The XX Factor
Tattooing wouldn’t be where it is today without females, both as inspiration and as artists. INKED looks at a few of the American women who spend every day wrist-deep in ink and blood.
SHOP: New York Adorned, New York City and Brooklyn
“I’m not exaggerating when I say that every day is an unusual experience,” says Stephanie Tamez, tattooist at New York Adorned. “The cast of characters— good and bad—that walk through our doors is endless.” Then there’s the roster of celebrities she’s spent time tattooing, including Christina Aguilera, Pink, members of The Strokes, and, interestingly enough, novelist John Irving, who had her tattoo the names of his wife and kids.
“I was introduced to tattooing when I went to Switzerland to get my first tattoo from Filip Leu. Leu gave me my first lesson,” she says, though she did not apprentice with him, or anyone else. “I’m basically self-taught, but I did spend a year working with Bill Salmon and Juni at Diamond Club, and they taught me a lot. I continue to learn from the crew at New York Adorned everyday.”
Tamez’s hobbies are not your average-day activities; they include hunting down rare books that have any unusual woodblock prints or old engravings, botanical renderings, scientific images, heraldry, and old religious images. The hobby helps explain why she is recognized for her font and text work, although she hesitates to claim a specialty. “For me, the challenge of tattooing is in producing pieces of diverse nature. Working on the same type of pieces over and over can become boring,” she says.
“Tattooing has changed my life completely. It’s a challenging career; it takes a lot of hard work and dedication. That said, it gives me a lot in return. From the friends and family I have made to all the artistic challenges I face everyday, tattooing has been very rewarding.”
SHOP: Electric Ladyland, New Orleans
“My first tattoo, I did in my bedroom,” says Annette LaRue, owner of Electric Ladyland in New Orleans. “I hand-poked myself and all the kids in the ‘hood.” Later, when she was 15, she got her first professional tattoo, since covered up. To her, the tattooist didn’t know the colors in a rainbow, and she knew she could do better than him. So she left her hometown, Miami, headed to Daytona Beach, FL, in 1989, and landed an apprenticeship with Cindy Lael. “I loved Florida in those days! … I loved motorcycles and biker lifestyle. I was a real biker then. Not the yuppie bikers you see now. I hung out with the real deal, the one-percenters. I could rebuild my bike top to bottom.”
Not only has LaRue tattooed a number of celebrities and countless clients in her days, but she’s also collected her fair share of tattoos. “I have too many tattoos to describe them all. It’s easier to say where I don’t have them. I’m almost full up and working on fixin’ and redoing a bunch of them,” she says. “Steve Tiberi [Olde City Tattoo] is doing most of my fix-up work. He’s the bomb and my current favorite tattooer.”
Twelve years ago, LaRue opened Electric Ladyland in the heart of the infamous French Quarter, where she lives. “There are tons of weirdos here. I can tell you stories all day about this ‘hood.” She’s passionate about her shop and the ten artists who work there. “We laugh and mock people every day!” she jokes. “But we listen to what the client wants, and of course we do the best tattoos in the Gulf Coast.”
SHOP: Dare Devil Tattoo, New York City
Living in New York City comes with perks, especially if you’re a well-known tattoo artist like Michelle Myles. Surrounded by media, entertainment, and celebrities in the city that never sleeps, Myles— owner, with business partner Brad Fink, of both Dare Devil Tattoo and Fun City—has seen and done it all. She’s inked superstars like Joan Jett, Whoopi Goldberg, Boy George, and Vincent Gallo, has tattooed live on MTV’s TRL, and appeared on The View. “I said hi to Barbara Walters in the green room but she looked at me like I had nine heads,” says Myles. She was also cast on the TLC show Tattoo Wars, where she tattooed in Boston for the traditional American challenge.
Myles moved to New York City from St Louis in 1989. “Tattooing had been banned in 1967 and wasn’t legalized until 1997. I started tattooing in 1991,” she says. “There were no signs out front of the shop and most of my work was through word of mouth. I got into tattooing because it was the cool, punk rock thing to do, a world of tough guys and lowlifes. That’s not the case anymore!”
Her shop Dare Devil opened the year the ban lifted, and has since been featured in several shows, including Law & Order, CBS Sunday Morning, and Rescue Me.
Myle’s specialty is traditional work, tattoos with solid lines and bright colors that will look good over time. Pin-ups, however, are her all-time favorite. “I feel really lucky living in the city that created modern tattooing,” says Myles. “That history is always present here and still influences the style of tattooing around us.”
