Sexual assault in the tattoo world has been silenced for too long

Vanessa* is lying on what looks like a massage table wrapped in cling film. It’s hot and sticky against her skin. She’s trying to ignore the pain and looks up at the ceiling, at the artwork on the walls. Trying to think about anything but the needle, the burning sensation – and an uncomfortable feeling she’s only just starting to recognize.

She hadn’t been sure what to expect, she’d known the guy tattooing her, Sam was a big name in the industry – with thousands of Instagram followers. His tattoos are works-of-art and exactly the style she desired. She couldn’t believe it when he’d said yes to tattooing her, and in such an intimate area: on her chest.

At the first appointment, Sam had been flirty, but she’d batted off his comments with a nervous chuckle. He was being polite. Wasn’t he? However, today things have changed. “I’ll do this tattoo for free, for a blowjob?” the words pour out sleazily, as the tattoo machine and its pinching needle is dragged across her exposed skin.

She tried to find the courage to say no, the word about to form on her tongue, but he didn’t wait for a response. She felt his full weight pressing down on her breasts. There’s no one in the studio, they’re alone. She’d felt safe at first, reassured by the fact that it was only the two of them, no prying eyes. Now she realizes this empty studio is not for her benefit… there’s nothing she can do, no one to help her…

An Industry that is not lawful

This feeling of unease – and power imbalance – is prevalent not only in tattoo shops but throughout the industry at large. Consider tattoo conventions. Once, I saw a woman in a bikini and a crowd eagerly admiring her as a man began to ink her ankle. Is the bikini really necessary for this? The poster that was hanging behind her showed a naked woman with two men in balaclavas and pinning her down. I get stares and physical unwelcome touches from men all the time.

Albert Parry published a 1933 book. A Strange Art: The Secrets Behind the Art, likened getting tattooed to sex – the needle, he wrote, was a penis. And tattooed women were sluts who couldn’t possibly be virgins, Parry stated – and those attitudes became so deeply ingrained that they still play out today. In 2007, when I started to get tattooed, tattooists had an outdated “moral code”. They were bound by the fact that tattooists owned tattoos on my body and could decide what happens to them.

I remember in the noughties, before the days of Instagram, I’d gone into a newsagent seeking tattoo inspiration. I’d had to reach up to the top shelf to find the tattoo magazines sitting next to lad mags and porn. The cover of one had a female tattooist on it, with her legs extended and her breasts held in her hands. I’ve no problem with women owning their sexuality. But I do have a problem when the same isn’t expected from their male counterparts – and there’s no other alternative.

tattoo artist sexual assault report
Marina PettiGetty Images

In 2012, I created a magazine about tattoos for women. I wanted to make a difference. I’d been collecting tattoos since I was 21, intricate designs working their way over my body. I’d fallen in love with how tattoos made me feel, but I didn’t love the tattoo world itself. The tattoo bros and the lads ruled. Women – our bodies – weren’t respected. My magazine was met with aggressive resistance: “we don’t need a magazine for women.” Only now do I realize it was the men who spat those comments at me who were abusing their positions of power. They were afraid of being discovered and that the lad culture that had protected them was at risk.

Fidjit, a Glasgow-based tattoo artist started in 2015 naming alleged rapists. She first posted about her experience with a tattooist. With permission, she’d reshare stories from survivors who’d experienced everything from being asked to remove clothes that they didn’t need to during appointments and being touched without consent, to violent assaults that left women with scars beyond that of the tattoo inked into their skin.

“I’ve got a lot of backlash for posting names,” she tells me. “Some people will still associate with a predator tattooer if they think it will benefit them, it’s disgusting.” Fast forward to 2020, during the dark days of the first lockdown and a revelatory #MeToo movement in the tattoo industry gained momentum (similar to one in the US in 2018, which was reported in Jezebel.) Fidjit – who has nearly 50k followers on Instagram – shared a story about one particular predator. Sam, who’d tattooed Vanessa.

