Morgan Alynn, owner of Thistle Witch Tattoo and The Cactus Coven gift shop in downtown Longmont, set out three years ago to create the tattoo shop she always wanted: a studio where her two grandfathers taxidermy fills the walls, plants hang from the ceiling, and knick-knacks and oddities furnish every corner.
But above all else, she wanted to create a place where women, both clients and tattooers, felt safe.
Alynn is one of several female tattoo artists in the Boulder Valley who experienced workplace sexism at old-school tattoo parlors and decided to create their own business. She said that while the industry is changing, male-gatekeeping of tattoo culture remains prevalent.
Originally from Boulder, Alynn has always tattooed in and around the area. She began her first apprenticeship at 17 and later worked at two different shops.
All the places I was working at were really tough. There was a lot of abuse and sexism, and just a lot of like really weird s, that I just time and time again couldnt seem to like to escape, and so it was really nice to get a space, Alynn said about opening her own shop.
Alynn now has been tattooing for 10 years. She originally opened her business as a tattoo shop and gift shop under the name The Cactus Coven in the upstairs part of a storefront off of Main Street. The downstairs part of the unit came up for rent as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic shuttering its previous tenant.
Alynn now leases the entire storefront as of Aug. 1. The Cactus Coven gift shop, set to reopen Oct. 1, will occupy all of the downstairs, selling witchery goods, artwork, clothes, and vintage finds. There will also be craft workshops and classes. The tattoo shop will remain upstairs, and has been renamed Thistle Witch Tattoo.
Alynn said that when she started out, she experienced lots of hazing, lots of teasing, lots of like that sort of traditional break-you-to-make-you-s, in her first two apprenticeships. That culture is very common in the industry for all genders, she said.
But she also had encounters unwanted massages, kisses from superiors and comments about her menstrual cycle that her male colleagues did not experience. Alynns physical appearance was regularly commented on, especially if she wore more feminine clothing.
She describes Thistle Witchs aesthetic as feminine and like a grandmother cottage. Theres a collection of different plants and gifts from her clients throughout the studio, and a comfortable place for her dog, Molly, to sleep in a private room on days without clients.
Multiple rooms exist for tattooing, so clients can have privacy. Alynn said that shes worked at large parlors where all of the tattoo chairs are in one room.
Alynn said that her clientele leans heavily toward women, and that she wanted to create a safe space for them. She recalls not being able to offer a female client who needed to remove her top to be tattooed a privacy screen at another shop where she worked, something Allyn said upset her.
I dont think that tattooers necessarily think about the needs of women when theyre creating things for the clients, Alynn said. Were trying to create a space thats really like women can come and be vulnerable in a way thats not gonna make them feel uncomfortable.
The tattoo shop houses four artists, all women, including Alynn and two tattooers whom she trained.
Boulders As You Like It Tattoo owner, Juliette Bodenchuk, said that as an artist and a woman with tattoos who has had both good and bad experiences with male artists, she prefers going to female tattooers.
I feel like if crass jokes are made or if I feel like Im being hit on, or if theres something outside of the experience thats not specifically like someones there to just help me get an image into my skin, then it sort of cheapens the experience for me, Bodenchuk said.
She opened her two-artist studio around nine years ago. For her, the process of getting a tattoo is healing and sacred, so she wanted an environment that honored that sentiment.
As You Like It offered private sessions before the coronavirus pandemic, but now allows only one client and one artist in the studio at a time.
Bodenchuk said that getting a tattoo requires trust between the client and the artist. Not only are clients asked to have faith in a tattooers artistic abilities and cleanliness, but they also trust them to create a safe space.
Christa Valdez started trying to break into tattooing by taking an apprenticeship at a shop in Lakewood. In the nine months she spent there, she worked 70-hour weeks for free, sweeping parking lots, managing the front desk and sometimes helping the shop owner with his personal accounting. During that time, she didnt pick up a tattoo gun once.
Valdez said that the owner, whos at least 30 years her senior, would call her sexy, and ask her to go to his house. Valdez also said she found hidden cameras under desks and around the shop. Whenever the owner was away, he still called to yell about something happening in real time, she said.
Valdez stayed for as long as she did because she didnt want to give up on her dreams of becoming a tattoo artist. An industry standard is for a shop to only take one apprentice at a time, and training can last a year or longer. Though she wasnt taught anything about the artform, she felt guilt for taking a coveted position.
I felt like I had to, like I owed him, so I would just laugh it off and be like, Oh yeah, thanks. You know, just what every girl does when a guy makes you uncomfortable, she said. I kind of felt trapped in that, too, because I did feel like I owed him in some way, even though he hadnt taught me anything.
She declined to name the shop, as she still has friends who work there. Valdez added that the shop takes 60% of its artists incomes, more than the common practice of 50%, so she doesnt want to risk her friends livelihoods.
When she asked the resident tattoo artists of the shop about the working conditions such as verbal abuse or the alleged hidden cameras they shrugged it off, Valdez said.
The whole vibe was just, this is what you have to do to be an artist, she said.
