When you think of industries where ladies are underrepresented, the ones that spring to mind are likely the tech industry, or the comics industry, airline pilots, STEM, construction….anyway. One area that might not be at the forefront of your mind is the tattoo industry. Getting tattoos in Massachusetts (where the Ladies are based) was illegal until 2000, and since then shops have popped up fast and furious. On my less than 2 mile walk to work, I pass four! So while tattoos have become fairly mainstream, the make-up of those who do the work still skews heavily male. However there are ladies out there, working hard, pushing their way in, and doing amazing work. Last year I met one of them and while she did a lovely piece for me, she was cool enough to tell me a little about her experience. This past December, I decided to visit her again to get an old piece reworked, and this time I was prepared, with Smalerie in tow to take notes. I combined getting a tattoo reworked with learning more about my artist, the industry, and even some best practices around getting a tattoo.
Sandra Burbul is currently based at Kaleidoscope Tattoo in Cambridge MA, and she has been tattooing professionally for 20 years. Not a small feat considering tattooing was illegal in MA until 2000. While there is not a ton of data that I could find on the ratio of male to female tattoo artists, today that number is small, so back in 1990 when Sandra was looking to learn, it was even smaller. Sandra realized in high school that she had a talent for art, and when she came across tattooing in her 20’s, a light bulb went off for her, and she knew that it was something for her. But getting others to support that was not easy. There was no apprentice program that she could take advantage of, so to learn, she had to do a lot of work to persuade someone to teach her. This was made even tougher by the stigma that while women could be artists, they can’t tattoo. So Sandra looked to many different places and areas to learn, including DC and New Hampshire. And yes, she also practiced on herself. According to Sandra, it’s good to work on yourself when you are learning so you get direct feedback on the experience.
When Sandra first started tattooing, she tried everything. As she developed her style, she found she drifted towards nature-based work with less realism; she wants her work to feel like a tattoo, rather than a photograph tattooed on. She feels that (and I have benefited from this greatly in the work she has done for me) you should design a tattoo to not just look good on the skin, but that body placement matters and working with your particular shape is important. Bodies curve and change, so keeping that is mind is important. I had asked if there was any work she would ever refuse to do. She said she really takes pause in doing things like neck tattoos on younger people. While tattooing has much less of a stigma now (“It’s not just for sailors and whores anymore”), a neck tattoo can be seen as a “job stopper.”
I am willing to bet many of you have tattoos or are thinking about them. Since Smalerie and I had Sandra as a captive audience and vice versa, we asked her a little bit about a day-in-the life for her. Sandra does tattoo full-time, but takes a day away from the shop each week for drawing. Her favorite way to work with people is to do a consultation so she can discuss subject matter, size, and placement. So, yup, you don’t have to show up with the exact picture of what you want, in fact, it’s actually better if you don’t. To make something on paper into the best tattoo design, there will have to be some changes. A tattoo artist is ultimately an artist, and Sandra really loves the creative process. A tattoo doesn’t have to be a literal interpretation so take the opportunity to work with your artist to create a one-of-a-kind piece of art that is all yours (this is one of things I love about tattoos and working with Sandra). Walk-in appointments can be a lot of fun too. Sandra recalls a time a visiting surgeon walked in to get his wife’s initials tattooed on his finger since he couldn’t wear his ring during surgery. If you do come as a walk-in, she will want to know more about that decision. For her, the most important thing is to do it right and to have you be happy when you leave.
So, what requests are popular these days? Lots of stuff from Pinterest, like an infinity knot with the words strength and love, and feathers or dandelions that dissolve into birds. Unsurprisingly for Boston, sports-themed tattoos are also really popular.
As tattooing becomes more popular and more mainstream, hopefully we will continue to see more ladies breaking their way into the industry. The best advice Sandra can give to ladies trying to get into tattooing is to not get discouraged. Keep fighting, keep trying, and keep pushing to get the recognition you deserve.
Wanna see more?
To see even more of Sandra’s beautiful work, check out her Instagram!
Sandra can also be contacted via her email if you want to set up an appointment with her.
So….this is the first post in a series where we hope to highlight unrepresented careers, as this is the first post I threw a name out there, but really, we would love for you to help us pick a name!