In the United States, tattoos have been labeled by some as unprofessional even as they have become more popular. They’ve been falsely stereotyped as something for deviants, criminals, outcasts.

But in indigenous and ancient cultures, tattoos are looked at as markings of growth, achievements and healing — both physically and emotionally.

Tattoo practices in the U.S., specifically in majority groups of cisgender, white or male tattoo spaces, have commodified and forgotten those original intents. However, LGBTQ+ and gender-nonconforming artists in Baltimore are moving back toward those ideas and creating their own safe spaces, not just for them, but for similar-identifying clients.

Tiaret Mitchell sits in their studio, Amenitee Tattoos, in Canton on Aug. 9, 2022. The colorful space matches their bright tattoo style. (Taneen Momeni/Taneen Momeni/The Baltimore Banner)

Tiaret Mitchell, a 20-year-old from Silver Spring, moved to Baltimore about one year ago to open their studio Amenitee Tattoo in Canton. The bright and colorful space seems like a perfect match for the artist and their tattooing style. Mitchell described their gender and sexuality as fluid, but goes by queer: “I feel like labels are very conforming, and I don’t really like to label myself.”

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Tiaret Mitchell in their studio, Amenitee Tattoos, in Canton on Aug. 9, 2022. The colorful space matches their bright tattoo style. (Taneen Momeni/Taneen Momeni/The Baltimore Banner)

Mitchell grew up loving tattoos, but becoming a tattoo artist never really crossed their mind because of the lack of Black feminine-presenting representation. It was not until they met one of their mentors when they were 16 and decided they wanted to be a tattoo artist.

Tiaret Mitchell shows a part of a tattoo on their stomach Aug. 9, 2022. This tattoo reaches up to their ribs on both sides and goes further down under the waistline of their pants. (Taneen Momeni/Taneen Momeni/The Baltimore Banner)

“I want to allow people who look like me, who act like me, who express like me to have space to showcase their bodies and showcase my art. I want to add more people in the space who are like me to have the opportunity to actually succeed and excel … so other people don’t have to keep paving it.”

Mitchell is breaking boundaries in both their identity and their work. Their portfolio is so colorful, not just in the colors they use but in the diversity in their clients. Racism in tattooing has excluded people with darker skin, with myths that it is harder to tattoo on them, especially using color. Mitchell credits their inclusive practices to their background of interacting with so many different groups as they grew up, and practicing on a wide variety of skin tones.

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“I find inspiration in everybody and everything. It goes back to the fluid state of mind, the queer state of mind … I see everything, I try to see everything. All colors, all shapes, all sizes,” they said.

Nicky Spellcraft tattoos the back of a client's arm in his studio, Spellcraft Tattoo, on Aug. 3, 2022. (Taneen Momeni/Taneen Momeni/The Baltimore Banner)

Nicky Spellcraft, his tattooing name, expressed the same sentiments in having a space for people like him, where his identity as a gay man is not constantly questioned or invalidated.

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“I think it all started kind of selfishly. I just wanted a place where I felt comfortable because it was hard for me, working in places where people thought they could make jokes about me,” he said. “I wanted people that were like-minded, that were on the same wavelength and they understood where I was coming from. It’s hard to have to explain things like that to people that just don’t live it … I try to educate as much as I can, but it also gets exhausting to do it every time.”

Nicky Spellcraft tattoos the back of a client's arm in his studio, Spellcraft Tattoo, on Aug. 3, 2022. (Taneen Momeni/Taneen Momeni/The Baltimore Banner)

While the 32-year-old has been tattooing for 12 years, he was not always keen on staying in the scene. Spellcraft heard many false stereotypes regarding the abilities of women and Black artists, as well as homophobic slurs being used around him. He also explained that a reason he did not consistently stay in the tattoo community is because of “straight bravado” behavior.

“I felt out of place, and I don’t want to purposely make myself uncomfortable. So, I just would back out and then I would keep my eye out for maybe a place with more open-minded people. And I have definitely found some open-minded people for sure, but it was hard.”

