13 TOP WOMEN TATTOOISTS
the popularity of tattooing continues unabated, the number of women
going under the needle has also increased in record numbers. But
although the percentage of women being tattooed is rapidly moving
toward parity with men, the number of women tattooists is still
very much in the minority compared to their male counterparts. However,
this is changing rapidly as the traditionally male dominated world
of tattooing has been, somewhat reluctantly, forced to open its
doors to the fairer sex.
the ever-increasing female presence in tattooing, SKIN&Ink is
showcasing the work of thirteen of the country's top women tattooists.
Not an easy task, since there are far more great female artists
than space in the magazine. So apologies to all of those we didn't
Shanghai Kate Hellenbrand
Shanghai Kate's Seven Seas
Buffalo, New York
better known as Shanghai Kate, has been tattooing an amazing thirty-six
years. Born in Salt Lake City, Utah where she grew up on a farm,
Kate saw her first tattoos on her Uncle Jeb, who worked as a trucker.
"I used to call them badges of freedom," she states. "I've
always associated tattooing with freedom ever since I saw them on
my uncle. It's one of the things that drew me into the tattoo world.
I love the fact that these people live their lives on their own
Working as a
successful graphic artist in the '70s in New York City, Kate was
introduced to the illegal and underground world of tattooing by
her long-time partner Mike Malone. In 1971, Kate collaborated with
Malone on the first-ever gallery showing of tattooing at the Museum
of American Folk Art. Later, she worked with Ed Hardy in San Diego
and then traveled to Hawaii to work with the legendary Sailor Jerry
Collins. She has published two books featuring his world-famous
Hellenbrand tattooed Howard Stern and Pearl Jam guitarist Mike McCready.
And let's not forget that Kate is now a columnist for SKIN&INK.
But fame doesn't faze Kate. "All my customers are famous,"
she states proudly. "Without them I'd be sitting around with
nothing to do."
Madame Lazonga Tattoo
is another undisputed grande dame of American tattooing. Although
women tattooists have worked before her, she is one of the leading
pioneers of today's female tattoo scene. Vyvyn became inspired to
become a tattooist after reading about Cliff Raven in a men's magazine
in the early '70s. Raven's groundbreaking designs revealed to her
the creative potential of tattooing. "It never occurred to
me that you could create works of art on the skin until I saw Cliff's
work," she explains. "I thought how beautiful it would
be to create, not only works of art, but also a talisman you could
carry around on your skin until you died. This seemed like a very
powerful way to make the ultimate affirmation for yourself."
career began in Seattle after she managed to convince former tugboatman-turned-tattooist
Danny Danzl to take her on as his helper. She apprenticed with Danzl
for seven years before striking out on her own and eventually reaching
San Francisco. Here she befriended many of the great male pioneers
of tattooing, including Ed Hardy, Lyle Tuttle, Henry Goldfield and
The 1989 Bay
Area earthquake destroyed most of her studio, so she decided to
return to Seattle and set up a new shop in Pike Place Market, where
she is currently producing beautiful custom work under her original
tattoo moniker, Madame Lazonga.
Outer Limits Tattoo
Keri Barba has
been tattooing professionally for over a quarter century. Her tattoo
empire now includes four Outer Limits shops based in Anaheim, Orange
County, Costa Mesa and Long Beach, California.
tattooing in Minneapolis, Minnesota and was guided into the profession
by a friend who taught her how to do single-needle tattooing. Much
of her training, however, had to be unlearned when she moved to
California and worked in Fat George's Tattoo. "I had to re-train
myself to do a clean, basic tattoo," she states.
Keri says she
never had a problem being one of the first women to work in an almost
exclusively male profession. "I didn't have that mind set,"
she explains. "They were all men and I was the only woman.
I was only interested in the art; in the process, so I never let
gender issues get in the way."
that being married and having kids also helped her to be accepted
in the tattoo world. Ironically, she has far more problems being
accepted among tattoo professionals today than when she first started
out. "When I discovered I was gay, I decided to get divorced,"
she confesses. "It has not gone down too well with some of
the guys from the old school of tattooing. Fortunately, only a few,
that as wioth many businesses it will take time for women to equal
the number of men in tattooing. "When I started out you could
count the women on one hand," she reveals. "Now you are
likely to find a woman in nearly every shop."
