How do you choose who tattoos you? Brooklyn has no shortage of tattoo parlors and consequently, talented artists. Picking a person you connect with to poke you with a design that will last the rest of your lifetime is tricky and a deeply personal matter. Finding someone whose vision and style appeals to you, someone who will see your “pain face” for hours on end – they can take time to find. If you, like me, follow tattoo artists on Instagram the way most people follow celebrity pets, you might be interested in learning a little bit more about your friendly neighborhood tattoo artist. I did a little reconnaissance and spoke to nine women who work in studios around Brooklyn about their art, what inspires them, and of course, what they love about our fair borough.
“Sweet Sue” Jeiven’s boundless, ebullient energy and passion for her work is immediately apparent. Drawing inspiration from the magical with a dash of the macabre, Sue’s black ink tattoos resemble old illustrations from fairytales and etchings. Under her hand, her clients’ skin becomes “like the pages of an old book.” With distinctive elements such as her signature approach to eyelashes, she is unwavering in her commitment to creating completely original works each and every time: “I don’t do anything twice.” But there is one specific tattoo that stands out as her favorite. “It was my dad’s first tattoo! And he was like, 70 years old!” she laughs. “He let me do his first tattoo. No matter how old you are, you always want your dad to be proud of you…and so this was just this moment where I was like, ‘Holy shit, my dad is proud of me!’ Like, putting my art on my dad.”
What she loves about Brooklyn: “There’s so much multi-use here. There’s no ONE use for anything, and there’s something really vibrant about that.”
I joked that this echoes her fascination with taxidermy: she enjoys “rescuing” roadkill and giving it new life as art. “There’s something ancient about the art of taxidermy where you really have to learn from a master…and it’s the same with tattooing!”
How did Ashley Strout come by the nickname “Ol’ Ash”? “It’s because I have this really deep appreciation for old-timey things!” That includes antique stores, Max Fleischer cartoons, the illustrations on sewing patterns, “Food Dudes,” and vintage lingerie ads. Ash says she gets inspiration by “searching in the past for things that excite me.” Her traditional style leans heavily on the black ink and bold colors, with a bit of a feminine twist: “I like to try to keep my palette very simple,” she explains. “It’s all about finding the image and making it less complicated.” It’s also important to note that Ol’ Ash has been tattooing with her Magic Cobra colleagues at the wildly popular Tattoo to Protect events. February’s Tattoo to Protect Your Parts benefit for Planned Parenthood and this month’sTattoo to Protect the Planet benefit for Earthjustice garnered a lot of attention, but she humbly dismisses the praise. “I don’t see why I don’t have time to give back,” Ash says. “I spend a lot of time in the shop trying to meet goals for myself, and I think it’s good to step out of that sometimes and be available for others.”
What she loves about Brooklyn: “It has a neighborhood feel to it. I didn’t know that was possible in a city! I see the same people, and I’ve tattooed tons of people in this neighborhood.”
“I’m a big nerd!” Gia blurts out when I ask about the Doctor Who reference in her Instagram bio. “If anyone brings me anything sci-fi, I really love it.” When she’s not etching nerdy references into her clients, Gianna Maria Galli loves working on art nouveau, floral, and Goddess-centric pieces. While she started out doing more traditional-style work, Gia’s restless spirit caused her to push her artistic boundaries. “I used to do more traditional stuff, but last year I started to do more abstract and geometric stuff…if someone says it’s not possible, I like to find out if it is!” Gia crafts vibrant and fantastically-hued watercolor work, but she’s exceedingly concerned with making all of her pieces stand the test of time. “I think watercolor’s become very popular, and people see that as very splash-splash, drop drop…” she explains. But to ensure a piece’s longevity, “I try to incorporate more black than most people do. I try to give them a little bit more weight, and to be a little more substantial, so that they’re gonna heal and age well.”
What she loves about Brooklyn: “There is an inescapable energy here. Growing up, in the ‘80s, it was not…this Brooklyn. But every time I leave, I come right back.” Even after living upstate in the woods in a “spaceship-esque” house you’d think this self-described “nerd” would love, she pined for the energy of her birthplace and quickly decided: “Ok, I gotta get back to New York.”
