable experience.”

The tattoo industry has recently had its own revelation with the #MeToo movement about the power dynamic between a client with a marginalized gender identity and a cisgender male tattoo artist. The spark of the movement, according to an article on Jezebel, started with male tattoo artist Alex Bokyo in the Detroit area. There have been over 200 women who have various testimonies of Bokyo sexually violating them. Among the statements were instances of Bokyo groping them during appointments or being talked into sending him nudes or topless photos for “reference materials.” Building awareness, Instagram account @watchdogtattoos posts photographs of tattoo artists with sexual misconduct charges, including sexual assault, indecent exposure, and rape.

Students of marginalized gender identities are aware of this issue, as they distance themselves from the idea of a cisgender male tattoo artist. Sophomore Adrienne La Forte comments, “Getting a tattoo is something very intimate with you and your body. I have had enough bad experiences with men that I would not be comfortable having a man tattoo me any place more intimate than my arm or any sort of limb or extremity.”

On the flip side, women and trans tattoo artists with cis male clients can also experience an imbalance of power. Burbul remembered a particular client: “This was years ago. He was weird. Like he had his hands in his pants, like he was playing with himself. In that case, I chose to ignore it. I was embarrassed by it, that I didn’t want to address it. And I also wanted to be paid.” As Burbul noted, a client possesses a heightened power in their dynamic—they are paying the artist—which further complicates the position of the artist in these situations.

Despite challenges, Burbul and Thomspon experience a deep love for their work as tattoo artists. When asked her favorite thing about the job, Burbul replied, “Being able to make my own future in a sense. I have full control over what I do.”

Thompson answered, “You get to meet so many different types of people. I’ve tattooed firemen, lawyers, doctors, astrophysicists, librarians, housewives, guys getting out of jail—you know, all different walks of life.”