Shanzey Afzal is made up of many things that define who she is. She's young, queer and a Muslim woman. She's a survivor of domestic abuse, as well as an Emma Watson fangirl. She's also a tattoo artist.
We chatted with Shanzey to learn more about how she got into tattooing, and what that meant for her coming from a Muslim background. She vehemently believes that people should feel both confident and safe when getting a tattoo, no matter their religion, skin color, sexual preference, etc.
As She-E-O of Ink Minx, Shanzey's facing this goal head-on and hopes to tour the East Coast of the U.S., bringing the Ink Minx message to a wider audience. With the help of her revamped tattoo trailer, Shanzey hopes to empower other women and take ownership over their bodies. You can learn more about the mission through her Kickstarter campaign. Read on to get to know the artist's thoughts on the state of hyper-masculine tattoo culture, and why providing a safe space for vulnerable demographics is sacred to her.
What was your first tattoo?
I got my first tattoo the day I turned 18. It’s on my wrist. It’s the crescent moon and star, both a symbol of Pakistan and Islam. I was still in high school and had just moved out of my family’s home because of cultural conflicts. Being first generation and having a strong personality - my home life was tumultuous and I had to get out. But I didn’t want to forget where I came from. I wanted to honor my travels, my culture, my family, and my memories. I got my first tattoo to symbolize all of that.
When did you first consider yourself an artist?
Honestly, I first considered myself an artist when I started painting along with Bob Ross. I was always a creative person but he taught me that by learning the right fundamentals I could create anything. I stopped doubting myself and felt free to try anything
Why and how did you first become interested in tattoos?
Why was I interested in tattooing? I had already collected maybe a dozen tattoos; all of which I had designed myself. I would collage images together and trace that and bring it to my tattoo artist. How did I get my apprenticeship? I was lucky. I got fired from my job in the music industry (that's not the lucky part). I searched Craigslist for jobs and found a shop looking for an apprentice. My skills matched to what they needed, an artist with customer service and web design experience and I landed the opportunity.
How heavily does the decision to be tattooed permanently weigh on those in cultures or religions that typically prohibit body modifications?
It’s especially powerful when someone from, say, Muslim or Jewish heritage get a tattoo. They are claiming a new space for themselves. Sometimes their choice of self-expression leads to disapproval. And that’s heavy. I can relate. I’m first generation Pakistani and Muslim. It's my tattoos that have had me disowned for the last 8 years from my mother’s side of the family. It's my tattoos that didn’t allow me to attend my favorite cousins weddings. And it is my tattoos that prohibit me from going back to my family’s home in Pakistan.
My story with tattoos is an extreme example. I haven’t heard of a similar situation. However, my experiences are my clients worst fears. I play the reassuring role that their decisions are theirs alone and that they can’t control other people's reactions.
How important is it to you that you provide vulnerable demographics a safe space for tattoos?
It’s sacred to me. Providing a safe space is a core philosophy of Ink Minx. Tattoo safety is a top priority of Ink Minx. That goes beyond avoiding cross contamination. Tattoo safety is respect for the clients body and experience. A non-judgemental environment. Vulnerable demographics have enough to deal with in their day to day. Getting tattooed, people should feel confident that they will not be exposed to discrimination, criticism, harassment, or any other emotional or physical harm. I hear all the time of women being sexualized while they are being tattooed. I strive to make tattooing a positive experience in all aspects of the process.
Mainstream traditional tattoo culture is largely hyper-masculine and male-dominated. As a woman, do you find it difficult to find your own voice within this space?
During my apprenticeship in a hyper-masculine shop, I found it incredibly difficult to find my own voice in tattoo culture. I was expected to be someone I’m not. I was inappropriately treated - beyond the average hazing. I was sexually harassed in more ways than one. Having to avoid a breakdown and put my mental health first, I choose to leave my apprenticeship and work somewhere else to learn. Eventually I became able to articulate what I had seen.
One thing I learned was that there is a high demand for female tattoo artists. Ignoring the men that saw only novelty in it, women that came into the shop constantly asked “do you have a female tattoo artist?” as one of their first questions. Not all shops, or tattoo artists are like this. But there are many that are. I feel inspired by the women in this industry. There is so much talent out there and lady tattooers are killing the game!
Favourite tattoo you’ve ever received?
I’m a survivor of domestic violence. I have a beautiful tattoo done by a female hand-poke artist that honors that on my stomach. It’s a traditional style script and banner that reads “survivor”. Whenever I look at it or touch it, I remember what I’ve gone through, where I’ve come from, and I feel strong.
If you could tattoo anyone in the world - who would it be?
Emma Watson! I’ve watched her iconic UN speech many times and tattooing her would be tattooing a feminist role model. I bet she’d get a literary tattoo. I can’t imagine what we’d talk about but I can imagine that it’d be a powerful experience for both of us. I hope one day I can make that dream come true.
If you could tattoo anywhere in the world - where would it be?
I would LOVE to tattoo Muslim women in Pakistan. There are little to none tattoo artists in that country, and I would be providing a service that I receive many emails about from Pakistani women. In one sense, going back to Pakistan as a tattoo artist/tattooed woman could be dangerous. In another, I don’t believe anything would be more fulfilling.
One tip for tattoo for first-timers?
Try out your tattoo with inkbox first. Don’t be scared to take the leap! Relax into your tattoo. Enjoy the experience. You’re an amazing, strong individual and you are taking one action to empower yourself. Go you!