Features - The Thin Air

Ink for Thought: Female Tattoo Artists of The North Unite

Our photographer Sara Marsden meets up with five strong Northern Irish female Tattoo artists to take their portraits and allow them to discuss their work and goals in their own words.

I got my first tattoo in July 2014; an outline of an anchor on my right ankle. Highly original, I know, but I was in love with all things nautical for some reason and it just felt right. I had always been obsessed with tattoos and itching for the day I would get one. Since then my skin has become more and more adorned with artwork, and I have met some incredible artists along the way.

As Womans’ Day approaches I find myself reflecting on the female experience, and being a female customer in a tattoo parlour can be uncomfortable (apart from the needle that is penetrating your skin anywhere from 50 to 3,000 times per minute). On one occasion I was on the chair, nearing my 3rd hour of being worked on, while a guy in the shop messed around and jokingly trying to flirt with me, making references to the size of lollipops I was sucking… The excruciating pain I was feeling on my skin wasn’t the most uncomfortable thing happening at that moment. Compare this to another occasion; t-shirt folded up over my chest, getting my midriff tattooed, and a male tattoo artist approaches and asks “How are you getting on? That’s a really tough spot!” I guess the point I’m trying to make is that it’s nice to be treated like a person, not a joke, instantly respected because… why should it be any other way? With this in mind I caught up with some female tattoo artists around Northern Ireland to get their take on what it is like to be a female in the tattoo industry.

Kerri O'Sullivan (5 of 9)

Kerri O’Sullivan (Tattoo Artist at Tatt House, Dunmurry)

The journey to where I am now was quite long and hard. I had dealt with loss at an early age which put me in a bad place for many years. Years go on and I remember being told that women shouldn’t be doing certain things, being told that women are there to do the house work and cook, and I’ll tell you what… that wasn’t for me.

I remember the day I first sat down and picked up a pencil to draw my first portrait – I was listening to Keaton Henson and the look in his face during one of his performances was so real that I had to draw it. And that was the beginning of my career.

Fast forward 3 years and I’m starting my first day in the tattoo studio. I must admit I was very nervous, I moved away from home to take this opportunity. I was the only female in the studio at the time but all the guys welcomed me and it was amazing, and still is amazing.

Thankfully taking the jump into the industry worked out well and I’m in the best place I have been in my adult life.

I believe it can be hard for a woman to break into the industry or be faced with the judgement that we’re not capable to do the same job as a man. But then having the opportunity to then turn those thoughts around and just showing that we are equal and able. Because we are. The biggest thing that’s come from this is being able to show my little sister that no matter what’s happened or who you are… That if you want to do something you’re passionate about, no one will get in your way.

Supporting other females is amazing!

Emma Dowdeswell (6 of 11)

Emma Dowdeswell (Junior Tattoo Artist at Lucky Thirteen, Belfast)

Being a woman in this society is never easy. Seen as “weak”, inferior and usually ignored or silenced when we give an opinion, unpopular or not. To be a female in current day Northern Ireland means to be strong, united and most importantly: to make ourselves heard, fighting for equality, fighting for our bodies and allowing us to make the right choices for ourselves.

It wasn’t until A-levels I really considered what I’d like to pursue for my future. After doing research for artists, I came across Hannah Snowdon, Grace Neutral and Anastasia Tasou. It was from then I knew tattooing and illustrating is what I just had to do.

At 18 I got my first tattoo. Unknowingly, about 8 months later, Stuart would become my boss and mentor, and Lucky Thirteen would be my second family, helping me become the person I am today. As a tattoo artist I have been blessed to meet many likeminded people, both male and female and built up a tough, influential network. Some of whom have become my closest friends, supporting, encouraging me to press on taboo issues, such as sexualisation of women, unsolicited messages and mental health.

