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Meet the self-taught queer tattooists making beautiful and inclusive art

Dazed Beauty Contributing Editor and founder of Polyester zine, Ione Gamble, meets the new guard of queer, non-binary and trans tattooists changing the connotations around body art

A friend once jokingly described giving someone a stick and poke tattoo as the equivalent of the exchanging of wedding rings, in that it can be so important and intimate that it signals the beginning of a lifelong bond between two people. Body art can often help us make sense of ourselves. Whether it’s projecting who we are on the inside out into the world via our skin, or using tattoos as a way of navigating, accepting, and ultimately loving our bodies - a practice particularly important to those whose bodies are often marginalised, so women, POC, plus size and queer people for example.

But although the possibilities of tattooing can be radical, the industry often isn’t — and can at times feel overwhelmingly homogeneous. From unpaid apprenticeships, to a cis-straight white male dominated culture surrounding the artform that has lead to #MeToo style campaigns launched to tackle inappropriate behaviour within the industry, those that tattoos are often most vital for, as a tool for self-liberation, can often feel excluded from the rigid culture that engulfs the practice.

However, a new guard of queer, non-binary and trans artists are looking to change the connotations around body art, and push it beyond infinity symbols, anchors and culturally appropriative stereotypes. Not only are they fostering a safe space while undertaking their work, by ensuring consent is constantly given by the client to start, continue, or maintain contact with the their body – and that client’s needs are put before artistic ego, something that can often lead to a feeling of lack of autonomy for those being tattooed. They are also catering to all skin tones and body shapes to push back against the racism and discrimination often seen in the industry at large, as well as purposefully pushing forward queer imagery in tattoos. Moving away from the ‘American traditional’ style aesthetic dominating the industry, these artists challenge notions of taste in how we choose to decorate our bodies. Below we chat to four tattooists pushing the industry away from its current restrictive form and setting a more inclusive, inspiring agenda.  

Steph Linn

Despite graduating from Central Saint Martin’s earlier this year with a degree in knitwear design, it was tattooing that first ignited non-binary artist, Steph Linn’s creative flame. “I did my first tattoo when I was 15/16, and from there I just starting giving ones to my friends. I didn't take it seriously until five years ago when I moved to London (from the U.S) and people started to ask me for them, which is when I really began to get my technique down,” they explain. Refusing to be limited to one specific medium of artistic expression, be it design, clothing, or tattooing, Linn says that, “different skills really influence the way I draw. For example, you have to draw a certain way for a screenprint to look good, or a certain way for it to look good in knit - and so manipulating the way you draw for different mediums really pushes you to experiment. I like to think that every skill I learn is getting me towards creating a seamless universe.”

With their knit design work thematically exploring the non-binary experience, Linn’s approach to tattoo work isn’t as clear cut. “When I'm drawing flash (which I don't do much) I don't think to myself like, 'Okay here's my non-binary and queer themed flash —  but I do mainly tattoo queer and non-binary people. I guess it's more incorporated in the method rather than the aesthetic.”

For Linn, it’s incredibly important to cultivate inclusive communities around their work; whether shining a light on the non binary experience through their graduate collection, or constantly checking in on their clients to ensure their physical boundaries and needs are always put first when tattooing. “It's super important to create an alternative to Western bro tattoo culture,” Linn asserts. “People are creating the spaces they need, for themselves and for their community.”

Charline Bataille

With her luridly-coloured tattoos earning her nearly 100,000 Instagram followers, Charline Bataille is proof of the huge appeal and desire for non-traditional tattoo designs. “My tattoos are very disrespectful of the rules of tattooing, lines are wonky and colours are funky and it certainly doesn’t have tradition or perfect healing as a concern.” The Montreal-based artist accepts that her approach to tattooing is, “very different than older generations of Western tattooists that obviously were driven by machismo values like gatekeeping and the idea of single truth.” Championing plus size people and perceived ‘imperfections’ such as stretch marks and body hair, through her illustrative style — developed from her background in illustration, painting, and patch-making —  Bataille’s aesthetic is perhaps most easily described as part fucked up children’s book, part queer utopia.

Using her own work to discuss the importance of ‘queering’ the industry, Bataille finds the power in obscuring and altogether disregarding notions of beauty to create a twisted, wonderful world held together by the artwork she embroiders on people's skin. “Art and the dismantling of hierarchy of art is important — and important for queer people for purposes like connecting, feeling seen, feeling valid, and feeling worthy. It’s a form of harm reduction, as being represented in the media is vital.” She continues, “It’s important to open up what a ‘good’ tattoo is, as there is increasingly different types of people getting tattooed. Honestly I have no fucks to give to tattooers complaining about change, your time is up and that’s great, power to the freaks to be honest.”

Flora Fauna

After getting into tattooing by accident, Montreal-based, French-born Flora Fauna began inking their friends’ bodies with “tender handpokes” after a late-night conversation led to pulling out a needle, drawing ink, and just going for it. “I grew up in an environment that felt somewhat rigid and definitely not keen on bypassing rules. The Asian side of my family has always expressed slight outrage and horror at the thought of body modifications. So, when I moved out of home and to Canada, I realised tattooing is something you can actually do yourself.”  Fascinated with the idea of this small transgression, and after feeling excluded from the traditional industry due to “extremely intimidating and emotionally sterile environments”, they set out to cultivate the most caring environment possible when tattooing both friends and clients. Tattooing from their bedroom, Fauna says, “welcoming clients into my home means I put trust into people I don't know to come into a place that's very special to me while they put trust in me to forever mark them with something that is very special to them.”

“It was important for me to set up an intentional space that would treat tattooing as a somewhat sacred moment and a deeply personal experience.” They explain, “speaking for myself, a non-white, non-binary person, I think tattooing takes on all its meaning when it transcends aesthetic experience and becomes symbolic. The fact that tattooing is not a pain free process, and that you first need to lose some comfort to later on gain some when looking at your body is very cathartic.” Taking a DIY approach to the craft, Fauna’s work is the tattoo equivalent of a hug from an old friend — warm, soft, and full of love with each jab of the needle.

Dominic Myatt 

Like many other tattooists working outside of the traditional industry, London-based Dominic Myatt is not restricted to inking skin in his artistic practice. “Tattooing, for me, is initially just another medium for mark making, but it feels different in some ways because it sits outside of the traditional classical fine art mediums.” Myatt muses, “it’s also extremely traditional in the sense that it’s been around almost as long ancient cave paintings.”  With his other projects spanning a book illustrating men’s Craiglist hookup ads, to an exhibition based around a nudist beach, and his ongoing collaboration with London design duo Art School, when it comes to tattooing what most interests him about this medium is “the performative element of the tattooing, less so the ritual of it, but more the action of placing a drawing onto/into somebody.”

Crediting social media for opening up both artists and audience to the widening scope of what’s possible within the tattoo world, Myatt’s focus is on translating his exploration of marks, lines, and irregularity from a fine art setting and into a real-life one, and proving that tattooing “has just as much scope as drawing does in a fine art space such as a gallery. “ Explaining that it’s important for people to be able to break down what tattooing is, and expand representation to stretch beyond “vectorised copy and paste Sailor Jerry tattoos of cobwebs and playing cards”, Myatt’s work — both on skin and on paper — deals with abject abstractions of erotica and queerness within that through bold line work that both emphasises and obscures the body and it's sexuality all at once.