Jill Bonny, “Horiyuki”
SHOP: State of Grace, San Jose, CA
Few tattooists have penetrated Japanese tattoo society like Jill “Horiyuki” Bonny. After a stint in the circus, she learned tattooing at True Blue Tattoo in Queens, NY, then moved to California to work alongside famed Japanese tattooer Horitaka at State of Grace. “Horitaka is the owner of State of Grace and he is an apprentice to [Japanese tattoo master] Horiyoshi III of Yokohama,” says Horiyuki. “State of Grace is the only tattoo shop in America associated with Horiyoshi III.”
Horiyuki writes a regular column for the Japanese tattoo magazine Tattoo Burst and just penned her first book, Studying Horiyoshi III: A Westerner’s Journey into Japanese Tattoo.
Needless to say, it’s quite an accomplishment to get where she is today. “On my 28th birthday, Horitaka, my boss and mentor, approached me and asked how I felt about receiving a tattooing title from Horiyoshi III,” she reminisces. “He explained to me the responsibilities such a mark of distinction would entail. I was flattered and overwhelmed, to say the least, and I accepted the honor.”
Without a Japanese first name to work with, Horiyoshi III used her birth year to come up with a title for her: the prefix “Hori,” denotes “to carve” and is commonly used in Japan for tattooers’ titles; “Yuki” translates to “snow” and is also a feminine first name.
“I am the first Western woman to receive a title from Horiyoshi III, and Horitaka believes I am also the first non- Japanese woman to receive a title from a tattoo master in Japan,” explains Horiyuki. “This is an honor I do not take lightly, and everyday I aspire for progression by challenging myself with the tradition of Japanesestyle tattooing as designated by Horiyoshi III.”
Shop: Modern Electric Studio, San Francisco
“I used to get picked on for loving to draw,” San Francisco tattooist Suzanne Shifflett remembers of her time growing up in Belfast, ME. When she announced she wanted to go to art school, her family thought it was a waste of time and chose not to support her, leaving her to pay for it herself.
Her oil painting, sculpting, and drawing skills matured, and after graduation she became the master sculptor for a dildo company and also painted designs on leather jackets on Haight Street. Customers, amazed with her work, encouraged Shifflett to design tattoos. Most tattoo shops wouldn’t even look at her drawing portfolio until local tattooist Wayne Bruce Lee took her in for an apprenticeship. Now, 19 years and hundreds of clients later, she owns her own shop and painting studio.
Tattooing has also made her the center of attention. At a convention in Portland, a very hot stripper asked her to cover a name on her pelvis. “I had her sit on the table with me between her legs and her feet on my knees. I proceeded to do a small tribal tattoo that lingered down. When I finished, I turned around to see hundreds of people behind me and on the balcony leaning over to gawk.” Her favorite part of the story: the five male tattooers who approached her afterward with envy. “[Portland tattoo artist] Don Deaton said he’d make it to work early every day if he had a remote possibility of doing such a tattoo.”
Leslie Mah and Roxx
Ages: unknown and 37
Shop: Tatumi, San Francisco
Leslie Mah has been getting tattooed since her teenage years and has always created art, so it just seemed natural to get into the field—though it wasn’t right away. “I was in punk rock bands for a couple of decades,” Mah explains. “Late-night practice and constant touring can keep you from getting an education or a career, so even if your band is making a little money, you’re still always broke.” It was after a friend suggested that Mah might be the perfect apprentice for Diane DiMassa (creator of the Hothead Paisan alternative comic book) that Mah discovered her knack. After DiMassa moved back East, Mah was basically self-taught. “I love working with color and creating an image that flows with the client’s body. I make the beautiful people into works of art.”
Leslie’s partner, Roxx, grew up in London during the ’70s, in and around the beginning of the punk rock revolution, and remembers seeing punks and thinking, “They are so beautiful and colorful and scary! I’d think to myself, ‘When I grow up, I want to be just like that!’”
Roxx had a talent for drawing, and her art teachers encouraged her to pursue a career in the arts. At 13, she decided she wanted to be a tattoo artist. Later, getting an apprenticeship didn’t come easy. “I realized quick that as a 16-year-old girl I would have to teach myself. I started tattooing my friends by hand with needles sewn together, then got the side of my head tattooed by Micky Sharpz in Birmingham during the late ’80s and got some of his machines. They’re working just as great today as the day I bought them!”
Roxx has worked the world over, from Amsterdam to Africa, and she’s one of the few artists rocking the Polynesian-fusion style in the Bay area. “People always have remarked on how lucky I am to have known what I wanted to do from such a young age,” she says. “I think we all know deep down what we really want to do is live a productive, creative, inspired life. Following your heart and doing whatever you most enjoy will always pay off in the end.”
