Women artists in Gainesville are making a name for themselves in the historically male-dominated tattoo industry.

Photos by Elizabeth Townsend.

The first tattoo Brittany Helm ever did was three years in the making. She devoted hours to designing complex tattoos, like a knotted, winding tree growing out of a field of lace, and would practice inking them by putting her pencil into a tattoo machine so she could get familiar with its weight.

But this time, Helm gripped a tattoo machine that was primed with a needle. She flipped the machine on, and it whirred to life as she leaned over in her chair and began to ink a tiny skull on the shoulder of the artist who taught her.

Illustration by Madisyn Alberry.

Before she could tattoo at all, Helm, like most artists looking to enter the industry, had to complete an apprenticeship. But this can be a challenge. You have to find an artist who is willing, skilled enough and able to take you on as an apprentice. This can often mean working for free for at least a year while you learn the tenets of tattooing, such as how to scale a design to a person’s body or pull a clean line, and pass an exam on health and safety standards. After all that work, you might not find a studio willing to hire you.

The prospects can be even harder for women, who didn’t start entering the industry en masse until the late ’90s. Though the tattooing scene in Gainesville — like the industry as whole — is no longer completely male-dominated, female artists are still a minority. Based on artist listings found on the websites and social media of Gainesville’s tattoo shops, there are about ten female artists in Gainesville, a third of the number of male artists.

In 2017, Helm found work tattooing at Sacred Skin Studios, a local parlor. The 21-year-old said clients would walk in the door and seem to look right through her. After she got pregnant, it got even worse. One look at her belly and potential clients “just disregarded that I was even there,” she said.

At Sacred Skin, clients would sometimes come into the studio with tattoo ideas that none of the artists were interested in. The responsibility for these designs usually fell on Helm, as the newest and youngest of the artists. In April 2018, the owner of the studio disagreed with Helm’s decision to take on one such tattoo, which she described as a dollar bill with an unusual face on it. Helm said she was fired as a result and that her boss told her he would make sure she never worked at another tattoo shop in Gainesville again.

Afterward, Helm said, the artists at the studio began posting pictures of tattoos she had started while she was there with negative comments about them.

Katie Ryan at Death or Glory Tattoo Parlour, where she’s consistently booked.

“It hurt a lot when it ended,” she said, clutching her portfolio.

Amidst whatever changes are taking place in the tattoo industry locally or at large, there’s a sense among the female artists in Gainesville that they want to be respected for their craft, not just because they’re women who tattoo.

“I definitely didn’t want it to matter that I was a girl in a man’s world,” said Maria Arjona, an artist at Bodytech Tattooing & Piercing. “I wanted to show people that I could do what I do because I’m good at it and because I love it.”

Arjona, who has the word “desire” inked across her throat, said she can’t remember if there was even one female artist at Bodytech when she started as a receptionist in 2014. When she filled out the application for the position, there was a caveat at the bottom that said getting the job in no way guaranteed an apprenticeship. At first, Arjona felt discouraged. “But I thought, at least if I was around it [tattooing], that’d be something,” she said.

She worked as a receptionist at Bodytech for two and a half years when the owner Wayne Lessard took her on as an apprentice. “I kind of think I was always supposed to tattoo,” the 25-year-old artist said. “Really, nothing in life is permanent – like, feelings aren’t. But a tattoo is, and I like that.”

Bodytech is now a notable example of gender parity in the local scene. There are now five women tattooing there, nearly equal to the number of men.

There’s still a lot of old schoolers who don’t think girls should be tattooing,” Arjona said.

In fact, Lizzie Barreto, another artist at Bodytech, said she came to Gainesville specifically to be around women tattoo artists. The 23-year-old got her start by hanging around tattoo shops in Inverness, Fla., during her sophomore year of high school. But she still feels like she faces some pushback from customers.

Mary Claire Whaling, 29, works at Bodytech Tatoing and Piercing on University Avenue. She has been tattoing for two years, and likes talking to customers to make them feel comfortable. Photo by Marcelo Rondon.

“Sometimes guys come in and they say they ‘wound up with me,’” Barreto said. “Afterwards, they kinda apologize because they realize that I’m just as good as the next person.

Barreto said she thinks the combination of barries to entry regardless of gender, plus the few holdouts who are still opposed to female artists, is what’s keeping more women from pursuing tattooing.

Arjona noted that the equality at Bodytech isn’t present everywhere in the world of tattooing or even in Gainesville’s tattooing scene. Most shops in town don’t have any women artists at all.

“There’s still a lot of old schoolers who don’t think girls should be tattooing,” she said.

Katie Ryan, who tattoos at Death or Glory Tattoo Parlour, said she’s never experienced sexism herself as a tattoo artist in Gainesville. But she pointed to a campaign started in 2015 by Salt Lake City tattoo artist Ashley Love called Still Not Asking For It, which aims to address the “lack of true sympathy for sexual assault and rape survivors” in the tattoo community, according to its website. Each year, the proceeds from tattoo flash fundraisers at parlors across the country go to organizations that help survivors of sexual assault.

Ryan has a devoted following of nearly 7,000 on Instagram, where she posts tattoos she’s done, like a smiling Labrador framed by leaves and acorns, or a gravestone that says “dig me out.” She knew she wanted to become a tattoo artist since she started getting inked at 16 years old, and after she graduated high school in 2008, she apprenticed at Endless Summer Tattoo in Cocoa Beach. Now 28 years old, Ryan is consistently booked at Death or Glory.

“I definitely didn’t want it to matter that I was a girl in a man’s world,” said Maria Arjona, an artist at Bodytech Tattooing & Piercing. “I wanted to show people that I could do what I do because I’m good at it and because I love it.”

“Surround yourself with safe people,” Ryan said as advice to women interested in tattooing. “It always helps to work with other female artists.”

Helm now takes art classes at Santa Fe College and continues to practice tattooing at home on fake skin. She currently works at a local restaurant making desserts and designing cakes, but she keeps an eye out for opportunities to get back in the game. “I have nothing but love and respect for the shops that I’ve worked at,” she said. “I appreciate all the opportunities I got along the way.”

Following her experience, Helm advises women who are interested in tattooing to speak up and persevere.

“Have a hard head,” she said. “My voice has changed a lot. I had to grow a backbone so that they knew I was there.”