How a New Generation of Queer Artists and Patrons Are Redefining Tattoo Culture on Their Own Terms


The first time I got a tattoo, I was 19. On my own in Berlin for the summer and palpably lonely, I swayed into the door of the local tätowierung shop in the airy, tree-lined neighborhood I was living in as a nanny, drawn helplessly to the sight of people around my age talking, laughing, and sipping Club-Mate. As I sat down and presented my ankle to be inscribed with Cyrillic text, the mix of nerves and excitement temporarily crowded out my homesickness and discomfiture. I couldn’t chitchat with the tattoo artist in my broken German, but he didn’t seem to care, expertly swabbing my skin before beginning a process I was surprised to find more uncomfortable than actively painful. For about 20 minutes, in that artist’s chair, I felt like I belonged.

Seven years later, in August 2020, I was lying on another tattoo artist’s chair—this one in Crown Heights, Brooklyn—as he inked a swirl of blues, yellows, and greens into my thigh to form the shape of a mussel. I was in my own city this time, with many of my friends a mere 10-minute walk away, yet loneliness still haunted me; I’d spent the preceding five months alone in upstate New York, trying not to complain about my solitude when I knew how lucky I’d been to escape the COVID-19 pandemic with my health, job, and housing secure. I’d become something of a stranger to myself in those five months, my body growing and changing as an erstwhile eating disorder reared its head again; my stomach was bisected with angry-looking red and purple stretch marks that I had to work very hard to accept, and I sought out my mussel tattoo as a way of reclaiming what suddenly felt unfamiliar and out of control.

Those are just two of the times tattooing has briefly saved me, providing me with an alternate script for how I saw my identity, my body, and my physical and spiritual presence in the world. Coming out as queer at 24 rocked my understanding of who I was to the core; suddenly, I had new friends, new dates, new clothes, and a whole new way of looking at myself, and when it came to feel somewhat overwhelming, I’d save up my money and schedule a tattoo appointment, letting the prick of the needle turn my body into something that felt like home. Most recently, a tough-looking man around my age (heavily inked himself) tattooed an overtly sapphic Egon Schiele sketch into my upper arm before I went to meet friends at the reopening of Cubbyhole; before long, I was giving him a brief history of the city’s few remaining lesbian bars, enjoying the reliable—if momentary—camaraderie that comes with trusting someone to permanently alter your appearance.

Unfortunately, this sense of trust isn’t always the norm for LGBTQ+ tattoo aficionados. Queer tattooing has been described as a “chosen family,” formed partly in response to the often white, cisgender, and heteronormative face of mainstream tattoo culture; anecdotally, I can attest that almost every queer person I know has at least one tattoo, yet too often, we still think of tattooing as an art practiced by and for cis men. When I speak to Tann Parker, the 29-year-old founder of Ink the Diaspora, a tattooing platform created to challenge colorism in the tattoo industry, they’re very clear about what they see as the industry’s barriers for members of the LGBTQ+ community, and queer and trans people of color in particular: “It’s like, ‘No, look at this body like you’re about to tattoo.’ I feel like a lot of cis men don’t want to be told, ‘Oh, you need to be gentler; you need to be more thoughtful and caring about how you interact,’ especially when it comes to tattooing. It’s such a weird masculine thing to associate pain with tattooing right off the bat.”

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