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The illustrated women

Tattooing has long been a man's world, but that's starting to change

January 5, 2009
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"How are you doing there, Margi?" Sharon Bradbury, a tattoo artist at LightWave Tattoos in Saugus, asks Margi Priddy, who's lying on her side with her eyes closed and her skirt hiked up. The tattooing machine hums like a dentist's drill as Bradbury traces the outline of three roses and one rose bud that she's adding to a tattoo that covers the side of Priddy's left thigh.

Priddy, a 52-year-old Revere resident who works at a financial company, had in June begun the process of getting this, her second tattoo. It took a month for Bradbury to design the combination of a sword, dragon, phoenix, and flowers that Priddy wanted. Now, once a month, Bradbury works on Priddy's tattoo for up to three hours. The experience for Priddy is a bit different from four years ago, when a man did her first tattoo on her lower back.

"[He] was very chatty and nice," says Priddy. "But Sharon and I talk about girly things: her family, my family, the intricacies of family."

Bradbury is one of a growing number of women making their way into the predominantly male world of tattoos. Some of the interest is generated by the general mainstreaming of tattoos. They're no longer solely the realm of sailors and bikers. Reality shows such as "LA Ink" and "Miami Ink" feature female tattoo artists such as Kat Von D.

"The percentage of women in the business has gotten strong," says Juli Moon, 57, an award-winning tattoo artist who's been in the field since the 1970s and runs Juli Moon Studios in Lynn, "but you also have a heck of a lot more tattoo artists out there as well."

Of course, sexism still exists. Chloe Vanessa Girouard-Martel, who works at Unholy Grail Tattoo and Art Studio in Worcester, says once in a while a customer will enter the shop, see her, and presume she's the receptionist. "I try to be as professional as I can be so they take me more seriously," she says. "It's difficult not only to be a woman in this industry, but as young as I am and be taken seriously." But she adds: "If there's a shock of me being so young and female they usually get over it relatively quickly."

Eva Huber

Off the Map Tattoo, Easthampton
A tattoo career usually begins with an apprenticeship. Eva Huber's took place at Tracy's Tattoos in Buffalo. There was competition for the job, so she had to prove herself to the other tattoo artists, who were moving into a new space. "They said, 'You really have to show us you want this job,' " says Huber, 24. "Instead of going out and partying I was painting walls for free, learning how to tile floors and painting trim."

During the apprenticeship, Huber made the needles used for tattooing and learned how to put together and take apart the machines used to tattoo people. Now she sharpens her skills by talking to other tattoo artists, going to tattoo conventions, and looking at other people's work in magazines and on websites. Being a woman sometimes works in her favor.

"I'd have to say that if a girl is getting a tattoo in a place that's discreet, they're happy to know that there's a girl on hand so there doesn't have to be that tension," Huber says. "I've definitely made a lot of women feel at ease."

Yet Huber is resistant to any perception that being a woman helps or hinders her in any way. "I would like to think I get more customers because they like my work," she says. "I don't like to play up the fact that I'm a girl in a male-dominated industry. I'd like them to look at my portfolio and a man's portfolio and make a decision on the work, not on the gender."

Sharon Bradbury

Lightwave Tattoos, Saugus
Part of the job of the tattoo artist is to make the client comfortable. But Sharon Bradbury says some people take that bedside manner too seriously.

" 'I have a friend now, I want her to be my girlfriend,' " says Bradbury, parroting their inner thoughts. "I've had people who come by the shop every day bringing gifts and it's like, 'Coffee is fine, thank you.' "

A Connecticut native, Bradbury, 42, began tattooing after moving to Georgia and starting her apprenticeship at Good Clean Fun in 1994. "I wanted a place that was stable where I could sit down, watch, and learn," she says. "There's nothing like learning from an experienced artist." Bradbury supplemented that apprenticeship with a strong art background. Although she never got her degree, she says she took "all the art classes" at Norwalk Community Technical College in Connecticut.

She's developed a camaraderie with other female tattoo artists, including Juli Moon of Lynn, and finds the sexism has lessened over the years. "The playing field has become pretty darn equal in this day and age," says Bradbury. "Way back when people would say, 'You're a tattoo artist? You're kidding me.' It's taken people a while to get used to the idea that women have entered what has for many, many years been a male-dominated profession. The men are pretty good, sometimes condescending, but for the most part the guys I've worked with have been pretty awesome."

Chloe Vanessa Giouard-Martel

Unholy Grail Tattoo and Art Studio, Worcester
When Chloe Vanessa Girouard-Martel was about 10 years old, her mother began getting tattoos - and found a way to include her daughter. Girouard-Martel was home- schooled, but her parents would enroll her in art classes so she could socialize with other children. "She would have me design the tattoo she was getting," says Girouard-Martel, 23, "and I would watch it be done." It became a tradition repeated about every two years.

Her mother was the first person Girouard-Martel put a tattoo on after she started training in the field at the age of 19. Local tattoo conventions have shown Girouard-Martel how far women have come in the industry and how far they still have to go. At the recent Rock the Ink convention in Providence, attendees included the women from the reality show "Rock of Love" who wore short shorts and flirted with men. It gave the impression, says Girouard-Martel, that "if you are a girl at a tattoo convention you must be a skank."

Girouard-Martel also attended a convention in Hancock that same weekend. The attendees of the invite-only event were predominantly male with a smattering of women, all of whom focused on making the art of tattooing better. Although Girouard-Martel has heard of the women-only Marked for Life convention in Florida, which celebrates its 14th year this month, she wonders whether isolation is the right approach.

"If you're drawing attention to the fact that women need a separate convention," she says, "it keeps you more segregated."

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