To tattoo the body is to modify the self, to bring a bit of the outside world onto flesh. The practice is thousands of years old, manifesting worldwide with different meanings, aesthetics and traditions unique to each practitioner of the craft.
As Tejada notes, queerness as embodied in tattooing is difficult to pinpoint but is absolutely a growing community of both aesthetics and providers. Brit Abad, a Portland based tattooer who identifies as queer, draws from life and the ups and downs of queer love, sharing these experiences publicly through client work. “A lot of what I draw, I just draw because I enjoy it,” she says. “I think it's really great that my clients share the same feelings and are proud to represent that on their bodies forever.”
This, in a way, heightens visibility of both experience and subjects (and, thankfully, Abad like all artists spoke with shared their work is widely received positively). “Tattooing in general can play a big role in how people perceive themselves,” she says, noting that wearing these experiences gets them “out in the public forum,” thereby enabling conversation about queer love.
Uve Rivera, a lesbian/queer tattoo artist who works between Barcelona and London, takes the aethetics of queer love further by tapping into kink imagery through black illustrative style. “It helps me to identify myself and, at the same time, to the other person whom I am working with,” Rivera says. “For lots of queer people, tattoos are the chance to modify their bodies and build their identities in a controlled way. I believe getting a visibly/strongly/obviously queer motif is not as important as it is to have it done by somebody you have a have a common experience with, someone who has gone through similar paths.”
Your average and stereotypical tattoo shop is full of machismo, and even plain old homophobia a good deal of the time. Queer shops provide a comfortable safe environment for everyone.
Unfortunately, Bataille and her peers are outsiders within tattooing: while the subjects and styles of queer artists may be received positively, the industry has been widely unwelcoming, often leading to LGBTQ+ persons to take alternative routes to creating a practice. Just like in society, queer tattooers have incorporated making something from nothing to make working work. Laura Hammel, a gay, self-described “regular dude” in Pittsburgh, observes this disconnect as majorly problematic. “I think all of the amazing queer tattooers I know personally either work in home studios or private studios or got started that way, myself included,” Hammel says. “There is a lot of taboo and criticism in the industry around being a ‘scratcher,’ a self-taught home tattooer.”
They continue to note that the “right” way to get ahead in tattooing is to “get lots of tattoos, build a portfolio of artwork, and find your way into an apprenticeship from there” but that’s not always an option for industry and societal outsiders. “For women, POC, queer people, and other marginalized people it can be especially challenging to find any apprenticeship, let alone one that is healthy or actually educational,” they explain. “So many of us say ‘Fuck it: I’ll do it myself.’ and tattoo at home.”
Noel’le Longhaul—a queer trans woman whose work captures the “trans-feminine experience of the world”—stresses this element of safety and the connection between bodies and work as the biggest link to queerness and working. “Tattooing has the potential to be a consensual, inherently ritualized exchange of power and trauma,” Longhaul explains. “A tattoo marks a before/after moment through receiving an intentional wound, and is an echo of that moment of commitment and intention. The literal healing process incorporates that confrontation of pain deep into the body of the client, altering their relationship to their body, their body’s history, and their future.”
Sanyu Nicolas, a New York City based queer tattooer, echoes this in their practice and style, something they describe as sensual and magical and “a cocoon of fantasy.” The intimacy and connection between people in tattooing, to Nicolas, can enable deeper self-awareness and love that resonates outward, to heal society and address intersectional struggles. “Trauma and mental health, violence against trans people, homelessness amongst queer youth, healthcare, racism, employment discrimination,” Nicolas lists. “I see most issues as correlated to one another so, any issue that affects the general population at large, has an even greater effect on the queer community.”
Accordingly, the future of—and for—queer tattooing is to make societal changes from within: first by changing the tattoo world before changing the world at large. Dave Davenport, a gay, queer tattooer in Los Angeles, wears this on the name of his shop. “Marginalized Tattoo,” he explains. “Specifically ‘marginalized’ for the reason that we tattoo because we don’t fit in to polite society. Your average and stereotypical tattoo shop is full of machismo, and even plain old homophobia a good deal of the time. Queer shops provide a comfortable safe environment for everyone.”
“Tattooers shouldn't all be alike,” he says. “There's someone for everyone and small pockets of community, and that's more what I'm also trying to reshape.”While the need for diversity and inclusion is full throated and clear, Ciara Havishya—a queer tattooer who owns and operates Sticks & Stones in Vancouver—is seeking racial visibility as well while holding the queer tattoo community accountable for questionable practices, from monetized activism to alienation of the communities they seek to include. “I also see queer tattooing celebrating culturally appropriating practices, without context or clarity,” they continue. “It doesn’t harm anyone particularly but it does successfully erase POCs by doing so.”
Havishya runs the successful Instagram, @qpoc.ttt, where they seek to amplify and share queer artists of color while sharing problems like the aforementioned. In many ways, the Instagram highlights how the queer tattoo community is succeeding and failing at its goal of being inclusive—and Havishya feels it is their duty to call this out, to start a conversation about the nuances of experience. “That lack of common ground has resulted in some very intense assumptions,” they explain. “I don’t think that my experience as a queer person with Indian heritage is in any way unique but things like violence at home, deep family responsibilities to maintaining a reputation, facing the threat of harm for dyeing my hair or getting piercings...Those are things I don’t see my white queer friends dealing with to the same extent.”
As queer tattooing has a moment and is being defined within the tattoo world, it heightens the many issues that lie beneath and the need to address them, both inside and outside of the queer community, inside and outside the tattoo community. These are the growing pains on the way to equality and the queer tattoo community feels this too. “These discussions have been happening in the background of queer tattoo culture forever,” Havishya says. “But now it’s coming to the forefront, on a different platform.”