Nicky Spellcraft tattoos the back of a client's arm in his studio, Spellcraft Tattoo, on Aug. 3, 2022. (Taneen Momeni/Taneen Momeni/The Baltimore Banner)

Spellcraft opened his own tattoo shop, Spellcraft Tattoo, in Canton in 2020 before the first pandemic closure. The dark, spooky studio is covered in art, Halloween decorations and movie posters. The Vietnamese artist also owns another shop for cosmetic tattooing called Spellcraft Beauty that his husband, Jack Boger, runs.

The interior of Spellcraft Tattoo in Canton on Aug. 3, 2022. (Taneen Momeni/Taneen Momeni/The Baltimore Banner)
Decorations and merchandise in Spellcraft Tattoo on Aug. 3, 2022. The space is witch and occult-themed. (Taneen Momeni/Taneen Momeni/The Baltimore Banner)

Spellcraft’s studio has five artists, including him. While Spellcraft Tattoo is gay-owned, not all of the artists in the space are queer. He explained that he has struggled with hiring because there are not a lot of artists to begin with, but he is trying to get more artists that clients can identify with so they can feel safe.

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“I know as a little gay boy getting tattoos, it was intimidating because a lot of the shops, it’s these biker guys. And I know that the industry is growing out of that now, but I’m hoping that I can help further that and pave that.”

Spellcraft’s run-ins with homophobia and ignorance in tattoo shops do not seem to be uncommon.

Mainstream American tattoo history

The practice has not always been welcoming to women, people of color and people in the LGBTQ+ community, those in the industry said. Modern tattoos began around the time of the Civil War, a period when soldiers would get tattoos for reasons including to identify themselves or represent their causes, according to articles by Time and Atlas Obscura. In the early 20th century, tattooed women became spectacles in circuses and profited off tattoo intrigue. Many of them, according to Time, were still only being tattooed by men.

Suzanne Shifflett, a nonbinary queer tattoo artist and professor in California, began tattooing in 1989. They started by designing tattoos for their friends, and the friends “would go to shops and have creepy men touching them.” Later, one of their friends introduced them to Bruce Lee. Lee was a gay tattoo artist who apprenticed under Cliff Raven, who was known as the “gay grandaddy of tattooing,” according to the Chicago Reader. Shifflett explained that Lee tattooed out of his kitchen in San Francisco due to the homophobia in shops.

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They detailed an instance when an artist in Oregon told people not to get tattooed at the shop Shifflett worked at, falsely claiming they would get AIDS because Shifflett tattooed gay people. This rhetoric was not uncommon in the tattoo community.

“Especially during the height of the AIDS crisis, tattoo shops wanted to really distance themselves from the gay community, even though tattooing and the gay community have gone hand in hand,” Shifflett said.

Shifflet explained that tattoo shops at that time were not common, and it was less common to find queer artists. They also explained that misogyny was and is still prevalent in the community, with calendars of naked women in shops and tattoos of pinup girls. They noted an instance where the artist of their second tattoo even told them that Shifflett would have been a great artist, except for one thing.

“As he was tattooing me, he said ‘You draw really well, you would be a great tattoo artist except that you’re a woman,’” Shifflett said, “and I was like, ‘Well, what does that have to do with anything?’”

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And the misogyny doesn’t stop at the individual level.

“All you have to do is go to a tattoo convention and you will see it’s so misogynist,” they said. “It’s just a reflection of I think society as a whole, in tattooing and in art in general.”

Unique Robinson, the director of the community arts Master’s program at the Maryland Institute College of Art, echoed similar sentiments towards tattoo conventions. The queer educator and writer said that tattoo conventions have a reputation of being hostile and are spaces that are predominately white, cisgender and male.

“That’s not the origin of the culture at all. But that’s like many things, what has been made into being and almost seeming like they’re the gatekeepers of tattooing when that’s absolutely not the case,” Robinson said.

Healing with tattoos in queer spaces

Shifflett stressed the importance of queer and nonbinary tattoo artists back then and even now.

