Photo courtesy of unsplash.com
Story by Allison Borrell / Contributing Writer
The tattoo industry has long been a male-dominated field, but women across the country and in Nashville have been reshaping it over the past decade.
To fully understand the role of women in the tattoo industry, we have to go back to the early 1900s when the first known female tattoo artist in the U.S. rose to prominence.
According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography, Maud Wagner got her start in the world of subculture as a contortionist and trapeze artist traveling the U.S. and performing at fairs, circuses and vaudeville shows. It was here she was first introduced to the world of tattoos, something seen as exotic entertainment in America at the time.
In 1904, Wagner met tattoo artist and soon-to-be husband Gus Wagner at the St. Louis World’s Fair. The story goes that the two exchanged a date for a lesson in tattooing, beginning Wagner’s career as a female tattoo artist for the circus.
Like Wagner, many early female tattoo artists were circus performers who learned the craft from boyfriends and husbands. But Mildred Hull got into the industry on her own. According to Margot Mifflin’s 1997 book, “Bodies of Subversion: Women and Tattoo,” Hull, based in New York in the 1920s, branded herself as “the only lady tattooist” and was met with ridicule for her success in a man’s world. In a quote given to Foto Magazine, Hull said, “You know how men are in any business: always sort of jealous if a woman does as well as they do.”
During the 20th century, one of the only ways for women to break into the industry was through a connection with a man in the field. Vyvyn Lazonga, one of the most influential women in the industry, found her way in through an apprenticeship with Danny Danzl in Seattle in 1972. However, despite the momentum she experienced her first few years, she found herself hitting the glass ceiling at Danzl’s shop.
Mifflin describes Lazonga hitting several roadblocks during her early years, like seeing men constantly being promoted over her and being forced to use broken machines that the shop owner refused to fix. But Lazonga’s talent as an artist won out over the sexism and prejudice she faced, and she went on to open her own shop in 1979 and is now known for “Japanese, art deco, and Victorian floral patterns.”
Despite the groundwork that was laid by the women pioneers of the 20th century, issues of sexism have still plagued the tattoo industry well into the new millennium. A large part of this is due to how little women in the industry are talked about.
In taking a sample of nearly 30 tattoo shops in the greater Nashville area, roughly 18 percent of tattoo artists in shops across Nashville, Murfreesboro and Franklin are women, and less than 1 percent of those shops are owned by women.
Elisheba Israel Mrozik is one of the few female tattoo shop owners in Nashville, but her journey to success was riddled with obstacles of sexism and discrimination. She was turned away by several shop owners in Nashville and eventually found her way into the industry as an apprentice in the now-closed tattoo parlor, Billy Joe’s. After working there for only a few months due to the less than welcoming environment, Mrozik left to open her shop, One Drop Ink, where she apprenticed under a licensed artist she found on Craigslist.
While Mrozik always gave shop owners the benefit of the doubt when they turned her away, she said she
always knew it was because of her minority status in the industry.
“I’m a two-fold issue in the tattoo industry: black and a woman,” she said.
Despite the challenges Mrozik faced, her and her shop are now well known in Nashville. She is an award-winning tattoo artist, was featured on the eighth season of reality show Ink Master in 2016 and claims to be the first black female to be a licensed tattoo artist in Middle Tennessee.
For Mrozik, being a black woman in the tattoo industry is about breaking down negative stereotypes surrounding minorities within the field. Mrozik said she has been given the platform to allow others to break down barriers.
“I feel like I’m getting a chance to be a non-stereotype in the industry,” Mrozik said. “(I’m) producing good work, running a business in a certain way and giving black artists in the future a chance to be taken seriously.”
“(For women) it makes me feel like we can be elevated to the level of the (art) masters and given the respect that we deserve in the industry of art, tattooing and any other industry that’s not usually a ‘female’ industry,” she added.
Linz Chadwick, an artist at Red Nimbus Tattoo Club in Murfreesboro, had a similar experience to Mrozik when first entering the industry. She describes her early years in the field as being “pretty gnarly when it came to respect from men.” Because of this, Chadwick moved from shop to shop to find a place she felt was right for her.
Since becoming established at Red Nimbus, Chadwick says she has not dealt with serious issues of male dominance in the industry, but she still faces some problems as the only woman of her shop’s staff.
“What’s funny is … even as a respected tattooer and female in the industry, I’m still the person that, if our desk person’s not here, answers the phone,” Chadwick said. “If it needs to be cleaned, it’s, ‘Linz, do you think you can clean this?’ The two or three other guys that work here, they ain’t picking up a broom.”
But these daily interactions were not enough to stop Chadwick from being empowered as a woman who is making it as a successful tattoo artist, which is a message she hopes to spread to other women in similar situations.
In 2017, Chadwick was a contestant as a “con” on the fourth season of Food Network’s Cooks vs. Cons. When asked what her motivation was for winning, her answer was simple: fellow women in male-dominated fields.
“I want to win because I want to represent women that work in a male-dominated industry and own it,” said Chadwick on the show. “I am cooking for all the boss ladies out there. I want to show my daughter that being a female, she can do anything.”
Both Mrozik and Chadwick entered the tattoo industry nearly a decade ago, a time when female tattoo artists were few and far between in the Nashville area. Since then, there has been a shift in energy with women who are entering the field now.
Caitlyn Campbell is one of these women. With only three and a half years of licensed tattoo experience at Golden Yeti Art Collective in Franklin, Campbell said she has dealt with her fair share of sexism in the industry, but she feels a shift happening with the influx of talented women entering the field.
“It’s just recently that all these bomb-ass females are in the game and doing just as good of work as the males,” Campbell said. “I think people are starting to warm up to it.”
As the tattoo industry and the role of women in it continues to grow, new artists have found themselves feeling inspired to be part of a woman-driven revolution within a male-dominated industry.
“It’s empowering to see all these women come out as these phenomenal artists,” Campbell said. “People are seeing it, people are recognizing it. For me to be in the beginning of that … and seeing it happen is empowering in itself.”
To contact Lifestyles Editor Mamie Lomax, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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