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Illustration by Callum Abbott

Inside the toxic tattoo industry: from Nazi symbols to sexual assault

Without regulation and accountability, tattoo shops and artists continue to exploit customers and expose them to harmful behaviours, but will it ever change?

TW: Sexual assault and accounts of racism

Not for the first time, the tattoo industry is being forced to reflect on behaviours that have gone unchecked for far too long. While some artists have come together to design cover-ups for transgender Harry Potter fans or raise money for top surgery, 2020 has similarly seen accusations of sexual assault, racism, and misogyny levelled at artists in the industry. 

Back in 2018, the tattoo industry faced a #MeToo movement following dozens of accusations of sexual misconduct made against Detroit-based tattoo artist Alex Boyko. Jezebel shed light on the lack of regulation in the tattoo industry and the sexual assault and misogynistic behaviour that artists had been left to get away with.

This year, with the country plunged into lockdown and the vital discourse around the Black Lives Matter Movement taking centre stage, more and more people have taken to Instagram to recount tales of sexual misconduct, assault and misogyny, as well as accusations of racism within the industry, tagging #TattooMeToo and reigniting this alarming trend first recognised in 2018. To investigate further, we sought out tattoo lovers and artists to find out where the future of regulation and accountability for the industry is headed. 

When Lauren* approached an old friend for a tattoo session in Liverpool, she never expected that the intricate inking would sit on her skin like a scar for the rest of her life. Having arrived to get some reworking done on an old thigh tattoo, Lauren stripped into an oversized baggy t-shirt and let Ryan* set to work freehand on her inner leg. After nipping to the bathroom, she came back to find her tattooist scrolling through her phone. When challenged, he told her he was searching for her nudes.  

Lauren reminded her tattooist that she was in a happy relationship, despite his continued badgering for pictures. His behaviour went from inappropriate to unacceptable quickly as the session progressed. “He got some Sharpies out and began to work on my leg, but while he was drawing he was using a spray bottle to clean up areas he didn’t like and at one point he moved my t-shirt and sprayed water onto my vagina, making a joke about ‘getting me wet’,” Lauren recounts. 

Despite telling him to stop, Ryan laughed it off. When she inquired as to the price of the tattoo, he loudly announced that it would be free if she gave him a blowjob. “As I jumped down off the table, he made a comment along the lines of ‘your ass is amazing’,” she says. “I quickly pulled down my t-shirt and turned around to find him sitting there, watching me, and masturbating.” 

For Lauren, the trauma she endured lasted long after the actual experience – with the marks left by Ryan acting as a permanent reminder. “I feel angry that they’re on my skin. They’re not visible, but I know they’re there,” she says. In an effort to keep her quiet, Lauren’s tattoo artist offered to pay for her scar to be covered. Knowing this wasn’t something she could keep quiet about, she approached the tattoo parlour where her abuser worked. She was told that, due to him being technically self-employed, all they could do would be to revoke his key-holding privileges. “He was in his place of work and I was a paying customer,” Lauren says. “The dynamic there shouldn’t ever be one that includes sexual gratification on either part.” After pressing further, she was accused of “extorting him” and told that the shop wouldn’t get involved in any personal issues between the two parties. At the time of writing, Ryan is still working as a tattoo artist in Liverpool, according to his Instagram account. 

“As I jumped down off the table, he made a comment along the lines of ‘your ass is amazing’. I quickly pulled down my t-shirt and turned around to find him sitting there, watching me, and masturbating” – Lauren* 

A seemingly endless number of people have taken to Instagram to recount similar stories to Lauren’s. Offering free work in exchange for sexual acts, inappropriate comments about clients’ bodies and non-consensual touching are just a few of the abuses of power that have been reported. In response to this, various support groups have sprung up, including the Tattooists Sexual Assault Survivor Support (TSASS) account and the Tattoo Me Too Recovery Artists page. 

Wigan-based tattoo artist Gemma May co-founded Tattoo Me Too Recovery Artists after noticing her abuser’s name appearing time and time again by people within the tattoo community. After seeing that the same culprits had hundreds of accusations against them, May and her peers aimed to put victims of known industry abusers in touch with talented tattoo artists who would rework or cover up their tarnished tattoos for free. 

