By Leah Asmelash
Tattoos have increased in popularity over the last few years, as stigmas against body art have decreased in both social environments and the workplace. Although the artistic tradition has a long history in many indigenous cultures, the art form is most known in western culture as a symbol of the counter-movement, particularly in the ‘90s. They were sported by a crowd most parents didn’t necessarily want their kids to be around: punk skaters, gang members and convicts, usually all men.
Tattooing, in general, was a boy’s club. A woman with a tattoo was rare; a woman tattooing was unheard of. Now, people with tattoos come from all walks of life and from all genders, as do tattoo artists. So, what has changed in the last few decades, and why are people increasingly drawn to tattoos?
Heather Harlow, owner of Divine Moment Tattoo in Burlington, N.C., has been tattooing for 11 years. When she started, she said the industry lived up to its status as a boy’s club and was sexist towards women, but it has changed over the course of her career.
“I was maybe the first or second lady that actually did conventions on the East Coast,” Harlow said, while recalling her earlier days. “So a lot of people were just really rude to me, but I stayed strong and I knew they were going to make fun of me. I just knew that I didn’t care if I was a female or not. I loved art and I loved tattooing and I loved people.”
Now Harlow only hires women artists, in part because she felt mortified by how women tattoo artists were treated in the past. They were called curtain-hangers, a term signifying someone who should only go into the shop to hang curtains to make the space look pretty, rather than tattooing. Still, Harlow said it has gotten easier for women to enter the tattoo industry, and they have helped change and evolve the industry as a result.
“In the long run it probably has more to do with there’s not much competition,” she said. “Everyone has found a niche. There’s so many different types of tattooing now that anybody can do anything now. A lot of females are good for watercolors and stuff like that, more color. Guys hate doing that.”
Meghan Thayer owns Ascension Tattoo in Chapel Hill, N.C. Her shop, which is located on West Franklin Street between a smoke shop and a CD/record store, is more spacious than it seems upon first inspection. The front door opens into a tall staircase — the entire shop is on the second floor. The space is organized, with one room for piercing and one room for tattooing. The rooms are blocked off from the front desk area with a black curtain. The sun peering through the window casts shadows over the space, but Thayer doesn’t seem to mind. She leaves the lights off.
Thayer has only been tattooing for six years, but she’s always loved the art form, getting her first tattoo as soon as she turned 18. Although she never set out to be a tattoo artist, she has always been a creative person.
She said the tattoo industry is still dominated by men, but, like Harlow, she believes it’s evolving as more women begin tattooing.
“I think there’s been enough women who have been in the industry for a while now that there’s sort of this big enough group of women tattoo artists who new women tattooers can look up to,” Thayer said. “They’re becoming leaders in the industry, and it is starting to kind of balance out.”
Thayer also said women are going back to the older roots of tattooing, beyond the traditional style of the 20th century that has more masculine characteristics.
“People are getting back to more of like the healing aspect of things and the spiritual aspect of it,” Thayer said. “And while I see both male and female artists doing that, there’s definitely a feminine quality in that.”
A Growing Art Form
Sarah Peacock, owner of Artfuel Tattoo Shop and Art Gallery in Wilmington, N.C., has been tattooing for 22 years. Having working in the industry for so long, she’s part of an older generation of tattoo artists, and she disagrees with both Harlow and Thayer on the role of women in the tattoo industry.
“I don’t think you can look at a particular style and say women definitely prefer to do that,” Peacock said, referencing differences in style between men and women tattoo artists.
Instead, Peacock said the new styles rising in popularity now are due to the influx of artists taking an interest in tattooing, not more women tattooing.
“Tattooing has gone into the hands of these people that have pushed the envelope, and they’ve brought so many different styles in, from graphic novels to fine art to computer art,” Peacock said.
All of the women, however, agree that the industry has changed drastically in the past few years, with more and more people getting tattoos. They no longer symbolize a rebel status like they used to. Instead, they have become a part of mainstream popular culture.
“Different types of people have been a little bit more okay with getting tattooed lately, in the past four to five years,” Harlow said. “I think what changed it was the media. If it’s on TV, it’s okay.”
Peacock first began to notice the change when her clientele shifted. She began to get to know people in the medical field or in law enforcement who were interested in tattooing, the types of people who did not express an interest before.
“What I suddenly realized is that I was being viewed as a successful business owner, aside from being a tattooer,” Peacock said. “So suddenly, I’m validated. I’m okay for someone to talk to me and take me into their group that aren’t necessarily into tattooing. And that was kind of weird.”
Peacock called the shift a turning point in her career. After only associating with fellow tattoo artists, she wasn’t used to attention from individuals outside of the industry.
Thayer agreed that tattoo culture has become more popular recently due to the influence of media, but she said the political climate may have something to do with the recent increase as well.
“Throughout history, there’s been surges of an increase of tattooing, and they tend to follow really politically turbulent times,” Thayer said. “I think we’re definitely in another one of this cycles, like we were in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and again in the ‘60s and ‘70s. We’re here again. It’s a way for people to take control of themselves. So I think that’s what’s really going on at the core of it.”
Harlow said that people are drawn towards tattoos as a way to express themselves, not necessarily an expression of rebellion anymore.
“We have so many different types of people, and there’s so many humans on this planet that we’re trying to find a way to express ourselves and stand out,” Harlow said. “I think it’s a change of consciousness. People want to be able to be different and express themselves.”
Breast cancer patients have also become a large clientele for tattoo artists. Nipple tattoos help women feel better after mastectomies, when the breast and the nipple are removed, Harlow said.
“I can tattoo them and make them look 3-D, and they feel better with that,” she said. “As long as society is okay with it, it’s okay for people to get it.”
Peacock, who has also tattooed women after mastectomies, said tattooing breast cancer patients changed how people viewed her. She was no longer just a tattoo artist, but someone who was helping women by doing something surgeons couldn’t do.
For women especially, Thayer said tattoos help with self-esteem, even outside of mastectomies.
“(Women) have been told we’re not enough of something,” she said. “You’re too tall, you’re too short, you’re too thin, you’re too fat, you’re too whatever. You’re something.
“I see as people get tattoos, they start to accept themselves for who they are,” Thayer said. “And to stand up in front of the mirror and just love yourself, love the way you look, is such a powerful thing.”
Women have gone through a long journey in the tattoo industry. Some are like Peacock, they’ve been in the industry forever with few problems, but others are Harlow and have been discriminated against based on their gender. In the end, there are more women now than ever before, women like Thayer who began tattooing just in the last few years, making their mark on the tattooing world.
The industry — whether it is because of the media, the political climate, the desire for self-expression or breast cancer — continues to grow in popularity among both men and women. And despite whether they are giving a tattoo or receiving it, women are, and have always been, a huge part of the tattoo industry.
Edited by Sarah Muzzillo