Minnesota’s Female Tattoo Artists Are Making Their Mark

By Danielle Fox
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Great story out of Minneapolis about the growing number of women in the tattoo industry. According to the most recent state health department data on licenses, men make up 67 to 70 percent of tattoo artists in Minnesota, but more women are inked than men.


Hopping up from the tattoo chair and onto her leather wedge heels, bodybuilder and bartender Abbey Harris admired her latest life commitment: a bumblebee-yellow daisy sprouting up her hipbones.

The woman wielding the tattoo gun, shop owner Nikki Time, plotted more watercolors to splash onto the living canvas. Framed portraits of Jesus and mother Mary observed without judgment, overlooking one of two parlors in Minneapolis run exclusively by women.

The crew of MPLS Tattoo Shop joins a burst of female-owned shops that are breaking the man-cave mold in an industry still slow to open for them.

Men make up 67 to 70 percent of tattoo artists in Minnesota, according to the most recent state health department data on licenses, but more women are inked than men. And while tattooing entered the Western world in the 19th century, the industry still looks largely white, male and heterosexual.

The buzz in the chair, though, says this image is about to fade like cheap ink.

The Uptown studio’s owner started training when her aunt pushed a paintbrush into her hand while her mother nudged her toward structure and business. She listened, for a while, then founded a parlor in Minneapolis in 2013 with big open windows and without the attitude of the “bad boys clubs.”

Minneapolis’ wintertime weather and its tattoo community chilled the reception. Time, who is engaged to shop manager Jodie Bathke, said other tattoo artists told clients not to go to “the gay shop.”

“It’s like thinking if you drink out of a beer bottle of a gay person, you’d turn gay,” Time said.

Two years and a “Best of” City Pages award later, Time has a waiting list.

If you were an aspiring female tattoo artist in the early 20th century, you usually needed a husband or a boyfriend who tattooed. Maud Stevens Wagner, the first known modern woman tattooist, agreed to date her husband in 1904 after he promised to tattoo and train her. Tattooist Stella Grassman followed suit in the late ’20s, trailed by Irene “Bobbie” Libarry a decade later.

This pathline persisted largely until the ’70s, said Margot Mifflin, journalist and author of the first history of Western women’s tattoo art, “Bodies of Subversion.”

Pioneers like Vyvyn Lazonga started inking without a beau. Janis Joplin and her self-designed Florentine bracelet and heart tattoos inspired throngs of female customers, just as a tattoo shop began advertising in Minneapolis and St. Paul’s Yellow Pages.

By the ’90s, about two dozen women ran shops in America. But no one could have predicted that a decade later, tattooist and “Miami Ink” star Kat Von D would mainstream the art form and become its most famous figurehead.

Tattooing had outgrown its lawless roots. Forty percent of millennials bare ink, according to Pew Research Center, and even upper-class mecca Whole Foods considered sprouting tattoo parlors among its peeled oranges and $6 “asparagus waters.”

Women had arrived on a highway paved by their foresisters, but no one promised a smooth ride.

Tattoo artist and classically trained painter Heather Kim joined the MPLS shop family three months ago. She was used to misogynistic slurs, pranks, her machine going missing, being an unwelcome woman in a male-dominated field.

So when Time flipped her a shop key one month in and said, “This is your home now,” Kim started bawling. Then she quit her pastry chef job, inked a “Queen of Hearts” symbol onto her finger and went all in on a career that suddenly looked a lot sunnier.

“This industry is going to be turned on its head in 20 years,” Kim said. “Nobody wants to get tattooed by an [expletive]. I don’t care how pretty your tattoo is.”

Mifflin has met women who have experienced only respect and encouragement. Apprentice Taylor Evans said the artists help her stay fed and make rent.

Women tattooists who do experience sexism, like Kim, lean on sparse support systems. Outside of health concerns, the tattoo world is largely unregulated, Mifflin said. The freewheeling industry lacks schools as well as national organizations that can ensure fair hiring and labor practices.

If you can’t handle the stress, the industry tells people to free up the chair for others willing to pay thousands for training while scrubbing floors and picking up phones for free. Pricey apprenticeships institute discrimination, Mifflin said, because women and minorities often cannot afford years of unpaid work.

“I think that the industry is run by a lot of willfully ignorant, misogynistic, racist men,” said Kim, who is Asian. “They don’t want to deal with us.”

Beyond the shop floor, fewer women are invited to conventions or want to endure the atmosphere. Women artists receive less media attention, Mifflin said, or the artist’s physical appearance matters more to the press than her work.

From piercings to the corset, women historically shouldered cultural pressure and permission to modify their bodies. “For men it was more historically about just putting a picture on your body,” Mifflin said. “For women, it’s about how the body is controlled.”

Besides the right to vote, 18th birthdays are a rite of passage for body art. For Daisy Otto’s 18th, she and her mom, Peggy Vogel-Otto, celebrated with mother-daughter tattoos at MPLS Tattoo Shop.

The south Minneapolis pair saw the shop’s ad in a roller derby pamphlet, Vogel-Otto said, and liked the idea of combating the field’s egos and male domination. “I was all prepared to hold her hand if I needed to,” Vogel-Otto said “Like she was little and had her vaccinations done.”

MPLS Tattoo Shop is divided into studios, and Bathke originally tried it out seeking to avoid an open-floor, men-filled parlor for an intimate rib tattoo. Harris, the client, who was lying on the tattooing chair in a “prom dress” designed by Time out of medical cloth to cover her underwear, agreed that it’s easier to have chitchatting girls, not guys, walking the parlor.

About 60 percent of the shop’s clients are women. It’s a safe place for people of any sexuality, orientation or gender, Kim said, just not “the haters.”

Around 3:30 on a recent Monday afternoon, the shop buzzed to life. Flowers bloomed on Harris, as the mother-daughter team wrapped up a room over. A new female customer arrived at the desk for artist Kayla Sunell, and Kim consulted with another women on the chocolate-brown leather couch.

A shining suit of armor, sans knight, watched the women bustle from the corner beneath a fishnet-clad leg lamp a la “The Christmas Story.”

Male tattoo artists have come and gone here, “It’s a lot of estrogen,” Bathke joked, and Time said that someday she’d welcome the right guy joining the family.

In the midst of it all, “It’s good to have diversity,” she said.

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