Tattoo Culture: A Journey of Transformation

Alice Snape, now 40 years old, looks back on her decision to get her first tattoo at the age of 21 with a mixture of regret and reflection. It was a small fairy adorning her right shoulder, which, after losing a few kilos over the months, became unrecognizable. But what she regrets the most is its size: it was ridiculously small, a waste for such a large canvas as her back. “I always advise people never to get their first tattoo as a small detail on their back because it’s one of the best parts of your body to have something big,” confirms the writer, editor, and independent curator via video call from her home in London. Now, her back is covered by an enormous drawing that starts at her nape and ends at her bottom—both included—a kind of butterfly woman that has gradually evolved over the years, much like herself and the tattoo industry. And like that first shapeless fairy that is now a beautiful butterfly.

Breaking Boundaries: The Transgressive Act of Tattooing

Snape believes that getting a tattoo is a transgressive act. That marking the skin blurs the boundaries between dualities such as bodily autonomy and submission, ritual and art, feminine and masculine, collecting and obsession, skin and ink. She defends this notion in the introduction of Tattoo: A New Generation of Artists (Phaidon, 2024), a book that showcases the work of 75 tattoo artists from around the world who are redefining the industry. “When I started getting tattoos 20 years ago, it was an industry controlled by men and it was very difficult for a woman to make her mark in that space, both as a tattoo artist and as a collector [referring to people with tattoos on their bodies, like herself]. I remember walking into my first tattoo studio and instantly feeling unwelcome. It was as if somehow you had to earn the right to be there. I think gradually, as more women entered the industry, they realized that they no longer wanted it to be so unwelcoming. That they actually wanted to create safer spaces where you can walk in and feel like you belong,” Snape recounts.

Empowerment and Social Media: Driving Change in the Tattoo Industry

The opening up within the sector has coincided with the emergence of social media, something Snape does not consider coincidental. “Would debates about consent, sexism, and racism have gained so much relevance without a platform capable of transcending borders? If platforms like Instagram didn’t exist, would there be safe spaces or conscious practices regarding potential traumas of clients?” she wonders in the pages of the book. Thanks to these platforms, she adds in the interview, artists can share their designs with the world, and collectors can find exactly what they’re looking for among the vast catalog offered to them. “There have also been more conversations about bodily autonomy and consent. Before, there was an outdated attitude that since it was the tattoo artists who created the design, they owned the final work. But the tattooing process is a collaboration, and moreover, the client pays for that experience. What they’re creating is for them. They used to be offended if their work was covered up or removed with laser. Now they’re proud of their work and share it, but they let it go when it becomes part of the collector’s body. I think that has been one of the key changes in the last 10 years,” she explains.

Celebrating Artistry: Women Leading the Tattoo Renaissance

Snape’s face lights up when asked to highlight some of the 75 artists featured in the book. “How many do you want?” she asks playfully, entering a terrain she knows well. She could talk at length about any of them, but she chooses three. “Tanya Buxton is absolutely amazing,” she says about her fellow countrywoman. “She creates a level of realism that is out of this world. In fact, she creates nipple tattoos for women who have undergone breast cancer and trans people who have had top surgery, and they are so realistic that they are periodically removed from Instagram. I think what’s so powerful about her work is that it really helps people feel like they own their body again and that they take some control over their situation,” she comments. Tanya also tattoos eyebrows for people who have lost hair and even recreated the shape of the lips of a woman who had been injured in a fire. Many of those who go under her needles are not seeking to stand out but to feel normal.

Just as amazing to her is Lacey Law, also English—”I probably should have mentioned a Spanish one,” she laughs—whose story she takes advantage of to exemplify the artistic origin of today’s industry professionals. “She was a woodcut artist before becoming a tattoo artist and that shows in her work. Now there are many tattoo artists who don’t directly tattoo, they first have an art education that takes their tattoos to another level. She only uses black ink and single line strokes, without shading, which makes it look like a woodcut. She says she likes to turn the body into a work of art or take historical art references and put them on the body. Art is literally at the center of everything she does,” she details. Finally, she refers to the Filipina Grace Palicas, the great-niece of the 106-year-old tattooist Apo Whang-Od Oggay, who appeared on the cover of the April 2023 issue of Filipino Vogue. “If Grace hadn’t learned the craft from Whang-Od, one of the few practitioners of batok—the hand-tapping tattoo technique of the Kalinga people—it would have died out. And I think what she’s doing is really interesting because it shows how ancient practices are being reinvented for modern times. People travel from all over the world to go see her,” Snape warns.

That all the names that come to mind when she thinks of tattoo artists are women demonstrates that change has occurred in the industry. Snape herself contributed to this change when she founded Things & Ink magazine a decade ago, which had a print edition for three years and has now become an online community. “I realized that the tattoo magazines on the market were very misogynistic, often featuring a naked woman on the cover for no reason. I thought there needed to be a publication that represented not only female tattoo artists but collectors too, and with an artistic focus. I feel like it really contributed in some way to changing people’s views about women with tattoos,” she recalls.

They are not the only ones who suffered within this industry until 10 years ago. “Before the last decade, many Black people would go into a tattoo studio and be told: ‘We can’t tattoo you because it won’t show.’ Now there’s a lot of education around this. You can’t just turn someone away, you have to learn,” she says. “I was recently at the Brighton tattoo convention, and it was a different place from when I started going. 20 years ago, you didn’t see many women, and you barely saw Black artists, as if they simply didn’t exist, and walking around the other day, I finally felt the diversity. It was a misogynistic and racist industry where now there is room for everyone,” Snape celebrates. “If you want to get tattooed, you will find your home within the tattoo world, you will find your artist, you will find your people, something that suits your vision.”

Sitting in front of her home computer with her jacket on, Snape’s body is barely noticeable, but she has so many tattoos that she doesn’t know how many there are. “I think as you get more tattoos, they all become one,” she justifies. One of the last ones is some flowers that cover her chest, from shoulder to shoulder, which she proudly displays in front of the camera. It was her own birthday present. “My favorite is usually the most recent one, but I love this tattoo because the chest is an area of my body that I had always been putting off, maybe because of outdated stereotypes or because I felt it was too intimate an area. The turning point was at 40, I felt it was time, and I love it because you can wear a totally simple top and all outfits are instantly enhanced,” she comments with a smile. In her mind, she’s already planning the next ones—”I’m always thinking about it”—but now she’s allowing herself to enjoy the flowers on her chest.

On March 1, she shared them with her Instagram followers through a selfie taken in front of the bathroom mirror and a little reflection: “@kate_selkie tattooed my chest to commemorate my 40th birthday. I never imagined this is what 40 would be like. And I love that as soon as I got this design on my chest, I felt at home. Tattoos are almost like bringing something to the surface, an abstract thought that persists until you go through the process.”