Fidjit wasn’t prepared for the flood of women who felt empowered by her posting about Fidjit and wanted to share their stories. “It was overwhelming,” she says. Hundreds of women slid into Fidjit’s DMs, but it wasn’t just about this one tattooer, other names came up, too. Some were repeated over and over.

“It was the first time such a huge amount of people really took notice of what was being said.” In turn, anonymous Instagram accounts – with handles such as Tattoo Me Too – started popping up naming sexual predators to warn people not to book in with them. “Speaking out, telling your story, it’s a way for survivors to take some power back,” says Fidjit.

“There’s something empowering about sharing your experiences and having them validated by others, and for many women and girls, the words of support and encouragement are hugely beneficial,” says Jayne Butler, CEO of Rape Crisis. “When people speak publicly about their experiences it can help to destigmatize sexual violence and abuse and help others to feel less alone in their trauma.”

Before we continue, let’s make one thing clear: “if someone touched you sexually and you didn’t want that to happen, they have committed a criminal offense,” states Leigh Morgan, senior legal officer at frontline women’s legal rights charity, Rights of Women. And while we as women know that, the stark reality is that the highest ever number of rapes – 70,330 – was recorded in the year ending March 2022. Just 2% of the total population lived in the same period. 2,223 Several cases were brought before the courts. The most heartbreaking statistic is that 5 in 6 women who’ve been raped say they don’t report it to the police. “The police are famous for failing survivors,” says Fidjit. Case in point, Sam who assaulted Vanessa – and countless other women – was arrested after multiple women went to the police to report him, but the case collapsed due to a supposed lack of evidence and there are rumors that he’s tattooing again, under a different name.

Morgan says that you still have the right to be taken seriously and treated by professionals and police. “As a victim of a crime, you have a set of rights and a minimum standard of support that organizations, such as the police, must provide to you – which is set out in the Victim’s Code.” (FYI, Rights of Women You may also be able to offer alternatives if the abuser is not arrested.

“The system and the law are both flawed, from taking your statement all the way through to being in court. It doesn’t protect survivors, it protects scumbags,” asserts Fidjit. “That’s why we share our stories. When you post your own story, there’s no one to censor you.”

Where rape culture flourishes

Until recently, there’s been no one to censor the predators in the tattoo world. It’s a mysterious sort of industry where you pay cash, there are no set rates and no one is upfront about it until you ask. You don’t have to know the cost of a tattoo, but you don’t get a right to. There are no official training paths or HR departments.

Leah* started working as a tattoo artist at a famous London tattoo shop. She was delighted before she started, it’s where all the celebs go – influencers, actors, musicians, Love Islanders… However, Instagram’s portrayal of her life was quite different from reality. “The owners were nice to me at first, they’d buy me gifts and make me feel special,” she tells me. Looking back, she can see that it was part of the manipulation to keep everyone quiet, grooming them to make them work until they “burnt out.”

“I felt like I was treading on eggshells, I was extremely uncomfortable all the time,” says Leah. Leah says that the power dynamics in the shop were not right. “[The owners] were always commenting on the way people’s bodies looked, there were snarky comments about clients, prices were ridiculous.”

An anonymous source also confirms that the price of tattoos can often be changed without the client being present. There are multiple stories of women being told by the owner to strip to levels of undress that weren’t appropriate for the tattoo they were getting. The same source also told me that there was a hidden lingerie drawer for women who came in wearing underwear that wasn’t deemed “sexy” enough for the Instagram photos.

report tattoo artist
Marina PettiGetty Images

In another studio run by a male tattooist who’d regularly dish out free tattoos to underage girls (legally, you have to be 18 to get tattooed), photos were taken of clients in various states of undress without their consent. “I was tattooed by him on my wrist when I was 15,” Sarah* tells me. “I was on my own in a private room while I was getting my wrist done and he was very touchy, rubbing his leg against mine. I didn’t think anything of it, as I’d never been tattooed before.” The tattooist offered Sarah a full back tattoo in return for a “good time”, and told her to pop back in when nobody was there. “I declined and never went back.”