Amanda Rodriguez has been tattooing for ten years, but her formal artistic training is in furniture design. A floral fanatic, Amanda’s neo-traditional approach to her subject matter brings together dark lines, fresh colors, and dot work through the use of a rotary needle. Her favorite subject matter to tattoo is plants, flowers, animals, and bugs…“which is funny because I don’t enjoy being in the woods, and I don’t enjoy camping, or anything like that!” Well, what would you expect from a Brooklyn-dwelling gal who was born & raised in Queens? However, Amanda is going to try her hand at gardening English roses, just like the golden ones in this sweet shoulder piece (pictured above). Last month, Amanda had the pleasure of tattooing a friend in front of a live crowd at the New York Historical Society, part of the Tattooed New York exhibition. It was a “whirlwind,” she says, and admitted she did have a slight concern about working in front of an audience: her facial expressions. “I always make weird faces when I’m tattooing! Every time I see a photo of myself tattooing, I’m just like, oh god, the faces I make are ridiculous.”
What she loves about Brooklyn: “I like to go out and have a nice cocktail! I like that there’s a lot of bars where you can get a nice drink out here. And I like to go out and eat with friends.” She recommends the Shiso Painkiller cocktail at Alameda, and the food at Anella and Bounty. “Bounty’s bar is my favorite bar. It reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, with all the furniture.” Of course a trained furniture designer would notice a thing like that!
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“Intuitive Tattooer” Drew Linden glides effortlessly across various tattooing styles — from black line work to traditional and bursting with color. “For me, it’s really just about when I meet with my client, I kind of feel them out. It’s very special to each individual client.” Whether she’s crafting a cover-up (above), or to create a heavily symbolic original work of art, her tattoos take on sacred meaning: “Now that I’ve been tattooing for eight years I feel like, more so than not, I’m helping people heal.” This transformative, healing power of tattooing is something she experienced firsthand when she got her eyebrows tattooed last year by cosmetic tattooer Audrey Glass in Los Angeles. “When I went to have it done, it was like seeing my face for the first time! The morale, your confidence, it’s just a major booster… So I went back for a touch up and while I was there, I started to talk to her about it, and I was like, would you teach me?” Ever since, native Californian Drew has been bringing brows to her East Coast clients, so that they can have the same feeling of transformation she had. Inspired by occult, woodblock images and the symbolism in traditional tattoos, her Big Cartel shop sells enamel pins and accessories that demonstrate her range of artistic styles and showcase her favorite things. Like Kewpies. And Morrissey. In fact, “I’ve seen him a total — in the last two years — it would be, seven times!”
What she loves about Brooklyn: “Originally, I’m from San Diego. I love being able to walk outside and not feel like I’m super different from anyone, but we all have this crazy collective. There’s so many different people here, but we all sort of vibe and merge together. I really like the sense of community. Also, the food is amazing, and so is the coffee.”
Cat lovers, take a big breath, because you’re about to go “Awwww!” Betty Rose is famous for being a “Cattoo Artist,” thanks to her lovingly-crafted cat portraits and Kinetic Kitties series. “They’re energetic and playful and they have a lot of motion behind them. They are almost never not amusing!” In her tattoos and in the art she sells on her Etsy site, Betty seeks to elicit delight with her expressive details. “Warmth and happiness, that’s what I want to provide through my art and my tattooing. That’s why I got into the business, to make people happy!” She describes her tattoo style as “whimsical traditional” because she draws on classic tattoo imagery (for example, the mermaid, the style of the waves) and bold lines, then lights it up with a vibrant palette of colors that soar beyond the traditional: cheerful pinks, dreamy blues, ethereal purples. Betty Rose is also the curator behind the @ladytattooers Instagram account (and webpage), featuring artists from around the globe since 2012. “I wanted to have a platform for good tattoo artists that were also women.” Beyond merely connecting fans and prospective clients to artists, @LadyTattooers has also morphed into a means for female artists to network with each other: “I didn’t realize at the time that it would become such a community, and it has!”
