LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) Support and the Tattoo Industry


Everyone reading this is probably well aware of the mass shooting tragedy in Orlando, Florida a few days ago, targeted specifically at a popular gay nightclub and presumably a hate crime. While headlines and attention tend to quickly move on to other current events, the trauma and aftermath is still being sorted out for all the victims, and many generous people and organizations have set up relief funds to help them. If you feel compelled to donate, here are two such efforts:


Thankfully, there seems to have been a greatly supportive social media response to the Orlando shootings so far from tattooers and industry people. Yet on an everyday basis, and at tattoo related public events like conventions, LGBT issues seem to be rarely broached, and almost never amongst any of the tattooers I know or have been around. 


Although I don’t have close involvement with a vast majority of the tattoo world, especially as it grows exponentially bigger seemingly every few years, I would love to see more vocal and public consciousness around LGBT issues from tattooers and those involved in the industry. As it slowly evolves away from the secluded underground, and often quite intimidating “macho boys club” that it used to be, I’ve wondered to myself, and in a few conversations with various tattooer friends over the years, why there aren’t more proud and openly gay/trans tattooers making waves in the tattoo world (or if there are, why am I not hearing about them the same way I hear about all kinds of other industry happenings?). After all, it has historically been an outsider artform with a social scene made up of un-shy nonconformists and misfits--the very types of people one would associate as being vocal supporters and defenders of LGBT people and issues. 


So is it really still an industry comprised almost entirely of white heterosexual alpha males? Surely, with the vast explosion of popularity and variety of tattoo culture in recent decades, the tattooer demographic has expanded with it?


My reasoning with these questions has always been: surely there are many more gay or trans tattooers than are currently well known (I’ve heard of only 2 or 3 in almost 20 years of tattoo industry involvement). This leads to a second tentative assumption, that the tattoo community roughly mirrors society at large, where many gay or trans people hide these aspects of themselves out of fear of discrimination or hate crimes, or simply conditioned shame. From there I speculate that if there are more GLBT tattooers, and they are in fact hiding this or keeping it well separate from their tattooing identity and industry interactions, it may be due to fear of backlash or discrimination by either fellow tattooers and shop owners, or tattoo clients. Both of which could be career ruiners, especially when considering the aforementioned domination of the industry by highly masculine and overtly heterosexual identities. 


And to be fair, the lack of public GLBT voice within the tattoo industry may not be due to fear of, or actual discrimination, at all, it could simply be a personal choice. It’s not that I believe one MUST be super out and proud about their sexual or gender orientation, it’s just that I want tattooing to be a supportive and accepting cultural space where anyone can feel completely free to do this without consequence, just as cis-gendered* heterosexuals currently do. Just look at the cover of any tattoo magazine, or most industry-related advertising or social media to see the sexualized female flesh on display in evidence of this seemingly one-sided degree of comfort.


Despite all my wondering about this phenomenon, I haven’t found any concrete answers, nor have I felt empowered to be more publicly vocal about it within tattoo circles. Not being GLBT myself, I’ve wanted to avoid speaking for a community or about sensitive issues that I don’t have close personal involvement with. But for my entire adult life, I’ve been involved in various forms of anarchist political activism and the punk rock/hardcore music scene, both of which have a very strong LGBT presence and solidarity that I wholeheartedly uphold. And I of course have some LGBT friends and tattoo clients. So I’d like to think that I’m not completely na´ve to the issues of oppression and discrimination that this group of people faces.


I want to do my part, as a tattooer with some degree of recognition within the industry, to make it as inclusive and supportive to everyone as possible. But admittedly, I’m still unsure about effective ways to do this, and still nervous about the issues of privilege and being clumsily vocal about sensitive issues that don’t directly affect me. In order to avoid these pitfalls it seems logical to first consult a wide range of LGBT tattooers and industry insiders…except that, as alluded to above, I don’t really know any, and certainly none that are highly open or vocal. For now it seems like simply speaking up about it, period, is a worthy first step…simply opening up the conversation among fellow tattooers and vocalizing public support through the platform that I have, to make it known that these issues are cared about, and that there is a desire in me (and hopefully others), to harness the rebellious outsider spirit of tattoo culture for radical social change. 


I believe that tattooers and tattoo culture can effectively stand in solidarity with all marginalized or oppressed groups, including anyone in the GLBT community currently struggling with shame, trauma, hate crimes, or discrimination.  I believe we can promote a more tolerant and accepting society through our actions and our historically free-spirited way of life. Although tragic and horrifying, the shooting spree in Orlando is an opportunity for questioning and growth, and for further inclusion and support moving forward.


* Cisgender (often abbreviated to simply cis) is a term for people whose experiences of their own gender agree with the sex they were assigned at birth. Cisgender may also be defined as those who have "a gender identity or perform a gender role society considers appropriate for one's sex."


-Nick Baxter, 6/14/16