With another Pride Month come and gone, we are feelin' the love for the entire spectrum of genders and sexualities. We had a blast creating and sharing our Pride Collection, and were overwhelmed with the love and support these inclusive designs received! While we may be riding the high of this amazing month, it's important to acknowledge that our public spaces are not always this welcoming to the LGBTQI+ community.
When you think of tattoos today, you might think of self-expression and open-mindedness. The unfortunate reality is that there continues to be a subculture of hyper-masculinity and "toughness" that makes many individuals, especially within the queer community, feel unwelcome.
Emily North (@em16) considers herself a fine artist first and foremost. However, one of the current forms of her art is blackwork tattoos. She owns the Scarlet Letter Club, which prides itself on being a safe-space tattoo parlor in New York City. We asked her to shed some light on the current landscape of mainstream tattoo culture, and what can be done to make this industry the welcoming and accepting space it deserves to be.
How would you describe your art?
I was trained as fine artist, with a BFA from Parsons and MFA from Rutgers Mason Gross. I consider myself a fine artist first and foremost. My drawings are large scale, up to 30 feet wide. The bulk of my tattoo work consists of blackwork florals. I'm interested in perfecting and emphasizing line, similar to my drawing work. I'm interested in exploring ways that organic shapes can be composed on the body as a whole. I'm excited when clients allow me to work large and draw stencils on them with markers (known as "freehand tattooing"). This way I can consider the shape of the tattoo in relation to the full composition of someone's body. Flowers and plants work perfectly for these compositions and have healing symbology, which makes for meaningful tattoos. Most clients in NYC want smaller tattoos, so I also work on small pieces, which I consider "prints" on the body.
Do you think the subculture of hyper-masculinity is still prevalent in the mainstream tattoo community?
Yes, both stylistically and in business practices, which makes safe spaces even more crucial.
When I was learning to tattoo, I resisted tattooing in American Traditional style. This caused friction with my predecessors as it was the prevalent style of tattooing in NYC in 2009. Many tattooers felt that those who didn't start off doing Traditional tattoos didn't respect the history of tattooing. In reality, American Traditional tattooing is only one aspect of the rich world-wide history of tattooing.
Personally, I didn't relate to the imagery of most American Traditional tattoos. Many of these tattoos depicted women in compromising ways or required copying of the work of tattooers of the past, such as Sailor Jerry. Without any disrespect to my predecessors, I felt that there could be more than one way to learn to tattoo.
As an artist, I wanted to create something entirely original. As a queer person and feminist, I had no interest in creating images that were exploitative of women.
Five years into my career, blackwork tattooing became big in NYC. In blackwork, there was clear inspiration coming from fine arts etching and woodcut prints, both of which I'd done in years past. I was always better at black ink tattooing and I felt it gave me flexibility beyond any other style I'd experimented with. I haven't always been a primarily black ink tattoo artist, but this is where I landed.
Along with the "me too" movement, participants of all industries are coming forward with reports of abuse. There have been numerous public conversations calling out tattooers who abuse their clients' boundaries on social media. I feel that the tattoo world is behind most industries and still see far too much sexist/racist/homophobic behavior in shops, but I also think that it's better late than never.
There are still many tattoo artists who celebrate masculinity - I see it at conventions where my booth will be one of the few queer/femme booths. Masculine tattooers will come up to us saying condescending things such as "your work is soft, feminine". They will openly question my skills, how I learned, how long I've been tattooing... Then as conventions go on, they look over jealously when we have more clients lined up than they do!
The truth is that clients outnumber tattooers, and because clients want to see more safe tattooers and safe tattoo spaces, we are able to build them. I'm so grateful that things are changing.
What kind of issues or situations could queer clients face in traditional tattoo studios that would make them uncomfortable?
Before I was a tattooer, I found tattoo shops intimidating. It's just a vibe you get. It was a dismay to find out that my instincts were correct once I worked in a shop.
I saw tattooers make underhanded comments about clients' bodies, gender, race. I saw tattooers turn down projects because they didn't want to work with someone for these reasons.
Privacy can also be an issue. Being tattooed puts clients in extremely vulnerable situations. Parts of the body that are usually covered may be revealed during a tattoo and not all shops can or do provide privacy screens. Once a tattoo begins, a client may feel emotional or low energy, rendering them less able to assert themselves if they feel uncomfortable.
For this reason it's really important to do your research. If an artist isn't advertising a safe space, then ask them if it is safe for you. Are they anti-racism, LGBTQ friendly, can they provide privacy screens if your tattoo requires it?
How can an artist or studio make it clear to the LGBTQI+ community that their space is welcoming and safe?
It's really important for all artists to learn what consent means and practice the language of consent - this includes cis male artists. Always ask a client before touching them, moving their clothing, or adding to a tattoo design you agreed upon. Also always have privacy screens readily available and ask a client if they'd like a screen if they must remove any street clothing to be tattooed. Check in with a client throughout the tattoo to see if they are feeling okay or need a break rather than pushing them past the point where they are clearly uncomfortable.
Artists who are invested in created safe tattoo spaces can explicitly advertise that they run a safe space on their social media, website, and client emails. I designed a sign that states that my studio is a safe tattoo space where discrimination will not be tolerated, which I have for sale if other artists would like one. Just contact me via my email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Do you think that there has been a growing presence of LGBTQI+ tattooists?
There has been huge growth of LGBTQI+ artist presence the past four years. While I wish this was the case when I started tattooing 9 years ago, I am so grateful for the space that we are creating. Since there still isn't nearly enough safe tattoo spaces, this year I opened up my own shop in order to provide safe, legal space for other artists for myself to tattoo in.