A whisper network of survivors’ stories

Over the past three years, I’ve been collecting hundreds of stories from those who’ve experienced abuse at the hands of a tattooist (gut-wrenching stories that land in my inbox to this day, experiences I thought the Me Too movement might put a stop to). Many of the women decided against sharing their stories publicly – they didn’t want to be recognized or for their court cases to be put at risk. They are also being sued by tattooists for defamation after they share their stories online.

A woman I spoke to for hours had to close her account days before this feature was published. Three paragraphs – another harrowing experience – deleted. However, one word she spoke stuck in my mind. She called the tattoo industry an “insidious” world. The abuse was like a secret, she explained, with some behaviors being dismissed as “just what he is like”. They told women they were mistaken or they had asked for it in a different way. Predators continue to tattoo. It’s “lads being boys” and they keep their jobs. Everyone says nothing but Everyone knows who they are.

Unregulated tattoos were another topic that kept coming up in our conversations. “There are so many blurred lines and states of undress, if you’ve never been tattooed you don’t know what to expect or where you’re going to be touched,” explains tattoo artist, Lucy, who set up Tsass_uk, a survivor-led safe space, after she’d opened up about her own experience at the hands of a male tattooist. “You’re nervous, you don’t know what to say, you feel like you can’t say anything if you’re uncomfortable.”

“In England, all you need is to be licensed by a local authority,” Lucy continues. “All that shows is that you’re hygienic, so basically Anyone You could be one. You could open a tattoo studio tomorrow even if you’ve never tattooed before. On top of that, there’s no background checking. No questions asked.” Lucy is campaigning for DBS checks to become a mandatory part of being a tattooist.

“If these industries were better regulated with bodies that worked toward better workplace cultures and dealt with sexual misconduct allegations appropriately, this would give victims alternative routes to justice and help ensure others are kept safe from perpetrators’ abuse,” adds Deeba Syed, senior legal officer at Rights of Women.

However, some question whether this answer is correct. “Tattooing being unregulated isn’t why these things happen. Tattooing doesn’t need more regulations,” asserts Fidjit. “Background checks don’t work because rapists and abusers very rarely have criminal convictions for rape and abuse. Only a small percentage of those who have been identified via social media have criminal records. An abuser will manipulate situations; they don’t stop because they have checks done, they work around that. In highly regulated industries, there are still abusers. Authority constantly fails survivors.”

So what’s the answer? “Tattooers need to have a zero-tolerance policy towards rapists,” says Fidjit. “Stop making excuses for these people if they work in your shop. Stop having them in your studio, stop letting them work your conventions, stop putting them in your magazines, stop promoting their work online, listen to survivors when they’re putting their neck on the line to warn you.”

And if you’re someone who wants to get tattooed? “There are choices,” says Lucy, who suggests having a conversation with your artist before you book. “So you can build a rapport with them and see what kind of person they are. Explain you’re new to this and ask what you should expect. Even ask if you can bring a friend.”

Most importantly, remember that it’s not an honor to get someone’s work tattooed on your body, it’s their privilege to tattoo your skin. You are the only one who owns the tattoo. If you didn’t have a good experience with someone, you can get another tattooist to finish it for you. Thousands of followers and verified blue ticks are meaningless – it’s about communication and feeling comfortable. Tattoo shops should be magical places, not somewhere you walk in and feel like you don’t belong.

* Name has been changed

Alice sets up Things & Ink Give voice to women in the tattoo industry

If you were affected by any of these stories, contact Rape Crisis Thank you for your support. Rights of Women Can also offer vital legal support to women living in England and Wales. They can help you understand your rights and options, such as sexual offenses like rape or sexual assault, reporting offenses and the criminal justice systems, victims’ right-to-review scheme, and criminal injuries compensation.

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