StaDemonia Queer Tattooing
Soledad and I are StaDemonia Tattoo. For 12 years in Barcelona and now for more than a year in Stockholm. This text is based on one I wrote for the QueerMove Festival in Södertalje about Queer Tattooing.
By: Sara Swanson (Stockholm 18.11.01)
Art at wall in foto: Rudy Loewe
Soledad has tattooed in one way or another since she did her first tattoo on herself at sixteen years old. At markets, in buses, in people´s homes, at conventions. She is self made and taught herself to tattoo during a time when tattooing belonged to cis-men. The very few women who tattooed were basically the girlfriend of a male tattoo artist, and because Soledad was not a girlfriend of such, the learning was slow and lonely. The Internet did not exist and knowledge of where to buy machines, how they were repaired, different materials and how to prepare needles and sterilize, were all professional secrets. I have also seen and experienced all this, though not as extreme as Soledad. When we met 16 years ago, Soledad had come a long way in her learning and already established a clandestine studio in Barcelona, a loft in an artist collective in the center of Barri Gotic, “El Circo”. After some time we talked about opening our own studio, with all that means of permissions and work. Soledad wrote a project, got a loan through a feminist organization and we found an old place in urgent need of restoration and exorcise from mice and cockroaches. In the tattoo industry we were a strange sight and rumors quickly spread about who we were. We got a reputation and a name in Barcelona’s tattoo scene without getting colleagues or artistic recognition. The neighbors talked about us as running a “puticlub”, a disguised brothel, and most tattooists avoided our street. Professionally, it was a lonely situation, but luckily many customers were attracted to our weirdness and over the years we received a loyal clientele. Soledad has taught me everything I know about tattooing over the years and I am grateful that I received the support I received and did not have to learn the lonely way.
What is queer tattooing? we have been asked many times. To begin with, we see tattooing as an art form, as visual art and so queer art, although many institutions still do not see tattooing as an art form. Tattooing is art and tattoos are identity markers. As much as clothes, haircut, voice, ways of walking, your tattoos highlight how you want to be read by others. Consciously or not, we read each other, increase distance or try ways of approaching each other. Queer Art is mainly about representation. About what the art tells us, who the creator is, for who and in which context it has been created. To feel safe and comfortable, we need to be recognized, see ourselves in others and feel that there are good intentioned people who takes us when we fall. If you never see queer love, never see older people who shows or talks about their queer experiences, it’s hard to see yourself aging happily with queer friendships and romantic or sexual relationships. Feeling safe about your future makes it less hard to create. Suffering may be a driving force, we need to tell the world about the bad situations we live and see, but there is also an important need of security -social and economic- to create art. Representation is basic and we need to see och show more queer bodies, brown bodies, curvy bodies. Being able to recognize ourselves in others, not always being an exception.
Creating a queer context happens partly by itself, because queers are reaching out their tentacles for queers, but above all it’s an active labour. In Barcelona, when we opened StaDemonia 14 years ago, there were almost no female identified tattoo artists and even less queers. We knew exactly who the few others were. And we did try to bond, but the others moved in very heterosexist contexts and it took rather than gave energy. The customers came to us because they heard that we were women and queers. They needed that context, but for many different private reasons we just did not have the energy or time to work as actively as now on that picture outwards. On flyers, posters and website we added small rainbow flags and pink triangles, so we did show who we were but did not have the strength to be as clear as now. For many years Soledad and I worked quite isolated, with some kind of paranoia not to break the enchantment and the atmosphere we had created. Over time, we began to feel lonely and longed for coworkers. It is nice to work with other artists, to learn from each other. So we started working with those we had at hand and the circumstances gave us, some very nice hetero guys. We really worked on the idea that sexuality and experience should not mean too much. There was no big drama, these people are still our friends, but the balance in the studio changed a bit at a time and it feels sad that it actually happened -the atmosphere changed. The same old invisible network of men who back men began to take shape and we began to get uncomfortable at the place we had created.
So, when we moved to Stockholm, we decided to work even harder with that part of our work that feels so important; ambient and representation in images and expressions. To really take care of what we see as the strengthening of tattoo art. We have always been careful with what we put on walls, how we express ourselves, but now we chose to work more radically. The decision came to exclusively invite queer artists to tattoo and exhibit art. Every week someone who wants to guest, work as apprentice or exhibit art writes to us. Most often, I read the person as a heterosexual cis-man, by the choice of words and pictures they send. Unless otherwise obvious in presentations or pictures, before we even look at the person’s work, we explain that we prioritize queer artists and that if you’re part of some kind of queer life and context, you’re welcome to write again. They almost never do. It may not sound very sane, but it’s a pleasure to give priority to queers. It approaches a feeling of vengeance and it is a good feeling to say to self-worthy heterosexual tattoo artists that You are welcome almost everywhere but not here. Revenge is not the best of feelings, but it is a kind of ritual, a positioning and cleansing of bad feelings and experiences that are important.
People sometimes ask Is this really necessary? Yes, I don´t even care to give personal examples of what prejudice makes with our bodies and our inner selves. Something that should be a positive ritual can instead feel difficult and completely wrong. It has to do with sexualization, tattoo artists who cross lines and goes beyond their professional role, showing curiosity where it’s not welcome. It is often about racism, people who receive hesitant glances or hearing that tattoos will not appear as good on their skin (as on white skin, but the last is often omitted).
It is important to create as safe a situation as possible so that people can explain their ideas and feel understood. All of this we do in the meeting with people but as much through representation: What kinds of bodies and motives are shown and in what way. Creating a queer context is to think non-normative, to try to learn from each other, to listen and be responsive, to want to learn from each other’s experiences and needs. It is absolutely not the same as saying that the customer is always right and that my intuition or professional advice does not count. It is about accepting what’s important to the other person, why this person wants to get tattooed and what they want with their tattoo. It sounds simple but requires quite a lot of work.