What she loves about Brooklyn: “The first thing I think of is heritage. My great-great grandparents settled here in Williamsburg, so when I think of Brooklyn I think of family.”
Stippling queen Zoe Bean has been drawn to drawing in dots for a long time. “My mom recently showed me a bunch of drawings that I made in elementary school, and they’re all dots, which is kind of crazy!” Inspired by Victorian scientific sketches, her attraction to botanicals grew rather organically: “I’ve been growing roses for almost thirty years. I love flowers, I love anything that’s floral, it makes me very happy.” When she’s not putting daintily dotted flowers and animals onto skin, she takes her inspiration over to painting, in a rather unusual way: that is, super tiny. Her work on the canvas is an attempt to scratch an itch that she can’t physically do with tattoos. As she says, ink spreads in the skin, but she’s able to maintain tiny and tidy works of dotted art with her paintings, which will be on display at her solo show of art at Eight of Swords, opening May 12th.
What she loves about Brooklyn: Working at Eight of Swords! “Part of what made it okay for me to move to New Jersey was that I got to come here every day. This place is really special.”
Zoe also runs an ongoing fundraiser for Planned Parenthood, selling enamel “Nasty Woman” pins on Big Cartel. “As an artist, I didn’t have health insurance for many, many years… and Planned Parenthood was my one doctor’s visit a year. When women don’t have access to reproductive health care, they die. I come from a family of midwives and there’s a strong history of advocacy in my family. After the election, I felt like I had to do something, and so I did this!”
Anka came to Ocean City, MD in 2006 on a student exchange, studying psychology. While visiting friends, she fell in love with Brooklyn and, “I threw away my tickets and just stayed here,” she grins. Anka has been tattooing on and off since she was 15 years old – unusual, even before you learn that she didn’t grow up surrounded by tattoos. In early 2000s post-Soviet Union Ukraine, “You get tattoos if you go to jail, or if you’re a sailor,” she explains. “Any kind of self-expression was very frowned upon.” Practicing her drawing with her mother’s art supplies, she felt drawn to lithography, black and white, etching styles. And then, she decided she wanted to tattoo. She asked her dad to coerce his friend to teach her how. “He let me go over his old tattoos, and like, I was tattooing my friends in the neighborhood, giving them tramp stamps… now they’re moms and they’re like ‘why did you do this to me?’!”
What she loves about Brooklyn: “Everyone kind of has, you know, a dream or a purpose or something they want to achieve.”
When she’s not living her dream of tattooing, Anka’s purpose is giving back. “After the election I just woke up with such feeling of rage, I was like, what am I going to do about this?” She formed Creatusproject, a way for artists to sell their creations online to raise money for causes they believe in.
Marina’s Bushwick studio, Nakapatchi (a word her grandmother made up, and a family inside joke) allows the NY-born artist to pursue both of her artistic endeavors in the same place: tattooing and large-scale paintings. We’re talking 5’x5’ canvases, here. Her current series is focused on creating large-scale renderings of shoes traditionally worn by courtesans, and making them her own. “I’m always about making things big,” she explains, and in the style and color palette of traditional American tattoos. “Line work, spit shading…The way I paint and the way I tattoo, it’s all interchanged.” This graphic designer by training is very interested in bold, graphic designs, especially patterning — she’s working on a line of dog beds that will double as “design pieces.” “My problem is, I have too many fucking ideas!” she laments. Her artistic approach reflects a strange duality: she enjoys the process of delving deep into research about her subject matter, absorbing the information, then going to a different headspace to create. “Sometimes I don’t think when I draw, and those are the best times — when you’re not thinking. When I paint, my brain shuts off, and I’m just doing.” Her “blue aorta” above is an example of the conceptual kind of work she likes to create, specifically, getting to know a client, the subject matter, and translating it into something wildly creative and highly unique.
What she loves about Brooklyn: “Sandobe — they have good poke bowls.”