Pretty Girls Get More Likes: The Life Of A Female Tattoo Artist

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PHOTO: Famous Eye Productions

by Joanne Martian

Me, hard at work.

Me, hard at work.

“Oh, you do tattoos?”  This is a question I get a lot. Today, actually. Yes, I am female, and yes, I do tattoos. Quite well, in fact. Better than a lot of my male counterparts. I am heavily tattooed and I own the shop where I work now, and somehow this question is still up for debate. Maybe it would be easier if I looked like Kat von D. We’ll get to her in a minute.

After a lifetime of being an artist and slinging coffee to support myself, I started tattooing at the tender age of 30. I was simply not exposed to full-on tattoo culture until I had been living in Portland for years. I did not a have a grizzly grandfather with an old faded Sailor Jerry tattoo on his forearm that inspired me as a child to be a tattoo artist. I had to arrive at the idea in my own time.

Recently, I was able to finally quit my day job and commit to tattooing full time, after nearly five years split between six different shops. The path of a tattoo artist is a bumpy ride fraught with doubt, competition, suspicion and resentment. Being a female artist presents some special challenges. I was often, and still am, mistaken for the shop girl. When people learn my husband and I own the shop together, of course they assume he is a tattoo artist. They don’t even ask to see his portfolio. As for me, this is never assumed and it is up to me to do the convincing.

The fact is, tattooing remains a male-dominated industry. What else is new? People often point out, “I’ve never been tattooed by a girl before.” I get this a lot. I actually find it flattering, it’s an opportunity to blast through the stereotypes, and prove I am more than just a pretty face.

Celebrity tattoo artist Kat von D.

Celebrity tattoo artist Kat von D.

And let’s face it, most of the successful female tattoo artists I know of are pretty faces. There are many sizes and shapes to beauty, but the reality is pretty girls get more “likes.” We live in a society that rewards the ambitious, and especially the beautiful.

Pretty faces get more attention. The more attention you receive, the more clients you get (assuming you are doing at least decent work). More clients equals more tattoos and more time spent honing your craft, which is how you become a better artist. A pretty face can get you in the door, but you still have to make the effort. Part of that effort includes, as much as I often resent it, honing your image. Male artists can be slobs, and yet they continue to have clients in their chairs. I believe female artists are held to a higher standard of fashion and hygiene.

Perhaps this is partially due to the influence of a new breed of tattoo artist, the Supermodel Tattooer. Think Kat von D and Lea Vendetta. These talented bombshells present the public with the image of the female artist as sleek, sexy and red-lipped.

There is a resentment amongst female tattooers, questioning whether their success was garnered by more than just their artwork. Of course it was. You have to be savvy in this industry. You have to have your fingers in more than one pie. For some of us that means slinging coffee on the side, and for some it means fashion endorsements, cosmetic lines, and book contracts.

I don’t resent Kat von D.  Say what you want about her, but she is a pioneer. Certainly other important female artists came before her, but most of them are not household names. And while Kat would certainly not be where she is today without the work of these women, thanks to the advent of tattoo reality shows, she helped show the public women could be awesome artists as well as being “really, really, ridiculously good-looking.”

In interviews, she comes across as humble, sincere and human.  She is a smart business woman, I cannot fault her for that. She knows her image has become key to her success. But most importantly, despite the lipstick and stilettos, her work is stellar and her waiting list is several years long. She must be doing something right besides just being pretty.

Tools of the trade.

Tools of the trade.

But how does this affect the rest of us, those of us who tattoo in the real world and not on television? We create our own personas. The public expects their tattoo artists to be fashionable and charismatic. In such a fiercely competitive business, you have got to stand out.

Whether you are male or female, you MUST be memorable. You must offer something worthy of your clients telling all their friends about you. And thanks to social networking, every artist has the opportunity to rise to a certain level of fame. We are all celebrities within our own circles, whether we wear lipstick or not.

And we all love to feel fabulous, and adored. I admit I think it helps to be fashionable. I wouldn’t mind having some supermodel features, but karma gave me different assets to work with.

I do make sure my hair dye is always fresh and bright. I definitely wear more makeup than I used to, but sometimes I don‘t. I am short, I don’t have perfect skin or a perfect body and I don’t wear lipstick. Ever. Most of my shoes are converse sneakers. And yet, despite my lack of stilettos, I am successful. I do good work and my clients are happy. They support me in this crazy, unnecessary indulgence.


My sneakers. Photo by Joelle Godfrey.

When asked if she thought she had a gift, Kat von D replied, “I don’t think I have a gift. I think my clients give me that gift.” Indeed, our clients extend a huge amount of trust in us when they sit down in our chairs, and whether you are worthy of that trust remains to be seen in your work, and will be reflected in the ripples of your reputation.

Whether male or female, this business takes a lot of hard work, gumption, and a willingness to continue despite your self-doubts.  And there ARE doubts.  Every day.  Any artist that says otherwise is a liar.

This business is hard. It is competitive and there is suspicion, resentment, and sabotage. But what does the work say? What do our clients say about us? That is the true test. If your clients are happy, then you are successful. So we do whatever we have to do to feel good about ourselves and be confident in that trust, even if that means wearing lipstick.

 Joanne Martian is a professional tattoo artist in Portland, Oregon. She and her husband own and operate Martian Arts Tattoo Studio in the heart of the Hawthorne district. They tattoo side by side, offering a unique and compassionate experience, doing quality custom tattoo work while being beautiful at the same time.