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The Movement to Reclaim Ink From Abusive Tattoo Artists

TattooMeToo is helping to heal scars by removing and reworking tattoos from known abusers

I woke up on what seemed like a normal weekday morning in late May and proceeded to scroll mindlessly through Instagram. I was quickly thumbing through Stories when I was stopped by the image of a tattooer who’d tattooed me in 2017, along with a short blurb. The Story had been posted by a different tattooer, who claimed she’d heard various accounts of client abuse at the hands of this man and that she felt compelled to warn others.

As the day went on, I saw a couple other tattooers repost her story, repeating and reinforcing her claims. I went to sleep wondering what, if anything, would come of this.

The next morning, my Instagram was flooded with stories — from both clients and colleagues of this tattooer — alleging unwanted advances, sexual misconduct and other forms of abuse (a situation that closely resembled another harrowing #MeToo moment that the tattoo industry faced in 2018). The accused tattooer released a public apology, then quickly deleted it after drawing criticism. He promised to release another, but Instagram was soon taken over by the murder of George Floyd and the resulting global protests, and his account has since gone silent.

In April, about one month before this tattooer was outed, I posted a photo of the tattoo he did on me — a flower on my leg — to Instagram. It was part of a series, where I was discussing my many tattoos and the meanings behind them. When the news broke of his misdeeds — and when random Instagrammers started commenting on the photo to remind me that my tattoo was done by an alleged abuser — I deleted the post.

I still have the tattoo, though. I catch a glimpse of it in the mirror every now and then. What was once a graceful flower that brought me serenity now makes me think of hurt and abuse. I was never subjected to mistreatment in the short window of time during which I received that tattoo, but it makes me sick to know that so many others were.

We tattoo collectors often get tattoos as a means of owning our bodies — if nothing else, each tattoo is our way of saying, “This body is mine, and I can put whatever I choose on it.” We get tattoos to prove to ourselves that we can overcome the pain and come out of each session fully transformed, an upgraded version of what we were when we walked in the door. But when the opposite happens — when you leave the shop with a tattoo that reminds you of pain, sadness and hatred — those feelings live permanently on your skin.

In an article originally published for Total Tattoo in 2019, tattoo collector Alice Snape writes about living with an unfinished tattoo from an artist who made her too uncomfortable to continue working with:

“Something about the whole experience didn’t feel right. I went with it anyway, ignoring that nagging feeling in my stomach. But then every time he messaged about a follow-up appointment, I felt trapped. I couldn’t bear to spend even an hour being tattooed by him. Knowing what he had said about other girls’ bodies while in my presence, talking about their ‘saggy tits’ while he tattooed my bum. I felt vulnerable and exposed. It made me wonder what he might be saying to other people about my body.

“It got to the point where we were no longer speaking, due to a couple of antagonistic emails that made me no longer feel comfortable with the situation. I’d had a total of three sessions with him, and although the linework was mostly done and the shading started, it was nowhere near complete. That huge unfinished tattoo haunted me for years. At times I could forget it was there. But then I’d catch a glimpse while at the gym or naked as I stepped out of the shower. The tattoo I was supposed to love the most was mocking me.”

In the wake of this most recent #MeToo moment, a group of dedicated tattooers, known as TattooMeToo Recovery Artists, have come together to help victims escape reminders of abuse by reworking or finishing the tattoos they have by known abusers free of charge. “So many young girls and women now live with scars — literal scars that are constant reminders — and we hope to help them heal by having them removed, covered or reworked,” explains founder and tattoo artist Gemma May. “We have over 300 artists involved globally and more to come.”

One of these artists is Olivia Chell, who tells me why she felt compelled to offer her services. “No one likes having a tattoo by someone who’s a complete prick,” she says. “Sometimes the negative associations people attach to their tattoos can seriously overwhelm them. If we can help cover up those tattoos or change them, then we can change the narrative that’s attached to them.”

“We can’t take away memories from those who’ve had bad experiences,” Chell continues, “but we can stop them from wearing those memories on their skin every day for anyone to ask about.”

In addition to lending their services, May and others are also striving to spread sexual assault awareness and create safe spaces in the tattoo industry, where victims can seek support. “For too long, the industry has been a ‘boys club,’ and we’ve all turned a blind eye to the behavior,” May says. “So many of us have excused the actions of people. People have been afraid to break the silence in fear of ruining their own careers, too — afraid of the backlash.”

“There are people who’ve tried to speak up and been shut down by people because they were bigger than them in the industry,” May continues. “But enough is enough. We don’t want people to be afraid of being tattooed by men. We want them to have enjoyable and safe experiences, to know what’s acceptable and what’s okay and to be able to protect themselves with this knowledge.”

Chell assures me that the majority of tattooers are respectful and that none of this should dissuade someone from getting tattooed if they want to. “I wouldn’t say the tattoo industry has a more substantial problem than any other when it comes to overstepping boundaries,” she explains. “But our boundaries are in a different spot than many other trades due to the intimate nature, physical proximity and vulnerability involved with getting a tattoo. So I reckon the line gets crossed about the same — maybe even less than in other jobs — but when it does get crossed, it can be a pretty heinous abuse of trust, and one that leaves permanent, lasting reminders.”

“Probably every person who’s ever tattooed anyone has done something to make another human feel shitty at some point in their life, because that’s an unavoidable part of being a human on Earth,” Chell continues. “But those who make a habit of predation and use their work to lure folks into a position of vulnerability — those people are butchering our trade, not progressing it.”

As for where that leaves me and my tattoo — the one given to me by the man who was cancelled just a few weeks ago — it currently lives among, and is outnumbered by, many other tattoos done by many other artists, who did everything they could to make me feel safe, comfortable and respected. These are artists who I now call friends. I may someday have another artist add to the tattoo to transform it into a more pleasant reminder, but in the meantime, Chell lends me a token of advice. “Look at it for the time being like a record in your record collection,” she says. “We’ve all got some bangin’ music from terrible people that we can still enjoy.”