Who's the Boss: Women Leaving Mark on Tattoo Industry

Who's the Boss: Women Leaving Mark on Tattoo Industry

When the local planning board granted her permission to open a tattoo and piercing parlor last week, on Paris Street -- located along a stretch of Norway, a town of 5,000 residents in western Maine near the Vermont border -- Christine Mitchell was so excited to get the ball rolling that "if she could, she'd run over to the building and put up a sign."

A sign of the times, perhaps, considering more women -- particularly those who can meld moxie and business acumen with artistic talent -- continue to break down taboos and find jobs the tattoo industry.

Image via: Shining Star Tattoos and Piercings

Meet the new bosses. She, in many cases, is not the same as the old boss in what was once perceived to be a male-dominated business. The tattoo industry is said to employ more than 55,000 Americans and, although specific figures are hard to come by, few will argue that women are closing the gender gap as artists and shop owners.

And as more women -- nearly half under the age 35 have gotten ink, almost double their male counterparts -- seek out female tattoo artists or demand gender-specific shops, those numbers can expect to climb.

"Often women look for other women as artists," said Kendra Chudy, who opened Inked by Kendra 11 years after deciding to pursue a career in tattoos. "They tend to be more comfortable with a woman tattoo artist because we speak the same language."

Image via: Inked by Kendra

More than words are opening doors for women where they were once shut. But, finding an exit from the conventional thinking space of every Tom, Dick and Harry is still not easy. A proven path often begins at art school. The trick then has become for women to find a teacher who will help them learn to translate their original designs to a human canvas.

"When I realized that I wanted to tattoo, it was so hard to find a tattooist to mentor, or even tattoo me," said Mira Keras, who graduated from Fashion Institute of Technology and was lucky to start as an apprentice at Tattoo Wonderland in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Some artists had this 'no girls allowed attitude,' and some did not want to tattoo someone who didn't already have tattoos."

Becky McGinnis, who had a fine arts degree as well, said she was met with subtle and sometimes overt prejudices. She, too, was fortunate to find an apprenticeship, but sexual harassment forced her to step away from the industry one year into her schooling. Eventually, she found a woman artist to learn from in Indiana, and saved up enough money to move to Michigan. The hardships related to trying to master a skill in a man's world followed her to the outskirts of Kalamazoo.

"I've literally had walk-in clients ask, 'can a woman even tattoo?' after I had been presented as the artist they would be working with," said McGinnis, who admitted using the nickname "Eddie" to generate more work before a face-to-face meeting would reveal her secret.

All the self-depreciating jokes, "tokenized" work from well-intentioned clients and an unappreciated portfolio motivated McGinnis to work even harder. That effort may sometimes mean confronting sexism and hazing from male counterparts or just preconceptions related to being a female.

Deanna Smith, a full-time artist for the past three years at Dark Age, a tattoo shop in Denton, Texas, was not naive, or immune from the stereotypes.

“It’s a very masculine art form, still,” she said. “I feel like a lot of women aren’t very interested yet in tattooing. I have seen a lot more interested, but they’ll try to get into the industry and they’ll also see how difficult it can be for us and maybe not want to go through with it. It is very hard for a lady to get into the industry, so you have to put in that extra work.”

Image via: Deanna Smith Tattoo

Shannon Perry took her initiative a bold step further and opened her own shop when she realized her style of work didn't align with services at testosterone-fueled parlors in the Seattle area. The right conversation at the right time, she said, presented her with an opportunity to open Valentine's Tattoo Co., in Seattle's Pike/Pine district, a neighborhood noted for entertainment options, breweries and coffee roasters.

"I frequently have moments while I'm tattooing when I pause and just think, 'How did I get here?' My job is so cool," said Perry, who doubles as the front singer for Gazebos, a local post-punk band. "Not that I don't take pride in being a women who owns a business, but I don't like to treat the fact that I'm a woman in business as a novelty."

Image via: Shannon Perry

If polls that claim one in five Americans now sport tattoos are to be believed, women artists and ink shop owners may see the perception of "novelty" eventually wear off.

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