Tattooing has a long international history, but in the United States, it was popularized by sailors and soldiers in the 1800s. This legacy created a tattoo culture historically dominated by white men, but recently, this same body art has become an increasingly queer medium of expression. Today, queer tattooists in the Bay Area strive to create safe and comfortable experiences for other artists and their queer clients alike.
Piña Bleep was born in Mexico and raised in Oakland. They learned how to tattoo while living in Mexico in 2014. With a homemade tattoo apparatus, Bleep went from practicing on their own skin to being at the forefront of self-taught artists in the Bay.
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On Halloween in 2018, Bleep and fellow artist Billie Vale opened Funky Town, one of the first self-taught and queer-owned shops in the area. It was a colorfully painted trailer in Oakland that strived to be open and inviting to all. Funky Town was short-lived and closed in May 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but Bleep, Vale and a host of other queer tattooists are in the process of opening Dollhouse, a studio with the same goal, to make clients feel safe and validated in their tattoo experiences.
For people many queer folks looking to reclaim their bodies, Bleep thinks tattoos are the perfect medium. Tattoos are a personal art gallery, they said.
Tattoo enthusiasts with queer and gender nonconforming identities often turn to social media to look for inclusive tattoo environments, citing negative past experiences in traditional studios.
Bleep remembers getting their early tattoos to reclaim their body and being judged by artists for the kinds of art they requested. At one shop, the artist assumed that Bleep was being sarcastic about the cartoon character they wanted tattooed. When Bleep expressed their seriousness, multiple artists in the shop laughed at them. Since Bleep has become a tattooist, they often encounter clients in search of artists who align with their queer identities.
“A lot of cis white men will never ever understand the queer experience or what it’s even like to see the world differently through queer eyes,” Bleep said. “I think any queer person can relate to: I just want one person that won’t make me feel weird, someone who won’t make me make jokes about me, who won’t say anything weird about how I look, who won’t judge me or judge what my gender is.”
Dollhouse is set to open in August in North Berkeley. Bleep wants to make it a place where self-proclaimed misfits like them can reclaim their bodies through tattoos. No one should walk away feeling uneasy, they said. Bleep and other Dollhouse artists are also excited to build an inviting space for tattooists who have been othered by the traditional tattoo world. For them, finding apprenticeships and places to learn can be difficult.
When Bleep was looking for an apprenticeship, their feminine gender presentation barred their entry into many spaces. For another Oakland tattoo artist Randy Smith, his queerness and his Blackness made it difficult to get an apprenticeship when his career began in 2004. This didn’t stop him, and Smith has since seen the tattoo industry shift to become more inclusive; however, he believes there is a long way to go. Until white supremacy and homophobia are eliminated, tattoo spaces will reflect them, he said.
“There’s a lot of rebellion in general in being a queer person. You’re rejecting all the stuff that’s been fed to you your whole life,” Smith said. “You’re forming your own cognitive identity within yourself, and you’re navigating the world. There’s forward progress that’s happening for you. Tattooing just makes sense because it’s this ultimate form of permanent expression.”
Smith currently tattoos out of his private studio where he focuses on cover-up tattoos, many of which fix poorly done tattoos on dark skin. Clients can expect a safe space for all identities and expert knowledge of working with darker skin, a skill that Smith and tattooist Quiana Dempsey have found is lacking in the area.
“It’s really hard to find Black, queer women tattooing out here, which I still find very bizarre,” said Dempsey, an Oakland-based tattoo artist originally from Florida. “So, I’ve been wanting to make myself known more. Tres Leches is the space I’m working at now, and it’s helped me even further realize that power.”
Not unlike Dollhouse, Tres Leches Studio is a private space in Oakland that prioritizes artists and clients who queer and of color. The studio is also artist-run, meaning there is no manager or owner that takes from the artists or their profits. Bleep, Smith and Dempsey alike hope to see more spaces like this emerge and divert from the traditional tattoo parlor model.