For most people, getting tattooed is a way to help them feel more like themselves; to aid them in achieving their desired aesthetic, rebel against societal norms, or as a visual display of their interests, emotions and aspirations.
However, for gender non-conforming (GNC) individuals, tattoos can play a much greater role in helping them feel more at home in their bodies. For queer, trans, non-binary, genderfluid, intersex and other GNC people living in bodies that often do not feel like their own, getting tattooed can act as a powerful way to take control of and reclaim their anatomy.
We spoke to two GNC artists, @alien_ink_ and @meltingbody_ink, based at Scorpio Mars Tattoo in London, to discuss how tattoos have played a role in their journey of gender identity and self- discovery. Ems, aka @alien_ink_, is a queer, trans non-binary handpoke and machine artist, specialising in black-and-grey illustrative realism. Ems says they had never felt fully comfortable in their body and began getting tattooed before they had the language or understanding to realise why; ‘I just knew that the adornment on heavily tattooed people was something that really inspired me. It was art without gender, transcendent and elevated beyond human limitations.’ Ems says that tattoos have helped them to feel more connected to parts of themselves that they struggled with; ‘I can appreciate the beautiful art, even when I can’t be kind to myself about other things. Tattoos are a form of protection – from myself and others.’
Ems hasn’t experienced real gender euphoria yet, but describes their body as a fluid, changing form and one that they are working with; ‘I am in flux as always, I don’t know if I’ll ever settle, but tattooing has been fundamental in my acceptance of this flesh prison.’ For Ems, tattoos also serve as a constant reminder of the transient nature of the body, which they say is ‘a weird way to think about something so permanent’ but something that they find oddly comforting. They add that they ‘love watching their tattoos change and age over time, soften and move. I love getting stupid tattoos, because life is too short to take seriously.’ Ems believes that there is a real visceral and tactile gender affirmation in taking control of your body and adapting it – especially with the waiting list for gender affirming surgeries being so long.
Speaking on their experience in working as an artist, Ems said that they are always honoured when gender non-confirming individuals come to them as part of their gender journey, whatever that looks like for them; ‘I have had the privilege of working on some people’s chests after top surgery…that always holds a special place in my heart. Knowing how hard the road to get top surgery is, I love being able to help people feel more like themselves.’
Fopk Attema, aka @meltingbody_ink, is a queer, trans artist who creates hand-poked, dotwork pieces which draw from medieval and classical references; ‘I tattoo a lot of imagery of transgender angels and demons. They are heavenly bodies and I hope that for my clients these pieces bring affirmation and euphoria to their lives.’ Fopk says that although their own anatomy does not currently cause them dysphoria, they often experience dysphoria through other people’s perception of them, adding that; ‘the tattoos I choose make me feel like I wear my queerness on my skin.’
Although the tattoo industry can still be a space that is heavily dominated by cis-men, Fopk believes that the industry is ‘also a space in which anyone who feels like they are in some way “other” can find acceptance.’ Artist Ems also states that ‘there are a lot of great artists out there’ and advises non-gender conforming individuals to: ‘find an artist who is compassionate and can hold space for you’ when booking in for a tattoo, adding that ‘kindness is key.’
Luckily, there are plenty of talented, compassionate artists who create safe spaces for LGBTQIA+ and GNC individuals. When booking a tattoo, always ensure that your artist makes you feel comfortable, heard and acknowledged – don’t settle for or accept less.