Tea Leigh brings a healing touch to hand-poked tattoos
The Brooklyn-based artist on astrology as queer currency, birth chart tattoo readings and the push to change the patriarchal nature of the industry.
Photos courtesy of Tea Leigh.
Brooklyn-based handpoke tattoo artist and astrologer Tea Leigh understands that there is beauty in pain and hardship. Since opening their studio Welcome Home three years ago alongside co-founder Kelli Kikcio -- the pair met on Instagram and quickly realized their shared dream -- they have made it their mission to create a tattooing space that is open and inclusive to people of all gender identities, sexual orientations and skin colors.
“We wanted a shop that didn't exist at the time,” Tea explains, of the prevalence of often unwelcoming, male-dominated tattoo parlors. “Now there's a lot of shops like ours around and I'm so grateful for that. Because all of us simultaneously are really pushing the industry to change and that feels really powerful.”
After six years of tattooing, Tea decided to combine their profession with their love of astrology -- offering birth chart readings culminating in a tattoo specially designed as a token of the session. We talked to Tea about their journey as a tattooer, astrology as queer currency and the new wave of tattooers who are pushing the industry to change it’s patriarchal mindset.
Where did you start tattooing?
Here in New York. It was a really interesting time in my life. I started tattooing friends and myself for fun. And then my dad had a heart attack when I was home in Texas, in front of me. I was partnered with someone and living with them. They, all of a sudden, were not the first person I wanted to call. So, I knew in my mind I needed to leave them. I traveled to Philly because my now husband asked me to tattoo them on their couch in Philadelphia. And I was like, “Yeah, sure, I'm an idiot. Let's do it.” And through the course, I fell in love with them. I was still living with my partner back in Brooklyn and had to come back and break up with them. So, I moved out and got my own studio in my house.
That's kind of the culmination that pushed me through the hell fires and then I was like, “Okay, I'm doing this.” I quit my job and just started tattooing. I had like zero followers and hardly any interest. But I just pushed my way through and was giving people free tattoos and it just built itself up. I think because of all that intensity of the breakup and the heart attack, it just kind of solidified that working with people and talking about pain was something I was meant to do.
What drew you to astrology? When did you start really learning about that?
I have always been into astrology. It's queer currency. We're always talking about that, right? So when I was 28 -- I'm now almost 32 -- right before I was supposed to start my Saturn return, I got my birth chart read by this person named Sam Miller. I met them, of course, at a gay wedding. Getting my chart read gave me a lot of affirmation as to who I was and why I was the way I was. I always operated from the mindset of "I'm so fucked up" or "Oh, I need to fix myself." And I realized, I don't need to fix myself. I'm not broken. I just need to heal myself. That chart reading gave me the autonomy that I didn't know I really needed. That's when I really fell deep in, and then just practiced it personally and with my friends for years. It wasn't in my main scope.
I got my chart reading a second time, maybe a year and a half ago from Jeff Hinshaw -- Brooklyn Tarot on Instagram. Our chart reading was really fun and playful. He's incredibly knowledgeable and is queer. I love that my astrology bubble has always been queer. I think it's because embodying yourself as a queer person feels otherworldly inside. We know we are different in a world that we're forced to be the same or assumed to be the same… In the eyes of astrology, we're all non binary. No one has a gender in astrology. The planets are gendered and the signs are gendered. But in the same way that you have the feminine and the masculine in you, we both have the sun and the moon. We're all fucking gay inside. That's another reason why astrology is so beautiful.
What inspired you to start doing birth chart tattoo readings?
Tattooing has always been about conversation and storytelling for me. I don't think tattooing has ever just been about tattooing. I come from a family of healers -- my mom is a nurse and my dad is a therapist. So, I didn't feel right when I was just tattooing, and there was nothing really deeper on top of that. I felt really empty. After all these experiences, getting my chart read by queer folks, I wanted to have people experience the reckoning that I did. People's stories to me are so important.
I have a lot of death in my life. My moon is in my eighth house, which is kind of indicative of having a relationship to death. My hope was to open up this conversation -- not just around death -- but around hardship, and celebrating that hardship and the gift that it brings. A lot of people don't see trauma as a gift, and I understand that in the moment it doesn't feel like that. But later on, if you’re doing the work to heal yourself, it does feel like a gift. The reason I decided to connect tattoos with this moment is because I want people to look down at this tattoo and feel empowered and understand that they have an entire cosmos that lives inside of them that will always be there for them. It will always help them, never abandon them. The tattooing part of this is a fun party at the end. It’s the reward for climbing this hill of your life.
