A BAKER'S DOZEN
13 TOP WOMEN TATTOOISTS
By Tim Coleman

As 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.

To celebrate 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 include.


Shanghai Kate Hellenbrand
Shanghai Kate's Seven Seas
Buffalo, New York

Kate Hellenbrand, 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 terms."

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 flash.

More recently, 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."


Vyvyn Lazonga
Madame Lazonga Tattoo
Seattle, Washington

Vyvyn Lazonga 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."

Her thirty-year 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 Erno Szabady.

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.


Keri Barba
Outer Limits Tattoo
Anaheim, California

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.

Barba began 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."

Keri believes 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, however."

Barba believes 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."


Pat Fish
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 it."

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."


Patty Kelly
Avalon Tattoo
San Diego, California

Patty Kelly 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!"


Michelle Myles
Fun City Tattoo and Dare Devil Tattoo
New York City, New York

When Michelle 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."

Things have 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."

Michelle has 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."


Amanda Myers
Infinity Tattoo
Portland, Oregon

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 just lucky."

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
Sacred Rose
Berkeley, California

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.

Roze thinks 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."


Pat's Sinatra
Pats Tats
Kingston, New York

Pat Sinatra 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.

Pat believes 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."


Judy Parker
Pacific Tattoos
San Diego, California

Judy Parker 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."

Uncertain about 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?"


Shannon O'Sullivan
Shangri-La Tattoo
Altadena, California

Tattooing for 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.

Shannon found 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 for me."

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."


Jacci Gresham
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.

Gresham apprenticed 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 legend.

Dealing with 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.


Danielle Oberosler
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.