“Oftentimes people in the straight world don’t even know what they’re doing or don’t realize they’re being really insulting, so not only is it just the comfort of the client, but it’s the comfort in the tattooist, for queer people to support other queer people.”

While Robinson has lost count of the number of tattoos they have, they still are mindful and intentional about where they are going to get their tattoos because they never know what may happen in spaces that are not necessarily LGBTQ+ or Black: “These are just things I always have to think about, just as a Black queer individual. So somehow I have to find a happy medium space to really accommodate that.”

Tiaret Mitchell in their studio, Amenitee Tattoos, in Canton on Aug. 9, 2022. The colorful space matches their bright tattoo style. (Taneen Momeni/Taneen Momeni/The Baltimore Banner)

For Mitchell, as an artist, their work is very personal to them and their fluid identity.

“I never thought my work would be where it is right now, which is very interesting because same with my identity, it’s shifting into avenues that I don’t think I thought it would, because I haven’t had the space safe enough to allow myself to express myself in such a different way. But as I dive deeper, deeper into my identity, and what that means to me reflects my truth, my heart starts to reflect that as well.”

Mitchell has also used tattoos as a healing tool. They recalled one instance where they felt their throat was blocked, so they had a friend tattoo dots along the front of their neck.

Tiaret Mitchell shows the tattoos on their throat and chin on Aug. 9, 2022. They said they got the dots along their neck because they felt like their throat was blocked. (Taneen Momeni/Taneen Momeni/The Baltimore Banner)

Mitchell believes their practice is also healing and therapeutic for their clients. They explained that all of their work is usually trauma-based.

“Most of my sessions we cry. It’s a very, very sacred practice. It’s not really a profession anymore. It’s more of a very sacred healing type of space that I try to cultivate and create,” they said. “I feel like people get tattoos when they’re going through specific things in their life. So we try to commemorate that in a growth-oriented way every time.”

Nicky Spellcraft shades in a tattoo on the back of a client's arm in Spellcraft Tattoo on Aug. 3, 2022. (Taneen Momeni/Taneen Momeni/The Baltimore Banner)

Spellcraft has found that one of the most common reasons people get tattooed is because of trauma they have endured. He explained that a lot of people who are dealing with trauma or are recovering want “a reminder to tell them that they’re strong or that they’ll get through it.” He said that it is similar to memorial tattoos and that both are just “part of the healing process.”

Nicky Spellcraft tattoos on the back of a client's arm August 3, 2022. The upside-down triangle by his ear is a reclamation of the symbol used to label homosexual people during the Holocaust. (Taneen Momeni/Taneen Momeni/The Baltimore Banner)

He described a personal experience where he got an upside-down triangle on the side of his face by his ear. In the Holocaust, gay people were labeled with the pink upside-down triangle, and that symbol was later reclaimed as a symbol of pride, according to Spellcraft.

“Throughout my career, always feeling like I had to hide who I was or lie about it or defend myself, I’m at a point now where I have it right on my face. I can’t hide. I am who I am.”

Nicky Spellcraft's reflection in a mirror as he tattoos a client on Aug. 3, 2022. (Taneen Momeni/Taneen Momeni/The Baltimore Banner)

While ignorance still remains in the tattooing community, Robinson, Mitchell, Shifflett and Spellcraft all noted that the industry is changing for the better. Other LGBTQ+ and gender-nonconforming tattoo artists and spaces exist in Baltimore. Fruit Camp, a queer-owned tattoo collective in Remington, strives to house diverse artists in order to create a comfortable and inclusive environment, according to their website. Another artist in Baltimore, @intentionalartforthebrave on Instagram, described themself as an “Alternative & Holistic Health Service” in their bio.

“I’m also very proud of all of the LGBT artists out there. I know that I’ve been friends with some of them for a few years, and I’ve seen the strides they’re making and the barriers they’re breaking. I’m just very proud of them, and I’m proud of us as a community, and I hope that we continue to support each other and get like-minded friends and clients,” Spellcraft said.