Girls, Girls, Girls: The Women of Forever Ink

An interview with Stephanie, Jesse Jane and Peto of Forever Ink.

This is a story of a boys club that is no more.

For a very long time tattoos and the art of tattooing was very much like Rock ‘n’ Roll in that it was almost totally exclusive to the boys. Oh, there were exceptions of course as there always is.

Ok, so where am I going with this? Well, if you have paid attention, Rock ‘n’ Roll is no longer a boys only club and the same can be said for the art of tattooing. With the success of Kat Von D (L.A. Ink) and web sites like the Suicide Girls, which celebrates woman with body modification, mainly tattoos, it is no wonder that it has become so accepted for women to sport a half sleeve, or has it? What is even more amazing is to see how many women artists there are.

So this is where I’m going with this. Women are slowly beginning to dominate the tattoo world and that’s not a bad thing.
At Forever Ink, located on the west side of Grand Rapids Michigan, the women out number the men, 3 to 2. I figured I would sit down with the ladies of Forever Ink and find out how this all came about.

Give me your background. How did you get involved with tattooing?

Stephanie: “By the age of 18 I was selling paintings in coffee shops. I became interested in “real life” art and what’s more real than tattoos.

I got my first tat when I was 18 and in Richmond where tattoos were popular and the shops were competitive.
In order to get started I had to gave up everything to live in my car and drive up and down the coast looking for shops. I apprenticed with Andy Zylstra for over a year.

To this day I am still learning from Chris (owner of Forever Ink).”

Jesse: “I kinda fell into it actually. I was working at meijer and one of the staff members had a son that was a tattoo artist down the road. so I set up an appt and got hired on the spot to apprentice.”

Peto: “I pretty much knew I wanted to be a tattoo artist from a very young age. I begged and begged one of my tattooists, ( Brett Giroux from Holland) and after many years he invited me to apprentice, in exchange for cleaning shop & answering phones, making needles, back when they were still made primarily by hand. You know, the traditional, old school apprenticeship, in trade I got to watch & learn. I was very lucky for the opportunity!”

How are you viewed as a female tattoo artist? How do others view you when seen in public? Do you think people take you seriously? Are female artists more accepted now? How long have you been doing this?

S: “Everyone automatically assumes I’m the piercer or secretary.
Overall I think we are more accepted but some people still freak out in public when they see me but at the shop its ok.
I have been tattooing for 4 years. I started when I was 21.”

J: ”I think that people take it well. I have alot of clients that like the fact that I am female. especially when theyre really nervous or scared. I have found that it has been a perk. Its alot of fun being a female in a male dominated industry, the surprise on peoples face’s when you tell them that you are the artist, are priceless.

Oh there is still the rejection and disapproval are still on peoples minds and you can definitely see it in their expressions and body language. But I really could care less. The way that I think about all of my ink is simple, I am a canvas. Alot of people actually accept it and it makes for a good ice breaker. Most people approach me because of the work i have.
Probably not as much as i think that they do, but I think for the most part, yes.

I think that they are still rare, but it is getting more common to walk into a shop, and see at least one female artist. I love the fact that we have three. It just shows that we can all work together and not worry about feeling like an underdog because of sexuality. There are always going to be traditional clients that prefer men over women, but there are always going to be someone, somewhere that has that point of view.

I have been a tattoo artist for just shy of 2 years…”

P: “I don’t think that I’m viewed in a negative light, typically, except the occasional rude glares from old folks or scared children, most people seem to be more intrigued or curious than anything. I can’t say how many times a day I hear “Did that hurt?”. I have been tattooing professionally for close to nine years now, which seem to have just flown by! I think female artists are definitely more and more accepted in recent years, we are a force to be reckoned with! I love working at Forever Ink cause it a good crew in general but more specifically there are three badass female artists here (myself included)! So it makes for a good time coming to work plus the people around me constantly inspire me. However it seems the industry wasn’t always so female friendly in the beginning, I’ve heard my fair share of stupid comments, “I didn’t think girls knew how to do that”, guess what, we can learn, dipshit!”

Do you feel that woman prefer a woman artist? How do men react to a female artist?

S: “Yes. Women think that as another woman we will have a softer touch and be daintier. I think guys like to have a male artist. They don’t want all that “girl stuff”. It’s like they think we can’t do skulls or other “tough” images.”