Tattoo Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara, California
Pat Fish, a
tattooist most famous for her amazing Celtic designs, is another
woman who had no problem getting started in the tattoo profession.
And like Vyvyn Lazonga, it was the work of Cliff Raven that got
her all fired up about tattooing. "I went to the person who
I thought was the best," she explains from her studio, Tattoo
Santa Barbara. "I got my first tattoo from Cliff and then asked
if he would teach me. He said yes, and that was all there was to
Pat was thirty
at the time. Having already acquired a degree in Studio Art and
Film Studies, she felt it was time for a career change, one that
enabled her to exploit her abundant creative talents. So she switched
from journalism to tattooing. After working with Raven, Pat moved
to Santa Barbara in 1984 and set up her own studio, where she has
been tattooing professionally ever since.
When asked about
defining a feminine tattoo, Pat refers to Japanese tattooing and
criticizes Western tattooists who don't understand human anatomy
or lack artistic training. "The Japanese designs are so effective
because they use the tattoo in a kinetic way to enhance the shape
of the body," she states. "We spend a lot of time trying
to get the placement of the tattoo just right. So, for me, a feminine
tattoo is one that accentuates and enhances a woman's innate beauty
by working with the form and placement to make it look more integrated
into her body."
San Diego, California
is the owner and operator of Avalon Tattoo in San Diego's Pacific
Beach (a second shop, Avalon 2, is located on Adams Avenue). Patty
has been tattooing for twenty-four years and has had a life-long
fascination with art and design. "I was the youngest student
enrolled at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington D.C.,"
she explains. "And then I went on to do my degree at the Art
Institute of Pittsburg." But it wasn't until she met her current
friend and former husband Fip Buchanan, that she decided to channel
her creative talents into becoming a tattooist. "Initially
it was difficult for me to break into tattooing," she admits.
"And I don't believe I would have had the chance without Fip's
help, along with several other key people."
When Patty tells
people what her chosen profession is they frequently don't believe
her. "I often hear the question, 'You actually do the tattoos?'"
she laughs. "Actually, it's a bit annoying, having to prove
yourself repeatedly, after all these years in the profession."
As for my stock
question about the nature of feminine tattoos Patty replies, "The
only one that comes to mind is an old and favorite client of mine
who has changed gender. I suppose we can say that all the tattoos
I did on him are now feminine!"
Fun City Tattoo and Dare Devil Tattoo
New York City, New York
Myles started tattooing sixteen years ago, it was still illegal
in New York City and the studio she worked out of was really anonymous.
"Obviously there wasn't a sign outside," she explains.
"All work had to be by referral only. You pressed a buzzer
and then came up to find me."
changed a lot since then. When tattooing was set to become legal
in 1997, Myles stepped out of the underground and set up Dare Devil
tattoo with an old friend from St Louis. Then in 2005, she bought
out Fun City in St. Mark's Place, which was owned by Jonathan Shaw,
the past editor of International Tattoo Art magazine and Outlaw
Biker. "The ban on tattooing in New York meant that other cities
like Los Angeles and San Francisco took the lead," she states.
"But I'm glad to say that's ancient history."
always been attracted to tattooing. "If I hadn't become a tattooist,"
she states, "I would have been a mechanic or something. I'm
attracted to working in areas that are traditionally occupied by
men." As for the issue of feminine tattoos, "That's something
I definitely don't aspire to," she scoffs. "I've never
tried to have a feminine style. And I'd be pissed if someone asked
me for a tattoo just because I am a woman. That's the last reason
why anyone should pick an artist."
In stark contrast
to Michelle Myles, Amanda Myers from Infinity Tattoo in Portland
loves to do the sort of flowery, organic designs that many people
might describe as feminine. She has been tattooing professionally
for sixteen years, starting with an apprenticeship with Don Deaton
at Sea Tramp, a longtime Portland tattoo Mecca. Despite being a
woman, or perhaps because of it, Amanda didn't find breaking into
the profession difficult: "It was just good timing really,"
she states modestly. "I applied at the same moment a woman
was leaving Don's shop. He liked having a girl around, so I was
Amanda is no
stranger to art. She went to the California Institute of the Arts
in Los Angeles where she did her BSA in costume design, and it was
while studying there that the tattoo muse first began calling her.
