The artist wears black latex gloves and dips a needle into ink. She then draws blue waves around a colorless outline of the Buddha, carefully wiping excess ink off of her living canvas.
The mechanical hum of the mechanized needle doesn’t interfere with the interaction between tattoo artist, Melissa Taylor of Oakland’s Sacred Tattoo, and her client, the recipient of a large back piece.
“Tattoos can be symbolic, they can be a tribute or a memorial, ” Taylor said. “It can be anything that sort of resonates with people, which can be very deep or not. They are really different to everybody.”
As women working in a traditionally male industry, artists like Clio Reese Sady of Diving Swallow, a female-owned and operated tattoo shop in Oakland, have actively sought to only work in women-owned shops for comfort. “I’ve been really avoiding the sexism that I know is rampant in the industry,” Sady said.
Giving people the ability to alter their appearance can be empowering for tattoo artists. “You’re changing them and they might never see you again, but they’ll always see the work that you did,” Taylor said. “So there will always be this moment of time where you were connected to this person.”
Clio Reese Sady enjoys this aspect of tattooing. “I love connecting with clients, I love collaborating on art ideas and I love watching the work evolve over time in sessions and layers,” Sady said.
“There’s a really cool synchronicity to all of it because sometimes you’ll have themes show up, and you feel like the drawing came to you for some sort of purpose, or like you’re supposed to be in the life of the person you end up working on,” she said.
Sady’s colleague at Diving Swallow and a co-owner of the shop, Rocio Arteaga, agrees. “Sometimes you get into a zone where you really like the image, and the client is in a good space, so there’s a really good exchange,” Arteaga said. “I feel like you get into a space where you connect to a greater place.”
Most tattoo designs evolve via collaboration between artist and client. “Lots of editing goes on,” Taylor said. “When we finally get to an agreement of what we’re going to tattoo, you’ll place a stencil and do the outline. Then you go back and add shading and color. For larger tattoos, you work on small portions at a time.”
Tattooing is different from other art forms because skin changes as it ages, according to Taylor. “There’s so many variables with tattooing that make it challenging because everybody’s skin is really different,” she said. “You’re working on a surface that changes, but that’s what makes tattooing so mesmerizing.”
Tattoos have broken into mainstream culture after sailors, bikers and gangs marred their reputation. However, tattoos may still attract unwanted attention, repel or intimidate. “I think that’s part of my tendency to not show many of my tattoos when I’m in public or when I’m traveling,” Taylor said.
“I found that people will be a little more open to you when they get a glimmer of who you actually are before they’ve had a chance to judge you.”