“When you have a tattoo done, you’re obviously going through trauma and your body is going to react to that and remember it,” she explains. “If you’re assaulted or abused while getting a tattoo, then this embeds in your mind and the mark on your body literally becomes a scar.” Together with her friend Dolly, a Brighton-based tattoo artist and co-owner of The Dollhouse, the pair have linked up hundreds of survivors with tattoo artists, as well as developing a relationship with charities Rape Crisis and Safeline in order to pass on survivors’ details and encourage the correct legal actions to be taken. 

For May, the unaccountability of tattoo artists, the lack of regulation and the industry’s historic reputation as a ‘boys’ club’ is what allows this abuse to continue unchecked. “It goes back to how the industry started, it was an outlaw’s job,” she explains. “But we’re here to say it’s not that any more, it’s an artform and the community is diverse; there are different races and genders involved.” 

May and the Tattoo Me Too team are now focusing their attention on bringing about change. Their new project is Milieu, a non-profit organisation and union which aims to educate members of the industry. The union will require members to get DBS checks, first aid qualifications and PEP jabs, and provides educational resources covering topics such as when to ask a client to take off items of clothing, how to identify a client’s pronouns, and what’s OK and not OK to say in terms of someone’s race or gender. Their aim is to create a certification system, allowing tattoo artists or shops to gain bronze, silver or platinum accreditation as union members, depending on the amount of resources they’ve completed. 

This ‘boys’ club’ environment doesn’t stop at the relationship between clients and artists, but also manifests itself in misogynistic attitudes towards young, female tattoo artists and apprentices in these overwhelmingly male spaces.  

As a teenager, Jen* embarked on her dream career to become a tattoo artist, taking on an apprenticeship with her local tattoo shop. Over the course of a year, she was bullied constantly, degraded and humiliated, and paid only £20 a week, before being fired just after she turned 18. “They broke down my spirit so I would just stop asking for the training and stop wanting to progress,” she explains. “I found myself dressing more masculine, wearing less make-up, smoking weed and drinking more to fit in with the guys. I even shaved my head, just so I wasn't thought of as the little girl who worked there.” 

Similarly, while Instagram throbs with accusations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate comments, another wave of realisation surrounding racism in the tattoo industry has become apparent. As Black Lives Matter protesters take to the streets to stand up against the murder of George Floyd, many use social media to direct money and attention towards Black-owned businesses and bolster talented Black artists – tattoo artists included. In early June, Brooklyn-based tattoo artist Doreen Garner headed to Instagram to encourage people to support Black artists and call out racist tattoo artists and shops. 

In the UK, the Shades Tattoo Initiative pops up on Instagram as an online safe space and community for Black and POC tattoo artists, while the owner of Leicester’s Francis Street Tattoo, Heleena Mistry, uses her platform to post a ‘PSA for White Tattoo Artists’, highlighting racist attitudes and behaviours that people of colour face when seeking out tattoos. 

23-year-old Mistry was moved to share her followers’ stories based on her own experience as a south Asian woman. “This sounds awful but whenever I pick a tattoo artist, I always worry that they’re going to be racist,” she says. “Whenever I see that someone doesn’t have a lot of Black or brown skin on their feed, I worry that they don’t like tattooing brown people.” Responses to her Instagram callout included accounts of tattooists refusing to upload a photograph of the work once finished, artists instantly exclaiming that colour wouldn’t show up on client’s skin tones, and even tattooists’ who were too rough and didn’t take their clients’ pain seriously – not surprising when we know that BAME women are less likely to have their pain taken seriously in the medical world. 

Poonam Mandalia, 28, is a London-based artist who describes her experience of racism as “brief but really disappointing”. A few years ago, she and her mother came up with the idea of getting matching tattoos. “We were picturing multi-coloured elephants, which sounds appalling on reflection but we’d seen some beautiful pictures,” she jokes.

On reaching out to a tattoo parlour, Mandalia began describing the tattoos and was instantly shut down and informed that the colour “wouldn’t show up” on her skin. Refusing to be put off, she went on to book a tattoo with the shop anyway, but when she turned up for her appointment she was forced to wait three hours to be seen. Feeling downtrodden, she left the shop without a tattoo and made a conscious decision to seek out more inclusive artists in the future. 

