Tattoo shops terrify me. I have a partner whose arm is covered in gorgeous ink, but any kind of reassurance he tried to give me about tattooing, I immediately brushed off. Maybe it’s something about looking too “normie” or not having enough visible body modifications, but tattoo shops have a tendency to turn me into a veritable infant who will quite literally sink into a corner and avoid eye contact at all costs. My artist has seen me do it, and if she noticed, god bless her for not openly laughing.
Speaking of my artist, Nikki “Ballz” Lugo at Tattoo Paradise in DC, she’s my new superhero. My experience with her was transformative, and the two or three hours that I spent on her table made me decide that from this point on, I’m only getting my body modifications done by other women. There’s something about having one’s appearance manipulated as a woman, by another woman, that is sacred to me.
The art I chose was deeply personal –the ships of the Jamestown settlement and the lyrics to a campfire song, all in honor of the summer camp that helped to raise me. The art she drafted and showed me was stunning, and not at all what I expected. I had been so afraid of a massive, masculine ship. “But that’s not you at all,” she said, as if we had been friends for years. “You’re a little more folky.”
I loved it immediately and did my best to contain my emotions, when inside, I was screaming with joy, and maybe a little bit of apprehension. I had been so nervous in my consultation that my ideas wouldn’t be interesting or “badass” enough, and that I would end up on a Buzzfeed list of “Ten Tattoos Artists Want You to Stop Getting!” – but this felt like another girl-to-girl chit-chat about the things that we loved and that excited us. Women – and feminine people – are fun like that: We lock into sisterhood with great ease when the timing is right.
The immediate observation I made, once the needle hit my skin, was of the natural flow of conversation between Nikki and I. There were a few moments of silence, but nothing that lasted more than a minute or two as she changed out colors or examined the lines on my piece. As people in DC are wont to do, we started with the surface level – what I do for work, how things are going with the partner at home, where I was born and how long I’ve lived here – but quickly ventured into territory that is usually reserved for longtime friends. We spoke about trauma and loss, about our families and our upbringings.
I confessed concerns to her about those I love the most, and about a job that was grinding at my heart and reducing me to tears every night. “I couldn’t do what you do,” she told me, eyes focused on my upper arm. “Same for you,” I agreed, relaxing under the gun and enjoying the hum and the burn of the needle.
Was my experience with a female artist limited? I spoke to a few other ladies from the magical world of the internet to hear their thoughts. My friend Sarah told me her experiences had more to do with the shop and less to do with the gender of the artist, but did say her best experience was with a woman who prioritized her privacy, and was particularly sensitive to her comfort and needs. She too shared the priority to seek out female-identifying artists. I asked my friend Cassie, who has been tattooed by many excellent artists in the DC area, her thoughts on the matter. What was the difference for her?
“Female artists kept conversation going,” and when I asked why she thought that might be, she pointed out the way we inhabit each other’s space. “Women were more comfortable sharing it.”
Not all, but many girls are socialized, from the time we are very young, to be with each other, to be close and soft with each other. How many of us remember friends, mothers, sister, applying our makeup before a dance recital, or just for fun in our bedrooms? We would sit, faces very close to each other, preening one another’s lips, eyelashes, and cheeks. Our caretakers at home or classmates on the playground might brush and braid our hair, an experience that many of us remember so fondly. Sometimes this was painful – the tweezing, the twisting of an up-do before prom, and learning to shave. On a larger scale, the birthing rights movement has worked to popularize doulas and midwives, women who are “with women” in times of great pain to minimize the potential for suffering, rejecting male OB-GYNs and traditional hospital births.
Women are so very skilled at being with each other, and tattooing is no different. It has the potential to cause pain and discomfort, and is a change in our appearance that we’ll never erase. That’s a huge power to give the person who is holding the gun to your arm, and hands them the potential to either enhance feelings of trust, or toy with them. As for me, I feel a respect for fellow women that we sometimes need platonically intimate experience to be reminded of. I’ve found my comfort level and my new favorite headspace: laying down on the table being etched on by one kick-ass lady tattoo artist.