Tattoos have liberated me in ways I never thought they could. Self-hatred towards aspects of my body have been lifted, instead a canvas for art, a living exhibition. Unfortunately, that isn’t what all people see. My choices have been questioned, challenged, “defining” myself with tattoos. What if you hate them? What about when you’re old? Or alternatively, I must be super kinky because I have tattoos. I am who I am and I like what I like. So when “are you a feminist?” is scoffed at me, like something dirty, because of how I present myself, I become uncomfortable and attacked, stereotyped, whether it’s true or not.

In relation to my tattoos and piercings, I’ve been jokingly asked by people to strip down in my place of work to show them. Something I feel less likely to happen to a male. As resilient as women are, we are constantly a target. It’s a male dominated industry and with the unknown about a client, depressingly, I am constantly on guard.

Repeal the 8th is incredibly important to both my dearest friends and myself. As a victim of non-consensual sex and typical pregnancy scares growing up, the lack of right to choose how we wish to take action with our own bodies is a breach of human rights against all women. At this age it would never be feasible for me to bear a child, my career and studies would come to an inevitable standstill and the impact on my mental health alone would be unbearable. Not so long ago, this has been an issue to me. The fear suffocated me. The thought that it was illegal to terminate a pregnancy and suffering it could potentially land me in. Fear of choice is no way to exist.

Fiona Barr (Tattoo Artist at A Sailor’s Grave, Belfast)

I started learning to tattoo as soon as I finished school. In the shop I worked in, there were no other female artists, only apprentices. It was a very male dominated shop and there weren’t many female tattooists about.

To be honest I haven’t had many great experiences as a female in the tattoo industry. That’s not to say it was all bad though, I feel that what I went through made me more determined to succeed in my career.

The shop I work in now is dominated by females. The boys that work with us show us nothing but respect. I feel that girls and women feel safer in an environment that isn’t solely male. However everyone in our studio strives to make it a comfortable place for clients to talk about ideas and get tattooed. Over all I think the tattoo industry has changed and will continue to until everyone is on the same level. Your gender shouldn’t affect your work or people’s opinions.

Karen Hogg-3

 Karen Hogg (Tattoo Artist and Owner at Zombie Bunny Ink, Belfast)

Today more women are visibly coming to the fore where they may have been overlooked before, both within their chosen field and public eye. They have always been there, doing what they do best, but now our voice as equals is being heard. From equal pay rights to the #metoo movement EVERYONE will have at least some knowledge of women’s rights and the fight for equality. As for the upcoming referendum it is my personal opinion that the rights and health of the mother should be put first in all cases. There is so much unnecessary risk to the mother’s physical and mental state by being denied the right to govern her own body.

I first started tattooing in 1997 and today I run my own Belfast based tattoo shop Zombie Bunny Ink in Stranmillis. It was definitely not an easy job to get into, so much more work than I could have imagined and still is. My only comparison of other artists when I first started out were in motorbike mags; where the only women were scantily clad and had less tattoos than clothes! Despite this I was never made to feel out of place in the shops I served my apprenticeship. Yes, it was a boys club but it’s about how well you can work not what junk you have in your pants. When I first started tattooing I knew no female tattooists first hand and yet being female in a male dominated workplace was no issue for me, it’s a trade were respect is earned not given.

Today female tattooers are commonplace at conventions, tattoo shops and owning them, we have always been there but now there are a lot more of us, and I find my female clients are getting bigger tattoos. They want pieces that better represent themselves, not just a small easily hidden “cute” little girly tattoo, it can now be full sleeves of girly tattoos or not so girly. They know what they want and they get it!

Thanks to advancements in tattoo equipment, machines, materials from inks to art supplies and the reach of social media; tattooing has exploded with awesome artwork – seriously it’s another level! I can connect with other tattoo artists and clients across the world sharing techniques and art. I love that in my job there is always room to improve to grow to advance your knowledge.

Photos and introduction by Sara Marsden

is the co-editor / photo editor. She also contributes photos and illustrations to The Thin Air print magazine.