Tattoos and Queerness: A Deep Dive into the Art of Self-Expression


Tattoos have come a long way over the past century. Once relegated to the realm of the military and associated with criminals, they’ve transformed into a celebrated form of self-expression. Today, approximately one-third of Americans proudly wear ink on their skin. For many, it’s more than body art—it’s a way to tell their stories, mark milestones, and embody their identities.

But what’s truly remarkable is how tattoos and queerness have become intertwined. Step into any queer space—a bar, a health clinic, a bookshop—and you’ll likely encounter a canvas of creative ink adorning patrons’ bodies. From bold lettering to images representing queer history, love stories, or moments of personal significance, tattoos have become a vibrant part of queer culture.

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A tattoo of a torso with top surgery scars was done by @MrLauder in Vancouver. Credit: Mel Woods

As for me, I’ve collected around 37 tattoos over the past decade, each telling a unique story. Some are travel tattoos, mementos of adventures in far-off lands, while others are self-made, etched during moments of introspection. I’ve inked tributes to pop culture icons and celebrated nature’s beauty with floral designs. More importantly, my tattoos mark chapters in my life—coming out, medical transition, heartbreak, and friendship. They’re my scrapbook, permanently etched onto my skin.

I share this connection with countless others in the queer community. Queer and trans individuals often turn to tattoos to commemorate personal milestones, celebrate queer history, or participate in underground camp culture. In the mid-20th century, nautical star tattoos discreetly marked lesbians. The inverted pink triangle, once used by the Nazis to persecute gay individuals, has been reclaimed as a symbol of resilience. Even today, tattoos can act as an unspoken signal in the queer dating world, silently saying, “I’m part of the LGBTQ+ community.”

In recent years, new collectives, artist groups, and communities have emerged, challenging the traditional norms of tattoo shops dominated by cisgender heterosexual masculinity. Worker-owned spaces and community care have become central tenets of these evolving tattooing practices. In my city of Vancouver, queer-run tattoo shops and artist collectives like Homebody Tattoo and Baohaus Collective thrive, contributing to our local culture as essential as music venues or art galleries.

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A tattoo of Edward from “Twilight,” done by @zebrafiinches in Vancouver. Credit: Mel Woods

Queerness is rooted in self-determination. It’s the choice to live authentically, love freely, and present ourselves as we desire. Whether it’s an earring, a colorful shirt, a mullet, or vibrant platform boots, our physical appearance has long been a canvas for signaling our queerness. Despite societal expectations, we forge our unique paths, much like the art of tattooing.

Just as I consciously decided to bear top surgery scars on my chest, I also chose to carry a portrait of Edward Cullen with the text “this is the skin of a killer Bella” on my leg. To borrow from Walt Whitman, I am vast, containing multitudes.

The profound connection between queerness and tattooing is the essence of this series. Join me in exploring the world of inked queers, where self-expression, joy, ink, and community intersect. It might inspire your next tattoo—a permanent symbol of your unique journey.

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