5 female tattoo artists on making it in a male-dominated industry

We asked five women to share their experiences in the tattoo industry; here’s what they said.

by Zio Baritaux
05 May 2017, 3:52pm

Currently, one in six tattooers is female, but that number is changing fast. In the first part of this series, we explored how fourth-wave feminism and social media is upsetting the gender balance within tattooing culture. In the not-so-distant future, the ratio of women to men in the tattoo industry will be 1 to 3, and then 1 to 2. Until then, we talked to five women — Sarah Carter, Rose Whittaker, Stanislava Pinchuk, Mina Aoki, and Sera Helen — who are carving out their own places in the tattoo world, as well as a place for generations of women to come. Here are edited versions of their experiences and opinions as women in the tattoo industry.

Sera Helen
"I started tattooing when I was living in an artist-run warehouse in Melbourne. Everyone there approached things with a DIY ethic — fixing our leaky roof, making guitar pedals, building studios, putting on plays. So I was encouraged by friends in my community who already had an interest in tattooing to just go for it. They showed me the fundamentals and I began doing bodgy tatts on my mates. I had already been tattooed in shops and knew that's where I wanted to be, so after door knocking for a while, I got my foot in the door at a shop… I think that in this industry we see the same kind of equality issues playing out as we do in broader society. We live within and try to push back at the patriarchy. These values are entrenched in our society so of course we have to fight against these narratives in the tattoo industry. But it is growing and changing; ideas are broadening about who can be a tattooer, what kind of person gets tattooed, and what kinds of spaces it takes place in. It's hard and frustrating to be treated differently and expected to behave in a different way because of my perceived gender. But I also have a lot of privileges as a Pākehā cisgendered able-bodied person that make my day-to-day experiences of moving through the world easier."

Sarah Carter
"I learned to tattoo around only male tattooers. For me, it wasn't difficult at all but I think I was surrounded by more enlightened men than other women were. I definitely came across more primitive male tattooers, who had a very different attitude towards women tattooing, but fortunately for me, they didn't affect or influence my career. They were more of a relic and something to just laugh about… I definitely think there will always be differences between genders in a workplace and tattooing is no different… Women have just diversified things, as any situation would be with more variables and options. It's hard to pinpoint what exactly they've done though. I could say, 'They've made it softer and more accessible to the general public,' but there are hard and difficult women out there. I could say, 'They've brought a femininity into the industry,' but what about all the women out there who don't consider themselves to be particularly feminine?" The advice I would give to a woman who wants to get into tattooing would be the same as to a man: Respect is earned."

Rose Whittaker
"I started my apprenticeship in 2010 at A True Love Tattoo, in the Soho area of London, under Steve Baron...I was very fortunate to get such a good, stable apprenticeship experience… Previous to this, I had two negative experiences with attempting to get my foot in the door. The first guy who took me on at a shop turned out to have rather extreme right wing views, which in no way sits well with me... The second shop wasn't much better; they wanted £3000 up front for 'equipment,' and told me to 'wear that denim skirt' when I came back. I didn't go back… I began tattooing full time in 2012… I've been tattooed and worked on in many shops where I've been the only woman, and in no way felt intimidated… I think if your portfolio is good enough, if you work hard and you respect the craft, your gender shouldn't be an issue. I think people like to portray tattooing as 100% full of sexist creeps, but I'd say no more than in any other industry or job. Some of the most progressive and open-minded people I know are tattooers."

Stanislava Pinchuk, aka Miso
"I started tattooing watching my best friend pick up a machine for the first time. I think it was really inspiring watching someone figure it out for themselves, talking shop, seeing him tattoo our friends from the corner of my studio. It came from a pretty subcultural place for me, and that's still my favorite thing about tattooing.I never had an apprenticeship, and just learnt from the people around me. Honestly, I've never been drawn to shop environments — male dominated or otherwise, though that's definitely a factor. When I started tattooing seven years ago, there were so many staunch attitudes from men about being a DIY tattooist, which always felt so crazy to me, because that's how 8,000 years of tattoo history were made and passed on, until a very recent speck of time. Tattooing, for me, has always been really strictly about community; only tattooing friends and completely outside of money. I love the permanence made in minutes, and the trust of that relationship. I love the tension. And I really, really dig the regret."

Mina Aoki
"When I turned 14, I got a job sweeping, answering the phones and cleaning at a shop… I would sit and draw when there was free time, sometimes with the intention of being noticed or acknowledged, but in my mind, tattooers were big, scary men so I could never really be taken seriously. In all the magazines, the depiction of your ordinary tattooer was a tough looking, often leather-clad man and I am not that. I can look rugged, and I wouldn't say I'm not tough, but I am a woman... Eventually, people at the shop warmed up to the idea of me apprenticing, particularly Steve Pedone and Brad Stevens. [They] treated me as an equal… and constantly pushed me to be a better artist... I have to mention that a lot of credit goes to my mother for this. She made it clear to me that being a woman does not have to be a disadvantage, and if I wanted something, I was the only one who would make it happen. Going into a tattoo shop with this mentality definitely helped me to not only feel the need to earn respect but also the demand to have it."

Related: The Future of Tattooing Is Female


Text Zio Baritaux
All images courtesy of the artists