A tattoo is an emblem of self-expression, and the shared connection between the artists who create them and the people who get them can be as meaningful as the art itself.
Tina Lugo, Brody Polinsky and Em North, tattoo artists based in Portland, Oregon; Berlin; and Brooklyn, New York, respectively, are committed to making their studios safe spaces for people to make that connection, especially people hoping to transform scars they received as a result of gender affirmation surgery or self-harm.
The three artists, who all identify as queer and nonbinary and use “they” pronouns, offer discounts on their tattoos for scar cover-up. Lugo and Polinsky have sliding scale discounts, and North provides one hour of free time to customers monthly. For Lugo, the need to provide this service became immediately apparent when they started tattooing two years ago.
“I was meeting a lot of young people in the queer community who were having a lot of issues trying to find a safe space to get tattooed with self-harm or transitioning scars and were often turned away from other tattoo artists, and I couldn’t understand why that was, why there wasn’t a space for that or any artist put it out there saying, ‘Hey, I’ll do this,’” they told HuffPost. “When I talked to some people, they said, ‘Well, I don’t know how to do it’ or ‘I don’t want to bother’ or ‘My artwork won’t look good on a scar.’ It just felt so selfish.”
The fact that the artists’ work is more accessibly priced adds to the relaxed, comfortable and body-positive nature that their studios aim to cultivate.
“You’re already going through a trauma, and it’s also more painful because it’s scar tissue,” Lugo said. “It’s just something that should be offered at a slightly lower price so that people can get through it and feel happier about their bodies.”
For Polinsky, the reasoning behind offering a sliding fee goes far beyond what brings someone into their studio.
“Often, marginalized people find themselves paid less, have less opportunities,” they said. “It goes all the way down, unfortunately, starting with access to education, access to health care, access to a safe family environment. That kind of behavior and life situation develops around you, and you have to make the most of it. Tattooing is a way to take the body back and give yourself agency over that.”
While the physical pain involved with tattooing over scars is significantly greater than with unscarred skin, there is often intense emotional pain too. Polinsky, North and Lugo described methods they use to find the delicate balance between connecting and empathizing with the people they’re tattooing and being able to physically do their work.
“When someone is talking about what’s going on with their body, that is an honor to be privy to that,” Polinsky said. “I have learned to have an inner hand, to be like, ‘I’m not going to take on your stuff, but I am holding this space for you.’ We’re doing this ritual. I can find the balance in that through tattooing the skin. I want to make sure I’m not a vessel for people’s pain, but I am someone who can be there to help adorn and celebrate the body. To me, that’s a really special thing.”
The joy in helping change the way people see themselves is deeply significant for all three artists. Lugo recalled one experience they had recently while tattooing over someone’s self-harm scars in Oakland, California.
“As we were going through it, she was having flashbacks of the trauma of when she had been cutting herself,” Lugo said. “To be able to hold her hand and walk her through it, be like, ‘You’re doing great. It’s going to be fine,’ then finishing the tattoo and seeing her face light up, being so happy. She gave me this huge hug, and we both kind of started crying. She was like, ‘Thank you so much. This is amazing. I didn’t think this was ever something I’d be able to do, to expose myself this way.’ She couldn’t stop thanking me. It was amazing.”
There’s the long-term appreciation too. Polinsky said they can work on people and months later get a photo of them “jazzed at the beach,” looking comfortable and confident in their skin.
Ultimately, these artists are working to better a person’s life, and the fact that they offer to do so at reduced rates or free is just one indication of their commitment to that mission. What’s more, North said, these experiences have been transformative for them too.
“I feel like there’s some calling in my life for people to help other people, and it can be a little strange being in tattooing because, off the bat, you don’t really think of it as that sort of career,” they said. “But it really is for me and I think a lot of other people working in these safe spaces. We’re doing healing work, and if you have the calling to do healing work, it can also kind of be healing for yourself. I mean, it helps me find meaning in life.”