For LGBT people, a tattoo parlor can be an unwelcoming space—getting inked is an intimate process, and nobody wants to feel judged, questioned, or discriminated against in such a vulnerable position.
Queer New York tattoo artist Em North can speak to the uninviting nature of many tattoo shops: In their experience, homophobic, sexist, and racist attitudes and incidents are all too common. (North uses she/her and they/them pronouns.)
"I worked at one or two shops where some white artists would turn away folks with dark skin tones," North says. "After the potential client would leave, the artist would make comments about not wanting to tattoo darker skin because it wouldn't look clear in photos on social media, or would be hard 'to see' as they worked on the tattoo... Turning away clientele based on skin color is overt racism, not simply an 'aesthetic choice' as some artists try to pass it off as."
North explains that, in the culture of tattoo shops, artists pass through thinking racist, sexist, or homophobic comments are what's expected of them. "Sadly, tattoo culture has a history of this," they add. "We need to start being overt about the fact that we will not tolerate it."
North offers something different for their clients: A comfortable, safe experience where their identities, bodies, and gender presentation aren't questioned or judged.
"My studio has intentional messaging—there is literally a sign that says that discrimination and body-negativity will not be tolerated, and clients appreciate that," they explain. "Many clients come to me excited about the intentional safe space I have created for tattooing, so I know that my efforts have not gone to waste. Many of these clients are women, people of color, queer, and non-binary folks. But I also have my share of straight white men who tell me they don't feel comfortable in a traditional shop environment."
North, a former caseworker, always wanted to pursue a career in the arts. When a tattoo artist offered the opportunity to apprentice, they said yes. For North, it was the perfect marriage of making art and working with people.
Things weren't always easy, though.
"Within the first years of my career, I faced constant rejection and questioning around my skills and qualifications as an artist purely because of who I was, or who people assumed me to be," North says. "It was hard to get shop jobs, [and] when I did get those jobs I faced all sorts of sexism, homophobia, and witnessed overt racism aimed at my clients. I worked so hard, so these moments felt discouraging. I came close to throwing in the towel many times."
North started their own studio, where they could be firm about their zero-tolerance policy for negativity, shaming, or discrimination in an intimate space that makes clients feel comfortable. (A vegetarian for 27 years, they even make sure their procedures are all vegan-friendly.)
"I rent a commercial space that's off the street," North explains. "That's important to me because visible tattoo shops tend to attract people who want to hang out and watch people getting tattooed. Since Instagram and the Internet have become a great way to get clients, I decided to create a space that was appointment-only."
With a serious following (including more than 24,000 followers on Instagram), North regularly books out tattoo sessions more than a month in advance. Their process is a collaboration with their clients, something the artist holds sacred.
"Tattoos have so much to do with the body, and it's next to impossible for a person to feel comfortable in a shop that is negative towards their body," they say. "Some tattoo artists feel that a tattoo is about getting their 'work' out there and they refuse to compromise with clients around the tattoo image or process. I feel you can't remove the person from the tattoo."
Tattoo culture has come a long way as far as inclusivity and acceptance, North says, but the work isn't done, especially for the LGBT community.
"The tattoo world is changing in great ways, but it's still a work in progress," they say. "There are so many more women, non-binary, trans, and queer artists making headway and gaining attention for their tattooing the past two years, [which is] very exciting to me. We still have a lot of work to do in terms of carving a solid place for ourselves in this world. We need it and clients want it."
North describes their tattoo style as black-ink etching or woodcut, known in the tattoo world as "blackwork."
"Botanicals and florals are my favorite subject," they explain. "But I work with all sorts of imagery—crystals, geometry, portraiture, and animals."
North has some advice for artists hoping to cultivate a kinder space for marginalized clients: "Don't tread lightly on the subject. Post signage that states your 'no tolerance' discrimination policy and make sure shop owners and staff are aware that this applies to both staff and clients. Enforce this policy—don't put off addressing these behaviors."
And if you're a young tattoo artist stuck in a shop that encourages bad behavior, North says consider moving on. "Don't let the need for the outside validation of a shop stop you. It's not worth it, for you or your clients...Partner up with other artists who feel the same as you. Don't stay isolated."
You can view Em North's full portfolio on their website.