Supporting women in the tattoo industry

Sneeze, I dare you. CJ Pannell

Why it’s more important now that ever

It’s no secret that the tattoo industry is one that is deeply ingrained in misogyny. In a time that is often over-simplified as the “#MeToo era,” the media is beginning to hear a lot more about how that misogyny manifests – and too often, stories of sexual assault have come to the surface. Frequent call-outs on accounts like national Victims Voices social media pages or the long-terminated Survivors Stories Regina Instagram page have led to a lot of inappropriate behaviour coming to light all around, not just in tattoo spaces. But in the fall of 2020, there were some major allegations tossed out in Regina.[1]

In a popular Instagram post from April 5, 2021, artist Anna Gabrielle (@curlsjrtattos) writes: “A message to my young clients who are just starting to explore getting tattooed. Tattoo artists are not that fucking cool. We are all people, and we are all just like you… Please stop putting these people on a pedestal just because the long running idea has been that tattooers are somehow cooler than the average person. They’re not. Especially not these basic ass boys club White men who don’t care about you unless you’re a cute petite White girl they can mess with. Respect yourself, leave the minute you feel like the behaviour of your artist is unprofessional… You are a client, this is a service. A permanent service I might add.”

While one shouldn’t assume only young, small, White girls are targets, Anna Gabrielle powerfully sums up something that seems to contribute to this culture, and that’s the power position tattoo artists are put in because of their social standing. But stories emerging of sexual assault in tattoo parlours isn’t just the abuse of artist-client power dynamics, but representative of a toxic culture within the industry at large. Many artists have also come forward with stories of harassment and assault from their male coworkers.

One awesome way to help adjust this culture of toxic masculinity and sexual violence, in addition to speaking up about it and calling out the behaviour as not acceptable, is to support women-owned tattoo businesses. More and more female artists are going into business by and for themselves and making their shops safe spaces for all. One of them is CJ Pannell, the owner of True Dark Tattoos here in Regina.

In full disclosure, Pannell has done two of my tattoos, but I wanted to talk to her about her work and the industry because I have always admired her vision for True Dark Tattoo as a “femme-centric” space. True Dark coincidentally emerged around a year and a half ago, during the heavy time when many of these sexual assault allegations were brought forward and Pannell was one of the artists who offered to help victims cover up work done by abusers.[2]

As far as I can tell – because it’s incredibly hard to track – True Dark is the only shop in Regina that is owned by a woman. Saskatoon has three women-owned spaces: Painfully Pretty Tattoos, Mama Tried, and Honey Bee Tattoo Collective. In Prince Albert, there’s Yokai Tattoos, owned by Janie Rose and Skylar Ink. In Fort Qu’Appelle, there’s Obsidian Tattoos (formerly Custer’s tattoos), which Cindy Kenway took over her from father, Ken Kenway. Yet, as recently as 2015 (or, even right now), woman-owned tattoo shops are still news.[3]

True Dark is a stellar little space tucked in the back of a building on Scarth Street, just outside of Cornwall Centre. It lives up to its name with black walls which are covered with art in gilded frames. Pannell wants to support as many non-men as possible, and that extends to the décor of her shop, featuring many artists from across Canada. It also extends outside the realm of ink and skin. In opening True Dark, she partnered with Women Entrepreneurs in Saskatchewan (WESK). She found help from the organization with writing a business plan as well as finding financing, an accountant, a real estate agent, and an attorney. It’s been a hard road and a lot of work, but Pannell has had a solid community of support.

When asked what the decision was behind opening True Dark and going into business on her own, Pannell said that “if there was a shop in town that was up to [her] standards as far as personal values go, as well as that quality of art, [she] would have gladly worked under someone else. There wasn’t really any opportunity for that because we’re in such a small centre.”

“I feel like, in a way my hand was almost forced to produce the space that I needed for myself and was needed for a lot of others that I’ve spoken with,” she adds. “I wanted to create an environment that was healthy and happy and professional too.” As is evident, this isn’t the case in many shops.

On the industry, Pannell says “it’s not just the individuals, obviously like with most things when we get into things like the patriarchy and misogyny, it’s a culture. And as a male-dominated industry the culture is very misogynistic. And even like, as an individual, even if I didn’t endure things that were as severe as other women, I still had to put up with the culture and the attitude.”

Men in the industry are often “gatekeepers,” according to Pannell. “If I wanted to succeed I kind of had to, you know, shut my mouth and take a lot of it, or just not speak up. And that gets exhausting,” she says with an exasperated laugh. “So that’s one of the reasons for my space: to create a female or femme-centric space, where femmes can not feel like we constantly have to be on guard and listen for whether someone is making derogatory comments.”

Feeling comfortable and safe in a tattoo space is, of course, going to enhance the experience for anyone. Beyond that, Pannell’s best advice for newcomers is “when selecting a tattoo, look for a shop and look for an artist that fits your vibe and then delve into the styles you want.” She acknowledges her work “might not be the best fit for everyone,” but the tattoo community, all the way across Canada is just that: a community. “I’m always happy to be able to direct people towards other artists I feel like share the same values as I do,” Pannell adds.

Pannell echoes the sentiments put forth earlier by Anna Gabrielle, to consider that your new tattoo “is something permanent.” This seems obvious, but it goes beyond the visual aspect of the actual piece. “You have to put a lot of thought into everything else that’s attached to that permanency,” Pannell says. “Your experience in a shop is just as important as the actual piece you walk out with.”

[1] “Tattoo artists advocate for safe spaces as #metoo movement hits Regina industry.” Kendall Latimer, CBC News. August 5, 2020.

[2]  Kendall Latimer, CBC News. August 5, 2020.

[3] “All-female tattoo shop makes its mark in a male-dominated industry.” Nikki Tundel, MPR News. July 3, 2015.


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