Valdez reached out to Kirsty York, owner of an Blackbird Ink in Lafayette, for an apprenticeship in 2018. The shop took her under its wing, and now shes setting up her own booth at Blackbird.
York founded Blackbird three years ago with a goal to support women entering the industry. Though shes only been in the game for six years, Valdez is one of three artists she has apprenticed.
Since the artform isnt taught in universities or other institutions, the only way to get into the business is to find a mentor.
There isnt like an official way to get in. Its like a barter system thing, York said. And a lot of the time, unfortunately, men use that as a way to harass women.
York said that shes bringing on another apprentice soon because there will be room in the shop. Lora Bird, a resident artist, is leaving next month to open Honestbird Tattoo, a private studio off East South Boulder Road in Louisville. Valdez will take over Birds booth. She is still completing her apprenticeship but can start booking clients at a smaller hourly rate.
The incoming apprentice reached out to Blackbird after inquiring with other shops in the state, York said. She added that woman was told by one shop owner that he couldnt officially train her, but would teach her privately if she agreed to date him.
Before becoming a business owner, York worked for what she referred to as an old-school shop. She describes this parlor type as mostly offering classic Sailor Jerry-style tattoos, asking clients to pick flash, or pre-drawn designs, rather than offering custom tattoos, and eight to 12 artists all in one room taking walk-ins until late evening.
There, she wasnt allowed to share her social media or hand out her own business cards and said that her work wasnt promoted as much as her male colleagues. Her booth fee, or cost of working in the shop, was half of each tattoo and tips. York had to stay until the end of the night to be paid out.
York decided to charge a flat monthly rent at Blackbird, so if her resident artists make more in commission, they can keep their extra cash.
One reason why apprenticeships can take years is because often new artists are doing grunt work most of the time, York said. Almost all apprenticeships are unpaid, and some require payments to the hosting tattoo shop. York said that its taken several years to build up a solid clientele, but the two artists who have completed their apprenticeships under Blackbird have accomplished that in less than two years.
Destiny Humrich, a resident artist at Blackbird, said that she knew York from Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. Both studied illustration there.
York reached out to Humrich, as she illustrated tattoo designs but didnt tattoo them, and offered to mentor her.
Ive only been tattooing for less than a year up to this point, Humrich said. My anniversary is in October and like the fact that I already have my own booth and like a solid clientele and everything is crazy. Shes created an environment that empowers women and not only that, but we get to excel at a rate thats not common in this industry.
Bird, who will open Honestbird in October, was the first apprentice at Blackbird and started a few months before Humrich. She quit a corporate job after she was offered the position of apprenticeship at Blackbird.
She said that she never thought that she would have enough clients to work as an artist full-time after only 2 years in the industry, let alone be able to open up her own studio. She now has 4,000 followers on Instagram, where most of her new clients find her work.
I feel like Im kind of the first generation of tattoo artists that went through an apprenticeship that wasnt abusive, or gaslighting or terrible, men or women, Bird said.
Down the hall from the future Honestbird is a private studio owned by Kelsey Brown. The name of her business, Entropy Tattoo, describes her abstract, watercolor-like designs.
Brown said that the sanitization practices for tattooers havent changed much since Boulder County moved into the COVID-19 response that allowed personal services, including tattoo shops, to reopen, the Safer At Home stage.
Brown said that tattoo artists already were required to learn about preventing bloodborne pathogen spread, so she already used disposable gloves, needles, aprons and medical-grade sanitizers. The major difference is that she and her clients wear masks and she sanitizes every surface between clients rather than just the tattoo station. She also doesnt permit friends and family in the studio.
She added that theres more limits on supplies, such as gloves and other cleaning supplies, but she orders through an industry-specific wholesaler that doesnt strain personal protection equipment inventory for health workers.
When tattoo services were permitted, Brown considered keeping Entropy Tattoo closed. The coronavirus disease is mainly spread person-to-person through respiratory droplets, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Brown doesnt tattoo faces, but she worried about being in close contact with clients. Tattoo sessions can take several hours.
I talked to my fellow artists. I talked to my husband, like we really sat down and discussed and decided that I could stay closed but it was purely out of fear, Brown said.
Brown books clients by having one day where shes open to inquiries, and schedules at least a month out. She said that after recently opening up her books, shes scheduled through January, and had more than 150 requests for the 40 available slots.
The industry is suffering event cancellations, with tattoo conventions unable to proceed during the pandemic. York often travels every year to network and work as a guest artist. This year, she was planning to have a booth at the canceled Colorado Tattoo Convention and Expo that was scheduled for Oct. 2-4 in Denver.
During the temporary closures of tattoo parlors, Alynn relied on the Cactus Coven online gift shop, selling screen-printed totes and clothes and prints of her illustrations. But since reopening, shes back to her regular schedule of being booked up to five months in advance.
She added that shes easily filling her open slots by posting flash designs on Instagram.
I think that tattoos are a way a lot of people like to process things, she said, and so its kind of not surprising to me because its also one of the few social things you can go do right now.
Women tattoo artists make mark on industry in Boulder County - Longmont Times-Call
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