J: ” Sometimes. I think that when it comes down to getting a tattoo somewhere on a woman that is either a private area, or somewhere where they’re are not confident, then yes, but I think that most clients actually pay attention the the artist portfolio and choose based not only on who they are comfortable with but what artist fits their design.
Men, I think are surprised, at first, that a woman is thier artist but then they usually just giggle and dont care as long as they get what they want.”

P: “I think most people just want a good tattoo, whether a male or female does it. However some women definitely feel more comfortable with a female for more private areas, also as a girl it’s easier to pick another girl’s brain for ideas as far as designs.

Are there certain things or places you wont tat?

S: “If they creep me out (laughs). It depends on the local and sex and no gang symbols.”

J: “Everyone has boundaries. There are a few that I won’t tattoo, but its not common areas to have a tattoo. (i.e. eyeball and other extreme body areas).”

P: “There are some body parts I will try to steer a client away from if I don’t think it will heal well or look how they want it to. There are not too many types of designs that I won’t do except things I don’t want my name associated with, such as racist tats, sorry guys, no swazi’s from me.”

How many tats do you have? What was your first?

S: “The only way I can count them is if I’m in the shower. I got my first at Big Dog Tattoos in Charlottesville by an artist named Scott. It’s of a Phoenix on my hip.”

J: ”I presently have 43 tattoos, but most people, when they see me I look like a big coloring book. I think that I only have 25% of them actually finished. My first was the oh so ever popular butterfly, but in my defense it was for my best friend that passed.”

P: “I’ve got about 25 or 30 tat’s, over 100 hours. Still not nearly enough! My first one was some basement bullshit, a tribal tramp stamp, pretty lame but it taught me that tattoos are something to be picky about cause cover ups can be a bitch!

Do you think tattooing is still “Underground”?

S: “Unfortunately, no. Everyone wants to do it. We need to weed out the “trendy” people. Tattooing isn’t a right, it’s a privilege.”

J: ”I think that it is coming around to be more of a mainstream business. I know that there are people that still discriminate against it, but it is becoming more accepted in society. With all of the drama filled tattoo shows, people are seeing it as an everyday life. but just to note, not all shops are like tv.”

P: “Tattooing is definitely coming “into the light” which is good because it inspires better artwork, ya gotta be good to keep up with the competition however the industry is becoming sooo crowded, there’s a shop on every corner now and they aren’t all good so you have to be careful, so check out portfolios, ask questions and most importantly, make sure it’s clean!”

How does it feel to outnumber the men in the shop?

S: “Weird. It’s still very much a guy’s world because of the history of it all, how it all started.”

J: ”I really have never thought about it. I like the fact that there are more females than just myself, but at the same time we are all a big family so we treat each other equally, we go to one another for opinions and advice, and things like that. I love the face that here, it doesnt matter male/female ratio, its a laid back and easy going type of atmosphere.”

P: “There’s lot’s of love here, male or female doesn’t matter, we’re all cool kids!”

Chris: “When it comes down to it we are all equals, family, here.”

If you had to do it all over again, would you have picked this “job”?

S: “I am 100% happy. I gave up everything for this job. For me, coming to work is like winning an Academy Award.”

J: ”In a heartbeat. I dont see myself doing anything else for the rest of my life, art is my life. There is never a morning where I feel obligated to be here. I’m always excited about what I am doing that day.”

P: “Absolutely no regrets, I love my life and all the people in it”!

Would you like to add anything else, anything I missed?

S: “I want to thank all the artists that have been there to teach me. I am always learning.”

J: “Nope.”

P: “Thanx to all the people that trust me enough to permanently alter their bodies, thanks customers. Also thanx to all the artists who have taught me along the way and given me my ink!”

So, while women are becoming more noticeable, not only as clients but as artists, it seems that there still is a long way to go. And while the ladies out number the men at Forever Ink there is no division by sex. All are equal. It seems that the only thing that is left to change is public perception of those with ink especially women and some male ego’s when it comes to the ability for female artists to provide the same quality as men.

Overall, with the “everyone here is family”, Stephanie, Peto and Jesse are equals, not only at Forever Ink but in the tattooing community at large.