“This sounds awful but whenever I pick a tattoo artist, I always worry that they’re going to be racist. Whenever I see that someone doesn’t have a lot of Black or brown skin on their feed, I worry that they don’t like tattooing brown people” – Heleena Mistry

30-year-old Maya* faced similar behaviours when getting her first tattoo in Leeds. She received a barrage of racist comments when visiting three different tattoo shops, including suggestions that her tattoo design was ‘too ethnic’ and that the colour wouldn’t show up on her skin. When she finally found someone, she was quick to regret her choice. She tells me “he was a nice guy at first, but he made some weird comments. He said he didn’t get many Asian girls in the shop, said that he hoped my dad wouldn’t ‘come after him’ for touching me and said it was hot that I was ‘rebelling’.” 

This year, as accusations of racism and sexual assault proliferated online, another discussion took place regarding the prolific use of right-wing imagery in tattoo culture. Residents of Leeds were dismayed in June when their favourite vegan doughnut spot, Temple, became shrouded in accusations of racism and right-wing ideology, resulting in the popular cafe being temporarily closed. After a former employee released a statement recounting her experiences of racism at the hands of a co-worker, online sleuths delved into the Instagram account of co-owner and former tattoo artist, Simon Erl. Among other questionable style elements, his tattoo of the infamous Wolfsangel logo led to the coffee shop to be vandalised with the slogan ‘Simon Erl is Nazi Scum’. 

In a statement responding to the allegations, Erl wrote that “Sun wheels, flyfots, whirling logs (swastikas) are exceptionally common in more traditional tattoo parlours, an ancient symbol meaning many things in so many cultures.” He attributed his use of this imagery to his interest in motorcycle culture, which he likens to tattooing as a historically “clandestine culture”.

Dr Matt Lodder, a lecturer at the University of Essex and leading tattoo historian, says right-wing imagery has been appropriated by various subcultures including the UK’s skinhead scene of the 1970s and 80s, and the One Percenter bike gangs the US. The use of this imagery is not necessarily indicative of political beliefs – it often serves as a ‘fuck you’ to the establishment, calculated to cause maximum offence. “That doesn’t excuse it in any way, shape of form,” Lodder explains, “but it does mean that the story of tattoos as saying something really deep about your personal beliefs is pretty flawed. It’s always a risk to assume that X tattoo means Y belief – it’s never that straightforward.”

He goes on to explain that nuance and understanding are key factors in the reclamation of these symbols. Speaking specifically about the image of the swastika, he considers it important to “disambiguate the Third Reich Nazi symbol from the broader symbology”, directing me to the Canadian artist ManWoman who tattooed himself from head-to-toe with swastikas in an effort to reclaim the image. To sum up, says Lodder, “If you’re cultivating an image which, in the totality of it, adds up to something that can be read at first glance (or more deeply) as racist, then if you want to try and deny it then that’s your fault. Play stupid games, win stupid prizes – if you wanna fuck about with this stuff that that’s on you.” 

When the abhorrent behaviour of Alex Boyko was called out in 2018, it’s unlikely the tattoo industry expected to see a further wave of accusations just two years later. But misogyny, racism, and sexual assault will continue to flourish as long as there is a lack of accountability and regulation within the industry. 

The people holding tattoo artists accountable for their actions are their victims and the people who listen. Mistry, who got her break in the industry at 19, remembers learning that a well-known abusive artist was still working among her peers and thinking, “Yeah, OK – this is how everyone is in the industry.” She now uses her platform to ensure that these behaviours are no longer considered the norm. “If you see that tattooists are not doing something right then you need to be the one who puts a stop to it,” she says. “You need to be the one who tells everyone that this is not OK, because it’s no longer ‘just the way it is’ in this industry.” 

As for regulation, the problem becomes more complex. Activists like May and the team at Milieu are working towards a union that will independently regulate artists and studios, but will that be enough to make change without a wider, government-mandated board of regulation? As it stands, a tattoo artist must acquire a tattoo license before being good to go. Strict check-ups are conducted to ensure shops are sticking to health and safety regulations, but evidently these do nothing to combat the issues listed above. Considering the support Lauren’s abuser received from his employers, some shop owners are unlikely to voluntarily sign up to this union. 

While certain individuals are doing their utmost to bring about change, they can’t do it alone. Seek out more inclusive artists, and pay keen attention to those who use their platform for good. Follow accounts such as Shades Tattoo Initiative or Change Tattooing, and make use of the resources they offer to ignite this change. With a wide acknowledgement of these issues and full support from the industry, we can hope to stem the tide of #MeToo accusations for good.