"Tattooing was very much in-your-face at college," she
remembers. "After I got my first few tattoos I realized, yes,
this is exactly what I want to do with my life." Now a mother
of two, she doesn't find much time to get out there and self-promote.
But she is glad that the number of women tattooists is increasing.
"I was in Italy recently," she states, "and I saw
women tattooists in all the shops and conventions that I visited.
I was amazed."
Karen Roze got
her first tattoo on a dare. She was with a girlfriend who was getting
tattooed by Eddy Deutsche at Ed Hardy's Tattoo City in San Francisco.
"Once my friend had been tattooed, she turned to me and said,
'Now it's your turn,'" she explains. "First I said, 'I'm
just looking, thanks.' But after being called a wimp, I chose a
kanji off the wall."
Karen has been
tattooing professionally for fifteen years. She completed a degree
in fine art before getting her chance to learn tattooing at Guy
Martynuik's Picture Machine in San Francisco. "It was a busy
walk-in shop so it was a fantastic place to learn." But after
two years, Martynuik walked in one day and fired everyone. Shortly
after that she set up Sacred Rose in San Francisco's Mission District.
A mother of two, Karen has switched to working in a new shop in
Berkeley, in order to be closer to home.
there are fewer women than men in tattooing because of the tough-guy
image associated with the profession. "You have to have balls
to become a tattoo artist," she claims. She recalls that everyone
in Picture Machine had guns. "I don't like guns. A baseball
bat was fine for me."
Kingston, New York
wants to put the record straight: "Shotsie Gorman likes to
claim that he apprenticed me," she says. "At first I thought
that gave me a bit of credibility, but, after all these years, I
don't really need that anymore." In fact, Pat started tattooing
out of her mother's New Jersey home thirteen years ago. "Not
something I would recommend to any tattooist," she says, laughing.
"It's really hard on your own and you don't have anyone to
rely on. Fortunately for me and the friends I worked on, I didn't
do anything serious to screw them up."
Pat found it
extremely difficult to break into the profession being female. "Everyone
kept telling me you are a woman so you can't tattoo," she states.
"Tattooing is not a profession for women and all that stuff.
So I just went on learning and ignored them all." Pat continued
tattooing for seven years before she got a job working at Gorman's
studio, Shotsie's Tattoo, in New Jersey.
there are fewer women in the business than men for a very good reason.
"Tattooing has always been a male-dominated activity,"
she says. "In the early days it was mostly servicemen and blue-collar
guys who got tattooed. Very few women ever got ink, just 'the fallen
women,' as Lyle Tuttle likes to say. Thank God that's changed."
San Diego, California
has nomadic blood in her veins. At fifteen she hitchhiked all over
the U.S., picking up different jobs as she went. One of those jobs
was working in a tattoo shop in Juneau, Alaska some thirty years
ago. "I didn't have enough money for a hotel room," she
recalls. "So, I was hanging out in this tattoo studio at four
a.m. The tattooist asked me, 'What are you doing up so late?' I
told him that I was looking for a job. He thought I meant in the
studio, so he hired me."
continuing as a tattooist, Judy went to college to train as a teacher.
"Unfortunately, that didn't work out, as my math skills are
less than adequate. I have always fallen back on tattooing to make
a living." She has also worked as a general artist doing cut-and-paste
graphics work back in the days before computers arrived. As for
women breaking into tattooing she states, "It's always been
tough for women to break into areas dominated by men. I mean how
many women astronauts are there?"
fifteen years, Shannon O'Sullivan is well-versed in art and design.
She studied at Parson's School of Design in New York City and Art
Center College of Design in Los Angeles. Her apprenticeship was
with Tattoo Mike in Sunland, California.
it relatively easy to break into the tattoo profession. "I
was a tomboy and I always ran with the guys, so it seemed very natural
for me to be sitting in a shop which, at the time, was a hangout
for bikers. My dad was a biker, so it all felt very comfortable
As for why there
are fewer female tattooists, Shannon has an interesting theory.
"Women are known historically for their ability to do small,
fine work, in factories or in handicrafts and the like, so tattooing
would seem a perfect profession for women. However, I think there
are fewer women than men because women have a far greater psychic
resistance to inflicting pain on people. Women are the caretakers.
Perhaps that aspect that has always gotten in the way."
