DESIGN

How women artists are redefining the tattoo industry

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“[Putting up a women-led studio] has definitely been a long-time dream of mine,” shares Gigie Santiago, founder of Crimson River Studio. In photo (from left): Drew Cortez, Kara Gonzales, Gigie Santiago, Annie Concepcion, Wiji Lacsamana, and Katz Lorenzana. Photo by JL JAVIER

At first glance, Crimson River Studio in Quezon City presents itself like any other tattoo shop. The walls are adorned with vibrant art, pop culture paraphernalia — from vinyl records to Stephen King books — are scattered around, and the steady buzz of tattooing machines lends itself to the background.

However, Crimson River Studio isn’t the intimidating space that some may still imagine when thinking about conventional tattoo parlors. For one, a flood of natural light illuminates the room and makes it more inviting. And instead of the usual tattoo-covered men manning the shop, visitors are immediately greeted by Crimson River’s resident team of all-women artists.

“[Putting up a women-led studio] has definitely been a long-time dream of mine,” shares Gigie Santiago, founder of Crimson River Studio. “I am always so inspired by my colleagues and fellow women tattooers because they keep pushing out new works of art, not just with tattoos but also in different kinds of media. We support and empower each other the best way we can.”

Since opening their doors almost two years ago, the studio has seen an increasingly mixed roster of visitors — including fellow young women, senior citizens, doctors, and even a priest. Photo by JL JAVIER

“Tattoos are getting smaller and simpler in terms of design, unlike a couple of years back when bigger tattoos were more sought out,” says Katz Lorenzana. Photo by JL JAVIER

By this time, women tattoo artists have long moved past the “male-dominated” industry stigma, even in a country as conservative as the Philippines. For Santiago, Annie Concepcion, Wiji Lacsamana, Drew Cortez, Katz Lorenzana, and Kara Gonzales of Crimson River Studio, being a woman artist isn’t solely about rewriting the industry’s narrative from an “old boy’s club.” Rather, being a woman in the industry means doing their part to elevate the community as a whole, so that every artist is respected for their quality of work, and diversity and inclusivity become less of a novelty and more of the norm.

“I hope we [steer away from] the discussion of the tattoo scene being ‘male-dominated’ and focus on a different perspective — something that doesn’t involve trying to prove my worth as a female tattoo artist,” explains Lacsamana. “We all want great tattoo experiences filled with mutual respect and awesome art.”

Indeed, the end goal is to build a supportive collective of creatives and safe space where everyone is welcome. Because tattoos are becoming more prevalent among a wider variety of demographics, cultivating an open environment is all the more vital. And who better to be part of this shift than women?

Drew Cortez. Photo by JL JAVIER

Wiji Lacsamana. Photo by JL JAVIER

Kara Gonzales. Photo by JL JAVIER

“Society in general is a very male-structured and dominated system. It’s a bit hard to see that others, especially women, exist,” Santiago points out. “It is very important for us to make everyone feel safe and included not only in our community, but everywhere. How you treat people explains the kind of person you are, and that energy radiates around you and [your work].”

Each of Crimson River Studio’s artists bring a different style to the table. Santiago works with black ink, Lacsamana’s focus is on watercolor-inspired pieces, Concepcion is known for precise lines akin to ballpoint pen art, Gonzales leans toward abstract and pops of color, Cortez does mostly fine lines and illustrative designs, and Lorenzana specializes in dainty, small pieces.

What they do have in common is a nurturing presence that manifests itself in their work ethic. “From the very first email, I make sure that my clients feel like they’re talking to a trusted friend,” details Lacsamana. “The tattoo experience is as important to me as the output of the session. We try to guide the clients through every step — from conceptualizing the design and what they have to do during the session, to when we’re taking their photograph. Everything is consensual.”

Like choosing a doctor or therapist, selecting a tattoo artist should be an equally thought-out process. Ultimately, this is a person with whom you literally and figuratively surrender your bare skin too — their lifelong impression guaranteed in ink. Without a doubt, women’s ability to inject empathy and connect with clients is what’s helping to make the community more welcoming. “Being a woman tattoo artist helps because I am able to express my femininity when I [connect] with my clients,” Cortez shares. “I get to be professional and comfortable at the same time. As an all-female team, I think that we tend to be viewed as more approachable — not just by women.”

Gigie Santiago. Photo by JL JAVIER

Annie Concepcion. Photo by JL JAVIER

Katz Lorenzana. Photo by JL JAVIER

True enough, as artists themselves are becoming more diverse, so are their clientele. Since opening their doors almost two years ago, the studio has seen an increasingly mixed roster of visitors — including fellow young women, senior citizens, doctors, and even a priest. “[I even see] younger clients being accompanied by their parents, who now understand that tattoos are truly a form of self-expression,” states Lorenzana.

On top of this, the designs themselves are evolving too. Because of this changed perception towards tattooing, there is now a broader array of new styles that artists and clients are more free to explore. “Tattoos are getting smaller and simpler in terms of design, unlike a couple of years back when bigger tattoos were more sought out,” she says.

This phenomenon is not unique to the tattoo world, and studies confirm that diversity is integral to growth in the workplace — especially when creativity and innovation take front and center. “Different artists with different styles enrich the community and cater [better] to the needs of the growing client base,” Gonzales emphasizes.

A diverse industry certainly leads to a more colorful amalgamation of ideas and approaches. But aside from that, workers are also able to perform to their fullest potential, in an environment that is conducive to their self-development. “It feels nice to be surrounded by female energy [at work]. Having this vibe around the studio is definitely refreshing,” adds Concepcion.

Says Gigie Santiago, “I am always so inspired by my colleagues and fellow women tattooers because they keep pushing out new works of art, not just with tattoos but also in different kinds of media. We support and empower each other the best way we can.” Photo by JL JAVIER

In a world where hashtag #GirlBoss has become a controversial faux-feminist battlecry, it’s easy to claim tattoo gun-wielding women as vanguards for progress. While that may be true to a certain extent, the real measure for progress is when gender no longer has to be a point in question altogether. “As a woman, it feels a little weird (but also kind of great) that people think you’re ‘changing the world,’ when you’re really just doing your thing. So I guess it feels pretty darn rewarding to be able to do me, and to be able to do what I enjoy doing,” said Gonzales.

At the end of the day, women in any industry are more than just statistics. But the fact remains that the more women who enter a sector, the better it is for everyone — be it men, women, or non-binary. To that end, Lacsamana advises all aspiring artists, “Never let gender be a variable. Tattoo with the goal of creating beautiful pieces and making meaningful connections with your clients. This can be achieved regardless of gender. Be a good person.”

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Visit them at crimsonrivertattoo.com or their Instagram and Facebook pages.