Getting tattooed can be a meaningful and vulnerable communal experience. It’s an act that has the power to affirm your values, align you within an ancestry, or reflect how you want to be perceived. And while American tattoo parlors maintain a reputation as straight, cisgender, male-dominated institutions, a new generation of LGBTQ+ tattooers are pushing against this notion. Meet the three queer artists, taking the industry into their own hands.
Though his first tattoo doesn’t hold much significance, the act of it was world-changing for self-taught artist and Somewhere co-founder Mars Hobrecker. “Being raised as a young woman makes it hard to feel like your body is yours,” he says, noting that he grew up attending an all-girls Catholic school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, where the strict dress code demanded a heavily gendered uniform. “Getting tattooed when I turned 18 was the first time in my life I felt able to make a conscious decision for my own body.” Starting out by hand-poking India ink with sewing needles onto friends, his process has always been an intimate ritual of collaboration and mutual care. Today, he draws inspiration from kitschy Americana, and his woodcut-style illustrations depict everything from sideshow freaks to gay cowboys to “really graphic depictions of queer sex.” Where one portrait immortalizes the early-1900s gender-bending artist Claude Cahun, another piece, consuming the better half of a client’s back, imagines a massive femme-on-femme orgy. “Social media is changing the tattoo industry,” Hobrecker says. “Having access to so many different artists’ portfolios and personalities has expanded people’s perceptions of what tattooing can be.” Follow Mars on Instagram.
Atlanta-born multidisciplinary artist Tamara Santibañez combines traditional Chicanx art with queer kink iconography to create incredibly detailed black-and-gray tattoos reflective of her own background. Leather is a frequent motif: Think portraits of bound-and-gagged beauties, roses encircled by O-ring chokers or held by a gloved hand, as well as Catholic symbols, like crosses and bleeding hearts. One piece, a motorcycle boot placed on a thigh, might whet the appetite of a bootblack bottom. Another, consuming a client’s entire back, features a mustached Freddie Mercurial figure Frenching a robed skeleton. “Queer and otherwise underrepresented folks are often teaching and making space for themselves when they might not have otherwise been offered an apprenticeship or job,” she says, noting that she taught herself the basics as a “young punk” before apprenticing at a traditional street shop. “They are doing the unseen work of restoring a trust in the practice.” In addition to working at Saved Tattoo (co-owned by wives Stephanie Tamez and Virginia Elwood, both industry veterans), Santibañez is the founding editor of the independent publisher Discipline Press as well as an artist-in-residence at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York City. Follow Tamara on Instagram.
Sanyu Nicolas’s distinctive art style riffs on the mysticisms of her Haitian heritage. The first-generation American describes her work as a “cocoon of fantasy,” speaking to its overtly erotic and magical aesthetics. Squinting sirens with pretty pouts morph into blackened nebulas decorated with crescent moons and stars. Two lovers in a swirling 69 lie atop a bed of tropical fruits, nipples pointed upward. Throughout, eyeballs are regular stand-ins for various body parts, as flashes of red ink boil within otherwise black-lined pieces. Nicolas, who earned her stripes at a Saint Mark’s street-side shop in New York City and now works from a private studio, is interested in a tattoo’s ability to reframe pain—be it physical or otherwise—when it asserts agency over one’s own body by indelibly marking it. “Tattoos allow you to change how you present yourself in the world, and I think it’s empowering for queer people to define themselves on their own terms,” she says. “Healing and catharsis is what I want for my clients.” Follow Sanyu on Instagram.