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Labrys tattoo in Bound (1996)

Queer tattoos: the people wearing pride on their sleeves

‘It’s not just how I dress or how I do my hair, it will always be a part of me’

From handkerchiefs to haircuts, queer people have a long history of flagging their sexual preferences through their personal appearance, and tattoos have often been a key non-verbal signal. In 1950s Chicago, future Hells Angel official tattoo artist Samuel Stewart AKA Doc Sparrow began recording the reasons why his clients – 20 per cent of whom he estimated were gay – were getting tattooed. Alongside sadomasochism, narcissism and “aliveness”, homosexuality was listed as one of his noted 25 motivations.  

These tattoos are often a code for those in the LGBTQ+ community to identify themselves and others. Cryptic symbols such as the Hells Angels Air Force patch with a winged black circle either meant the Angel had a male preference, or alternatively initiated a gay-bashing, the multiple interpretations allowing for defence in hostile homophobic environments. 

Meanwhile, at the same time across the country in Buffalo, New York, Dirty Dick’s tattoo parlour on Chippewa Street became the place for lesbians to receive a blue nautical star tattoo. Butches and femmes alike would get the star inked, often on their wrists so it was easily covered by a watch to avoid being identified. Despite this, Buffalo police soon began recognising the symbol and recording names.

Today, queer tattoos have become an outlet to outwardly express and connect with our sexuality. As a femme lesbian, frustrated with being perceived as straight, this year I had a pair of scissors tattooed by my friend and dyke-centred tattoo artist, Harrow. Confidently claiming my sexuality, from then on I’ve been bonded to my lesbian identity, and have found the power to confidently say “I’m a lesbian” to anyone who asks what my tattoo means.

For Harrow, who has numerous queer tattoos herself, the designs symbolise a celebration of lesbianism. “Being a lesbian is something I’m proud of, I’m happy to wear that on my sleeve for everyone to see,” she explains. “It’s not just how I dress or how I do my hair, it will always be a part of me.” As well as the nautical star, the dyke symbols featured in her flash will include the labrys – adopted by lesbians in the 1970s connected to the strength of the Ancient Greek Amazonian weapon – and the double Venus symbol. 

Her fiancé Gideon, who taught her how to tattoo, stands nearly head-to-toe in an amalgamation of queer designs. Her first dyke tattoos, which she did herself, are Venus symbols on each thumb and the word ‘boi’ on her hand, which serves as a “self manifesto” to assure her identity as a non-conforming dyke. “Fighting back and forth between how you feel about your body and how society feels about your body, I think it was very affirming to have something on my dominant hand,” she says. “I just look down and there it is, I see it all the time.” For Harrow and Gideon, tattoos have allowed them to feel assured within their identities, so when they’re tattooing each other or clients, their spirits can be shared.

Expressing queer sexual desire unapologetically, the work of Frankie draws from notable queer kink imagery and artwork, as well as LGBTQ+ icons. “My queerness informs and directly correlates with the kinds of designs I produce, my ethics and practices when tattooing, and the type of clients who are interested in my work,” they say. From cover designs from erotic mags like Honcho or On Our Backs to scenes of BDSM sex, Frankie’s explicit depictions of queer identity, desire and liberation take flagging to a beautifully bold extreme. It was their own desire to be tattooed with kinky queer imagery that kickstarted this distinctive sexy aesthetic – their most recent one being a Robert Mapplethorpe image. “I love Mapplethorpe’s work and this image included a kink reference I really loved – if you’ve seen me flagging my yellow bandana this is no surprise!” 

It’s not just outward displays of identity and pride that tattoos can inspire. Significantly, tattoos have the power to intimately validate one’s identity. The word ‘changeling’ is tattooed across the torso of zine and printmaker Joe Earthling. While researching Irish folklore as a source for his art degree, Joe discovered the changeling metaphor that he found “so apt for transness”. A young girl is taken by faeries and turned into inanimate objects, meanwhile the parents mourn their child unknowing that the girl lives on as something different. Joe got his tattoo in secret, as a small act of rebellion, not revealing to his family the tattoo’s meaning. “It’s like a badge of honour now, a big stamp which is really beautiful and changes my body when I can’t afford to medically transition.”

As a trans-non-binary tattoo artist, Billy’s tattoos have helped them through their journey of transitioning, decorating their body to be totally individual. Their favourite tattoo reads TRANSCIENCE, across their stomach, as an assertion that their transness is a fact. “My tattoos have helped me feel grounded and connected to my body. I know who I am, and what I’ve been through when I look at them, they all help to tell my story.” The joyful flash designs of Billy showcase the beauty of trans bodies, often with top surgery scars, surrounded by smiling sunshine and stars. “We create something together, in a safe, affirming way, something that helps them feel better in their body,” Billy says. “[The tattoos] are a way of reclaiming the body. In a world where our identities are belittled every day, these practices are so important.”

Unlike many previous generations, this collaborative creative process of queer tattooing can now be done in a space that is safe, open and welcoming. Nova – who themselves has a queer tattoo paying tribute to the television series Steven Universe and the trans narrative of Steven – manages the proudly Black and queer-owned Hell To Pay tattoo and piercing studio. “I’ve always wanted to make sure that in everything that I do, I include and give back to the community that shaped me,” they say. 

“When I began my journey with Hell to Pay, I wanted to make sure that the studio was somewhere you came and felt you were home.” Tattooing is a very intimate act, it is thanks to these spaces that queer tattoo artists and members of the LGBTQ+ community can have the opportunity to be tattooed safely. “I love the fact that we can be a place where queer people can come, feel open and just free to be completely 100 per cent themselves while getting something that realistically requires a lot of trust,” says Nova.  

Either with secretive suggestive symbolism or loud and proud expressions of sexuality, tattoos let us take back our bodies as our own, defining and adorning ourselves against a heteronormative society. To be inked, ultimately reminds us and the world that we exist – even when the line work begins to fade, our pride never will.