What is the full process of the birth chart reading like from start to finish?
We do it here in the studio. I print the chart up and I make all my notes on it that I need. They sit down and I tell them it's going to be emotional. Then I step away for a moment and they light this candle, and it sits and holds vigil over our conversation. I also read candle divination, candle wax, so that gives me an idea of what's going on with them during their chart reading. Once they've lit the candle, I ask them to center themselves and bring their whole lives to the table. We start at the first house that you have a planet in and go from there. Something I really focus on is this asteroid named Chiron. He's called the “wounded healer,” and he talks about adolescent pain. That's when most people experience the brunt of their trauma, especially queer people. Then I give them a moment and say, "I want you to focus on one or two things we talked about today. I want you to think about how you can incorporate those into your life by your birthday or half birthday, whichever is coming up." Then I step away again and once they feel it, they blow their intentions out into the candle. We sit together and they pick from a bank of images that I have, and we design [the tattoo] together. It's a truly collaborative process, because collaboration is really important to me and to the stars and the planets. So, I wanted to continue that outside of the conversation and have the tattoo be a conversation as well.
Let's talk about this beautiful space we are in right now. You are the co-founder of Welcome Home Studio. Why did you name it that?
We named it Welcome Home because we didn't want people to feel like they were walking into a scary place, especially since we were trying to be a safe space for queers, BIPOC and femme-identifying folks who probably have suffered a lot of trauma. This space is a safe haven, ultimately. And it just kept growing until it became what it is now. We're so thankful to be able to host events and to uplift voices. The only thing I will say that is a huge downside to our space, is that it’s not accessible to people who can't walk upstairs. And that's something that we've thought about for a long time and even looked into figuring out a way around it. But ultimately, that is a problem many people run into in New York. We do have options if you want to get tattooed by us. We have a friend that has a studio with an elevator and we will make accommodations for anyone who wants to get tattooed by us.
I want to touch on the idea of safe spaces in tattooing, because there's been a lot coming out recently about tattoo artists taking advantage of the trust of their clients. What are your thoughts on tattoo culture and how it is shifting?
The tattoo industry -- at least in America -- is rooted in cis-het-patriarchal energy. And it does not have space for people who operate outside of that. Before Instagram came along, tattooing was a bros club. If girls were getting tattooed, they had to be tough and they had to be cool and they had to fit a very specific type. Growing up in Texas especially, and getting tattooed there, you can smell it the second you walk in. I knew I didn't want to learn in a shop like that. I didn't want to sacrifice my personhood in order to learn that craft. Creating [Welcome Home] was a way to give tattooers the option to work in a space that wasn't like that and to have clients come into a space that wasn't like that. We are extremely selective of who we have guest here.
It's people like Small Shop and Somewhere, and all of us that are popping up that are kind of the second wave. I talk a lot about transformation in astrology and transformation. That's kind of what's happening in tattooing. There's a death going on, and there's a life simultaneously created from that death. That's really important to talk about in our industry, because I'm not here to put anyone out of a job as far as like traditional male tattooers. I want them to thrive. But I want them to thrive with understanding of their privilege and an understanding of the world that came before them. It's so unfortunate that so many tattooers are taking advantage of female presenting people or who refuse to tattoo black folks. That's another kind of foundation of Welcome Home -- making sure that we have not just white artists and not just white clients. I want all shops to do that. I just want us all to lift each other up and I want cis-het-tatty bros to check themselves, fix themselves and just fucking evolve.
I want to be very clear that there is a lineage of queer tattooers that come before me who could not necessarily make the waves and speak out in the ways that they needed to because they needed this job and they needed this career. People have been doing work in this industry since day one. And it's really important for me to honor them and say thank you.
What's next for you?
I think on a personal level, I would like to find a way to connect with my clients who I've read for. I want to offer follow up sessions. I would also love to do astrology workshops -- teaching people how to build their own charts and put that power in their hands. My dream is to someday own land upstate and have a retreat or a residency where people can come and be around horses, goats, chickens, flowers and just experience themselves. I also have been thinking about starting a podcast and a nonprofit to help trans folks with any medical or apartment needs. I'm working on a book.
I don't know what's next for Welcome Home. I think Kelli and I are just enjoying where we're at. For the first time, since Welcome Home opened, we're not pushing ourselves. We had to abandon our personal lives for a long time with this business, and our personal tattooing career, to nurture this place in the way that we did. Now we want to focus on us, and let these tattooers be Welcome Home and the ideas that they have. We also are switching over to using Good Judy products, which are plant-based, compostable sanitary products like gloves and barrier film in an effort to be more environmentally conscious.