A kaleidoscopic, beautiful mass of colors act as an entry to The Living Gallery, the queer DIY art space I'm set to meet at for my latest tattoo. As with any permanent body modification that involves injecting ink into your skin for fun, I'm equal parts nervous and excited as I walk to the back where Mars Hobrecker sets up shop. In a brightly lit back room of the Gallery, the tattoo artist stood alongside Jorge Menjivar, absentmindedly flipping through pages of his flash sheets. Menjivar, a videographer I'd met through an Instagram friend, was recruited for the day to film the entire process on a gigantic, old-school VHS recorder that currently sat propped against the wall.
After the initial greetings, I settled in to pick a design from Hobrecker's book while he prepared his supplies in another, slightly stuffier room outfitted with a full set of tools and a plush, black tattoo chair. Hobrecker's whimsical tattoos of circus freaks, gay wrestlers, and the occasional penis in a meatgrinder have become a staple of Brooklyn's queer scene--you'd be hard pressed to walk into Happyfun Hideaway or Secret Project Robot and not find someone with one of his tattoos inked on their skin. This familial cluster of bodies that defy gender and normative ideas of beauty are the perfect representation of what Hobrecker's tattoos represent, because they're the reason he decided to picked up a tattoo gun in the first place.
"All of my friends are predominantly queer and trans and don't have a whole lot of say of what's happening to their body or how they present themselves," they explained in the backyard after tattooing me. "Tattoos are something that make a lot of queer people feel better and more at home in their bodies." For Hobrecker, who's lithe body is already half covered in ink from fellow artists, the decision to start tattooing also came with a new challenge: learning how to draw. When I interviewed Hobrecker for the first time in 2015, our discussion had focused largely on the transgender artist's performance art he'd taken up as a means of taking control over his changing body.
Tattooing had never been on the radar until his friends began to ask for simple stick-and-poke designs. Soon, the simple lines and shapes gave way to cats and other objects, which became a challenge for an artist who'd never spent time drawing before becoming a tattoo artist. "I was really, really bad at drawing--I still think I'm bad at drawing," he admits with a nervous laugh. "I just learned how to draw based on what people were asking for. My main interest was helping people self-actualize in their bodies--helping someone take control over their body."
It's a sentiment that bleeds into the book of designs I'd been flipping through for far too long while he prepared his needles and ink, and Menjivar recorded my indecisive 10 minutes of holding designs next to each other in hopes that I'd make up my mind. As the smell of incense burned around me, I eventually decided on a striking portrait of Robert Melvin, a friendly, gentle man whose severe facial tumors on the right side of his face led him to join the Coney Island Sideshow in 1949 as "The Man with Two Faces." The sideshow business and those who took part in it during the 1800s and 1900s have always been a point of fascination for Hobrecker and have become a recurring theme in his selection of tattoos, but the sideshow characters he chooses come with an important caveat.
"If I know someone was forced into the sideshow or circus business, I won't draw them. I try to draw people who made a conscious decision to be in that industry," he explains. For Hobrecker, this commitment to showcasing people who willingly entered the sideshow business falls in line with his overarching commitment to diversity. Throughout his book of sketches, people of all shapes and sizes cover the pages. "The things that I'm interested in drawing are formed by my own queer experience. I'm much more interested in drawing people that aren't able-bodied or they're larger or not necessarily the Western ideal. I think they're all really cute and beautiful," he explains. "It's important for me to represent lots of different bodies in my work. When I'm drawing people, I don't want them to all look the same--it's really easy to get a tattoo of some pretty, skinny girl."
As he gets to work on the long process of tattooing the Man with Two Faces onto my arm, it's hard not to feel overwhelmed by how strikingly cool Hobrecker is. After all, as I'm sitting in a chair trying not to move for an hour while Menjivar lugs his VHS recorder around the room capturing the process, there's only so much I can visually focus on and Hobrecker's Gucci shoes (a birthday gift from his wife) are at the top of the list. Far removed from the high fashion footwear and array of tattoos that cover his body today, the artist has come a long way from his upbringing in Nova Scotia at an all-girls Catholic school.
It was within these sacred walls that Hobrecker spent his entire education--from kindergarten through 12th grade--conforming to an identity far removed from who he is now. It also happens to be the place that he escaped from on his 18th birthday to get his very first tattoo. "As soon as I turned 18, I went out on my lunch break and got a tattoo. It was stupid and I don't like it anymore but, I feel like at that point in my life, I didn't have any say in what I looked like at all. I had to wear a uniform every day and I couldn't even choose my hair color, so I wanted to get this secret thing that nobody knew about." Since that first tattoo, Hobrecker has spent years collecting art from fellow artists. When I ask about what his parents think of his ink, Hobrecker is quick to react. "Oh, my parents hate tattoos! They hate them! They're totally supportive of me being a tattoo artist. They're totally down now, but I think they'd still rather I didn't have any," he says with a laugh.
With dozens of tattoos and what seems to be a new one getting inked on every week, it doesn't seem as if Hobrecker has any desire to slow down. When talk turns from his own tattoos to those he's inked on clients, I wonder aloud what his favorite has been thus far. "The one that I always think of is a big tattoo of a dick being cut off with a pair of scissors," he says without a hesitation as the J train rattles past in the distance. "I don't have a set favorite, [but] the dick one is the most memorable."
It's a suitably amusing answer that fits with the kind of "queerdo" brand that's become attached to his eccentric tattoos, but it's one that's garnered international attention. Already, people from all over the world have visited him to get inked up and, this past month, Hobrecker made the cross-country trek to Seattle to fulfill his dream of doing a one-day guest stint at the city's iconic Valentines Tattoo Co. "Before I started tattooing with a machine, [Valentines] was my number one. It's a super femme shop and I was so obsessed with everyone and thought they were doing the coolest shit," he explains enthusiastically of the experience.
While Hobrecker plans to visit more cities and collaborate with artists from all over the world, our discussion ends with a frank assessment of the realities of being one of the most sought-after queer tattoo artists in Brooklyn. "My job feels pretty draining [and] it's also emotionally exhausting because everyone goes in to get a tattoo with a completely different idea of what it means to them. A lot of the time, it's really fun and we're joking around, but then an equal amount of time is spent helping people process their trauma. It's a lot of therapy." Still, despite this emotional toll, he has no plans to stop. As long as his tattoo gun keeps buzzing, you'll be able to find Hobrecker providing a safe haven to his community one tattoo at a time.