As far as tattoo shops go, Williamsburg’s Saved Tattoo is about as famous as you can get. Many associate that fame with its founder, Scott Campbell, who has inked Heath Ledger, Sting and Courtney Love, among others, and is married to actress Lake Bell. But for some of the city’s top feminist writers, it’s co-owner Stephanie Tamez who is the real star.
“It’s a spiritual experience when she’s drilling into your arm,” said Marcie Bianco, a staff writer for Mic.com whose Twitter bio reads, in part, “Lesbian-Feminist.” Bianco has received three tattoos from Tamez. “You can talk to her for hours on end and come to a new meaning on things. I’m hands down a total fan.”
Bianco learned about Tamez when she noticed a friend’s tattoo and thought “it was so incredibly done.” When she learned the artist was Tamez, who, like her, is a lesbian woman, she said, “Well, that’s phenomenal.”
Other writers, like TPM’s Nona Willis Aronowitz and Cosmpolitan’s Jill Filipovic, learned about Tamez from Jessica Valenti, founder of Feministing.com and columnist for the Guardian. Artist Sophia Wallace, creator of the Cliteracy Project, has also been tattooed by Tamez.
“I had had a tattoo before, and it was one of those tattoos from a shitty place,” said Aronowitz. When Valenti recommended Tamez, “I thought it was cosmically perfect,” she continued, “because I was planning on getting a quote tattooed from Thelma and Louise.”
Aronowitz has “I feel awake” scrawled across her rib cage, the line that Thelma (Geena Davis) says to Louise (Susan Sarandon) after the two have done their bad deeds and are driving off, free and in peace. Said Aronowitz, “It signifies feminist consciousness for me and a sense of adventure and getting out of your comfort zone and traveling.”
For her part, Valenti first discovered Tamez’s work in 2012 when she was researching calligraphy and typography experts for a very personal project. Five years ago, the writer almost died due to a pregnancy disorder called pre-eclampsia, and wanted to pay homage to what she calls a very “impactful” and “insane” period of her life.
She delivered successfully, but three months early. Valenti and her husband chose “Sorella” as their daughter’s middle name. “Sorella was both sort of a nod to my Italian-Americanness, my feminism, and to my sister, who, as I was being wheeled into surgery, I said, tell her to take care of her in case I die,” Valenti recalled. She wanted someone who could masterfully ink “Sorella,” her first visible tattoo, on her arm.
“[Stephanie’s] name just came up again and again,” said Valenti. She got the tattoo in 2013 and has been raving about Tamez ever since.
“It’s important to me to support women, especially women in male-dominated industries,” said Filipovic, who has a tattoo of two birds flying out of a human heart on her left wrist. “So even though the tattoo is not itself feminist, it is part of my ethos to go to a female tattoo artist.”
“Sorella,” Valenti’s tattoo by Tamez
Tamez, who at 52 has been tattooing professionally for over two decades, was pleasantly surprised to hear that she’s gaining popularity among a group of what she calls “tough women.”
“I didn’t realize I had that reputation,” she said. “I did realize that I had tattooed several women,” she said, citing poet Eileen Myles. When pressed, Tamez estimated that between 60 to 70 percent of her clients are female. “I never really defined myself as [a feminist tattoo artist], but yes, I would say that I am, obviously.”
She began tattooing in San Francisco 20 years ago, building her foundation in the city’s queer scene before she moved to New York in 2001. Her portfolio boasts sprawling and intricate designs bursting with color, works that one might first associate with a painting rather than a human body. Last year, she was identified by Mic.com as one of the best female tattooists in the country, and according to Margot Mifflin, a professor of English and journalism at CUNY and the author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, Tamez is a significant figure in the tattoo community at-large. Mifflin’s book was first published in 1997, but she interviewed Tamez for the updated 2013 edition.
“Stephanie is important for several reasons,” said Mifflin. “One is that she’s a skilled tattoo artist. It’s important to her to know the history. She wanted to study the history, internalize that, and build on that as an artist who wants to innovate.”
“Feminist Killjoy,” Bianco’s 3rd tattoo by Tamez
Mifflin calls Tamez a “powerhouse.” That she’s a co-owner of a tattoo parlor is “significant historically because at the turn of the 20th century, women who were learning tattooing were mostly learning from men and from their husbands, working in their shops. The first documented [American] woman tattooist traded a date with her husband for lessons in tattooing. Her name was Maud Wagner,” she explained. “It’s significant now that women are running their own shops, and [Tamez is] a co-owner of one of the most respected shops in New York. Not just in that the work is good and professional, but that it’s innovative. They’re trying to advance the art.”
Since it was introduced to America in 1846 by sailors, the art of tattoo has been furthered mostly by men. But Tamez and Mifflin both say that’s changing. “It seemed like when I was writing in the ‘90s, most of the women [in the business] knew each other and knew of each other. Now there’s so many that they can’t possibly know each other. And that’s a good thing,” Mifflin said. “She’s also symbolically important because, as a lesbian and a Mexican-American, she represents how far tattooing has come as a trade, from ultra-masculine guys. That symbolizes a change in this industry,” said Mifflin.
The exact stats on gender balance in the tattoo industry are hazy, however, and the current estimates suggest that women are still a rarity — even though the percentage of women getting tattoos has started to outpace men. The OCWeekly reported that a 2010 study by Columbia University estimated “there is fewer than 1 woman for every 6 male tattoo artists.” The Body Art Expo, one of the largest tattooing conventions in America, told me that 10 percent of those showcased last year were women.
But perhaps the enthusiasm that Bianco, Valenti, and the others share over finding a skilled tattoo artist with whom they found a connection goes back to how tattoos can be a source of empowerment for women. “A lot of women started to get tattoos in the ’90s. There were so many threats to women’s own control of their bodies –the primary one being abortion rights — and there was so much pressure to conform to a body type, and there was a lot of anxiety around breast cancer and eating disorders,” said Mifflin. “I think women just wanted to assert control of their bodies, in that time, and mark them in their own way. This is a way that women can express and embellish themselves that’s unique and original, and it’s not store bought.”
“I Feel Awake,” Aronowitz’s tattoo by Tamez
“The imagery has expanded because women can bring to [the artform] imagery that is meaningful for women,” said Mifflin. “It’s nice to see that there are so many women out there that it’s not just tokenism.”
Tokenism is something Tamez has worked hard to avoid. While it makes sense that Tamez would be a favorite among feminist writers, think twice before your brand her as “the feminist tattoo artist.”
“I think I’ve tattooed a lot of tough women because I had to be tough. I had to work twice as hard to make my name,” said Tamez. “I didn’t want people to come to me just because I was a girl tattooer. I’ve always wanted people to come to me because they like my vision and they like how I [tattoo], which is most important to me as an artist. And then, cool, if we’re both girls and we’re both doing this, and have this warrior-type of energy, that’s awesome. I think like minds gravitate to each other.”
These days, Tamez divides her time between teaching tattoo design at the School of Visual Arts, creating art, running the shop, and of course, tattooing. She views all potential clients as artistic collaborators and invites those curious to come to the shop Tuesday to Saturday between 12 and 1 PM. “Anyone can come talk to me,” she said, with one caveat: “Come in with an open mind.”
(Photo: Victor Blue)