Story by Cassie Sistoso, News Assistant Editor
Photo courtesy of Rachel Cunningham
It is a snowy Tuesday afternoon when I meet with Rachel Cunnigham, sole owner and tattoo artist of True Eden Studio.
As we sip our respective mugs of coffee, Cunningham describes her journey into the tattoo industry with such passion and belonging that it brings tears to my eyes. Her own experience as an artist is unique but not dissimilar to those I have heard from our shared artistic friends before— full of grief, love, loss, and hope.
A creative journey is an emotional and harrowing endeavor to begin with, but to face the obstacles of sexism and patriarchal systems at the same time adds another layer to the struggle entirely. Cunningham tells me that the only way she is able to continue in her career as a woman is by understanding the injustice around herself and “not let it speak truth over [her] life.”
Aware of the disparities in her own Nashville and state-wide community, Cunningham is a living example of the continuous action of conscious living that rebels against a system that holds women back from positions of leadership, success, and individualism.
A visible thread through the origin story of True Eden Studio was the boldness and assertiveness required to receive support and maintain the idea of being a female tattoo artist and business owner in a male-dominated field. Confronted by an unequal industry and toxic stereotype to fight, Rachel Cunningham stood up for her work and built her art with all the vivid metaphors and stylistic choices of her male peers. Accused of being domineering with her choices and not soft enough in her designs, Cunningham started her own private studio to avoid further sexualization and dismissive behavior of larger studio environments.
“I have female friends who are told they are too innocent or soft to be a tattooer,” comments Cunningham. “And yet when women like me have tougher personalities and live up to the opposite expectation, we are told we are too much.” This unrealistic and unattainable balance does not exclusively exist within the art world, however. It is a reflection of emotional labor that affects the professional and personal life of every woman in society today.
Expected to be “pleasant, charming, and tolerant,” while also projecting power and confidence, tips the ever-changing scale falling between ‘too much’ and ‘not enough.’ Social expectations, personality stereotypes, and emotional tasks are assigned to gender-specific professional roles but are not compensated. In an industry full of sacred and emotional experiences, pricing art is already delicate. With the addition of tokenization, sexualization, and preordained disparities in equal pay for female artists, it is a constant uphill battle to be paid fairly and in full by (especially male) clients. “I hate that [numbers] are attached to creating,” Cunningham expresses. “You negotiate and allow [the client] to assign a number to your value… To people who have been tattooed by a lot of men, I lower my price to avoid being perceived as thinking I’m worth something more than I am. Just because I don’t want to be talked about.”
As Rachel Cunningham continued to share her story with me, I began to ask her more about how she would like to see the tattoo industry adapt and shape to feminist ideals. “Overall,” she said “I want people to see my work before they see my gender.” This goal for society, this triumph for women, to be seen as a human before being seen as a female can be described as the loss of “visibility of gender”. To hold identity in gender due to discrimination rather than celebration is an outcome of oppression and patriarchy.
Privileged individuals who do not suffer from oppressive struggles based on gender or race are able to turn a blind eye to the true consequences of those who suffer from its affliction. Generalizing life experiences instead of discussing what makes us different and what the consequences of those differences are is what keeps the cycle of discriminatory intersectionality rolling.
Cunningham also expressed this understanding of intersectionality in our interview, explaining how the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 called her to action in addressing her own prejudices and holes in education in her own life. “Most people are never trained to tattoo black skin. It was just taboo,” she explained. “But it was a great example of how in any situation, [taboo] conversations need to be had, and responsibility needs to be taken for our gifting and our work to be reflective of what we are confronting.”
Women in the Middle-Tennesee area are more than aware of one another, due to the scarcity of female-owned shops and tattooers in general. Cunningham approaches this scarcity with hope, saying that “this small community is a start at least” for women in the industry, and that “times are changing rapidly, but our work is not done yet.”