SHOP: Private studio, Los Angeles; East Side Ink, New York City
With a private studio in Los Angeles and guest spots at East Side Ink, in New York City, three times a year, Julie Becker gets to tattoo in very different environments. “My private studio is very personal. I do all custom work and I think it really puts people at ease to know that their time with me is only about them and not all the commotion of a tattoo shop.” And when in New York City, she can work in a studio environment, get inspired by other tattoo artists, and be part of a family that understands the art of tattooing is about growing as an artist. “I became interested in tattooing when I realized I didn’t have any interest in being a graphic artist. In the late ’90s, there weren’t many artistic careers as creative, innovative, flexible, and rebellious. I loved the freedom of tattooing and the wonderfully established traditions.”
After learning a few basic skills from Jason Brown, Becker was trained by Kevin Quinn in a private studio. She set up shop and has been tattooing for 11 years, with nods to Filip Leu, Horiyoshi III, Andrea Elston, Patrick Conlon, and Josh Lord for inspiration. “I love to bring people’s visions to life. I have a very strong sixth sense and I love to pick people’s brains.” And she enjoys working one-on-one—for the most part. “After having an original custom tattoo design stolen and unpaid for by Ben Affleck, I try to avoid celebrity clients. They don’t have an appreciation or respect for other artistic industries and the work that goes into what we do,” Becker says. “I suppose I won’t make too many celebrity fans. That’s fine with me.”
SHOP: Infinity Tattoo, Portland, OR
If you can’t find tattooer Amanda Myers at her Portland shop, Infinity Tattoo, look for the San Diego-born, tree-hugging “nature girl” in the great outdoors. When not tattooing, she likes traveling, scuba diving, growing medicinal herbs and food in her backyard, and getting her hands tied up with fiber arts: “Sewing, designing, crochet, and making weird stuff with fabric.”
Tattooing remains one of her top passions and she has 17 years in the industry. “I was trained by Don Deaton of Sea Tramp Tattoo in Portland, the city’s oldest shop and with our most revered master tattooist.”
Infinity Tattoo has five female artists (out of eight total). “In this heavily male industry, where dude shops abound, I’d say this is pretty unique!” Amanda says. “But we don’t tout ourselves as a women’s shop. There’s no heavy feminist identity or anything. We all get along as a big ol’ family.” Amanda describes her own work as “big, bright textile-inspired flowery pretty stuff with unique and contrasting colorways.” She’s tattooed all sorts of people, but it’s the world of the rich and famous that she still doesn’t get. “I keep waiting to see some fantastic art done with celebrities, but it seems that all we see are tiny butterflies and tribal anklets. Not that I’m dissing the artists who do these, but I really don’t get America’s obsession with the whole thing.”
Her top priority: family, friends, coworkers, and her mother, who stands as Amanda’s biggest influence. “Make your loved ones and family your number one focus. Helping people transform their lives by the simple act of a tattoo is amazing … but at the end of the day it is my husband, kids, and friends that give me the inspiration to live life to the fullest.”
SHOP: East Side Ink, New York City; Classic Tattoo, San Marcos, TX
Nearly 24 years ago, while in art school, Andrea Elston and her friends realized they could get free tattoos. The plan? Have Andrea learn the method. “I never realized 24 years later I’d still be tattooing. But I was in art school studying illustration, and tattooing was far more rewarding since it made people so happy.”
Basically self-taught—“For better or worse”—her friend Elio Espana (of Brooklyn’s FlyRite Studio) helped her out tremendously with her work. Today, Elston’s specialty is primarily black-and-gray religious tatts and traditional Japanese work, though she is flexible and capable of almost any subject and style. “Of course I was influenced by people like Jack Rudy and Filip Leu, but the real old timers who managed to tattoo for a lifetime are my heroes for loving and appreciating their job,” says Elston. “It’s so important to be just as influenced by new and upcoming artists who bring fresh talent and excitement to the art form.”
She’s inked everyone from Ozzy Osbourne to members of punk and hardcore bands in New York, like Agnostic Front, Cro-Mags, Biohazard, and Type O Negative. “Tattooing has taught me patience and appreciation for the wide spectrum of clientele I’ve had over the years. The experience of acquiring a new tattoo, whether small or large, will stay with them forever.”
After several years of tattooing in New York City, Elston recently packed up for Texas. When she’s not tattooing, she’s just a country girl at heart who loves riding and training horses.