Aart Aaccent Tat-2
New Orleans, Louisiana
The first well-known
African-American women working in the tattoo profession, Jacci Gresham,
has been tattooing professionally since 1976. Originally trained
to be an architect, Jacci found being a tattooist far more interesting
than going to architectural school.
with former boyfriend Ali Sing, who used to work with her at General
Motors in Detroit. At a time when most tattooists didn't draw and
relied on prefabricated stencils, Jacci and her partner preferred
to draw everything. "We did our own flash and made our own
needles," she states. Later they moved to New Orleans where
they set up Aart Aaccent Tat-2, which has become a Crescent City
the fallout from the Katrina disaster has taken up a huge amount
of time and energy, but Jacci still works in the shop four days
a week. Business may have slowed down but plenty of people are getting
symbols of New Orleans to show their resilience and pride.
The Tattoo Room
Granada hills, California.
No list of top
female artists would be complete without including tattoo artist
and SKIN&INK columnist Danielle Oberosler. Danielle first became
infatuated with tattooing when she was only thirteen. "I went
to a biker rally in Tulare, California with my dad," she explains.
"There was a swap meet there and in one of the booths was a
tattooist. I instantly knew I wanted to get tattooed, but my dad
wouldn't let me." She then waited seven years to get her first
ink. When she arrived at the studio she not only had the design
ready, she also brought her sketchbook to show the artist. "He
was really impressed with what he saw," remembers Danielle.
"In fact, he wanted to keep hold of it. I realized then that
my drawing skills were better than his, so I decided to get some
training and see if I could become a tattooist."
Her next move
was to visit her aunt, a cosmetic tattooist, who gave her a twenty-first
birthday present: her first tattoo lesson. Shortly after that, she
found an apprenticeship with a biker tattooist named Harry Ross."
Danielle explains that it wasn't an easy experience. "I worked
for free and did all the grunt work," she states. But her determination
to learn and get her foot in the door drove her on. "I studied
for my fine art degree in the morning, worked in my dad's print
shop until five and then was at the tattoo shop until 1 a.m."
Although Danielle was part of her dad's graphic art business, she
wasn't happy. "I just knew I wanted to be a tattooist,"
she explains. " I would like awake at night and dream of tattoo
designs. It was a really powerful obsession."
Hard work and
perseverance paid off. Danielle now owns her own studio, The Tattoo
Room, in Granada Hills, north of Los Angeles. "I've traveled
all over the U.S. and have tattooed in Australia. I also have invitations
to work in Japan and Amsterdam, so I'm doing really well. I've been
round long enough to see tattooing evolve from something crude to
the amazing state it's in today. There are so many really great
artists and, finally, a lot more good women artists are getting
recognition." However, Danielle is critical of many of the
female tattooists currently entering the profession. "Quite
honestly, I think a lot are getting by more on being cute than on
being really talented." But all that aside, she thinks that,
despite it being a male-dominated industry, there are about the
same proportion of really talented women artists as there are men.
TALENT NOT GENDER
One of the biggest changes in attitudes toward tattooing over the
last decade has been with women. Surveys conducted over a decade
ago by a number of newspapers and magazines in both the U.S. and
Canada show that the fastest growing demographic to embrace tattooing
have been well-educated women in affluent suburban areas. For example,
the Toronto Star reported in 1997 that a professor of mass communications
at York University had surveyed a top studio in Toronto and discovered
that eighty percent of the clientele were "upper class, white
suburban females." In addition, the medical journal Physician's
Assistant reported in 1996 that "Tattooing on women has quadrupled,
and it is estimated that that almost half of the tattoos now being
done are on women."
Over three decades
have now passed since some of the pioneering women tattooists mentioned
in this article first set up shop. And all of them have made significant
contributions to the re-emergence of tattooing as a vibrant, sophisticated
and internationally respected medium of fine art. The key to this
transformation has been creativity and raw talent. Without this,
suburban soccer moms would still be turning their noses up at poorly
executed tattoos instead of beating a path to quality tattoo studios.
Since it's clear that creativity is driving the exponential growth
of tattooing and, since creativity is not gender specific, it's
obvious that we will see more and more excellent women tattooists
stepping into the shoes of the great pioneers of the '70s. A change
that SKIN&INK enthusiastically celebrates, encourages and welcomes.