Tamara Santibañez: You and I spoke briefly about the visible rise of DIY queer tattooing, and how the decentralization of the tattoo shop as the only site of tattooing has created space for people who have been historically excluded from shops. What is your origin story as far as how you got started tattooing?
Sally Rose: Very much a part of that sort of exclusion from the tattoo industry or commercial tattoo industry. It was a lot based on financial inaccessibility, so kind of subverting that by learning how to tattoo myself. I didn’t have internet and didn’t have a lot of friends who were doing it at all so it was a long process of trial and error. The first few years I was just applying different methods and different materials.
T: This was done by machine or by hand?
S: All by hand, so there was a lot of trial and error, but eventually the necessity of patching things up where I had made mistakes or becoming bolder and having more courage through that experience led me to a place where I was seeking out better material and more information.
T: How long ago was this?
S: This was about 6/7 years ago and it was interesting because I already got a taste of the sort of polarized opinions in commercial tattooing and machine tattooing, especially because there were more visible tattoos on my body that I had done myself. On the occasion that I would have enough money to go have something done by another artist they would see it and would have one of two reactions – well, there were a few reactions. Ignorance- complete ignorance. One was strong disagreement. The one time that I received any actual recognition was met with an informal apprenticeship almost. This artist who I was getting tattooed by for a while had worked for a tattoo supply company and that’s how he initially got into the industry and was tipping me off on certain tools and methods and means of making the tattoos more successfully. At that point I started tattooing more friends and more friends became interested in the work that I was doing on myself and participating in acquiring their own tattoos. It was actually a trans person who inspired me to make an Instagram account for my work. They said they thought that there would be a lot of people who would be interested in it and I should make it more available and accessible and that was it.
T: Thinking back to the hand-done tattoos I remember seeing years ago, I can only think of maybe two or three people off the top of my head that had mainstream recognition for doing it. I would say that their work was respected because it didn’t look like it was done by hand. It was “as good as machine tattoos.” Do you see there being a shift now in people’s aesthetic evaluation of tattoos that look handmade?
S: Definitely, and when I was first pursuing this more full-time or more passionately I tried as well to mimic machine tattoos. It was a goal that I set for myself, and that many would say that I had achieved. There was a lot of shock when people would learn that the work that I had done on myself or for other people was by hand and that was interesting to me for a while. I do think that as tattoo culture becomes more mainstream there is this competition or struggle towards authenticity or integrity, or a kind of ride or die mentality or position towards tattooing and I think that’s what has led people to want shitty tattoos. They’re just like “fuck it up, I don’t give a fuck” and that’s fine, I think it’s interesting and I think it’s interesting that we have gotten to that point.
T: A pretty natural backlash against the professional and the increase in visibility and the commodification of tattooing.
S: And I like that. That is something that I actually am really grateful for. I think that is something that is innate to tattooing. I don’t think that idea could ever be separated from tattooing. I think we can sometimes be misguided for a period or maybe we might pursue a different mentality towards the art form, but I think at its very root it is a subversion of normativity. So inevitably there will always be a polarization or sort of how a pendulum swings it will inevitably move away from what it just was, because there is a need for subversion and this kind of autonomy and rebellion. Which is what I relate to most about being heavily tattooed and tattooing as a practice or art form or way of life.
T: Right, and it’s a renegotiation of finding that point of conflict or opposition.
S: Yeah, and constantly looking for that line and how to cross it, and where you stand in relation to it.
T: When I first started tattooing, homemade tattoos were the first ones I did. That’s how I started tattooing in my own very DIY way. So after working in a shop I think to me the idea people would pay the same amount of money to get a tattoo that looked like it was done by your drunk friend in a house in certain cases- I couldn’t understand commodifying that. That kind of goes back to what you were saying about the illusion of an experience.
S: This is something that I’m trying to navigate right now- redefining my practice as a queer practice, as a personal practice rather than a commodified or a commercial practice. Which is difficult when you are a freelance artist and you live within a capitalistic system. I’m definitely starting to develop a confidence in refusing service depending on the kind of intention that I might be picking up or the ideas that a potential client might be bringing to me. I never really had that confidence before. Coming from a place of extreme gratitude I didn’t feel comfortable refusing service. The other experience that I’ve had within homemade tattoos is there is this idea that the same rules don’t apply- that it’s a way to avoid the limitations of a tattoo shop. In some ways that’s true, but in other ways there are codes of conduct that I still abide by because I have a lot of respect and I owe a lot of what I do to the people that came before me and a lot of those people do work in shops. There are just certain things that I respect as an artist that the client doesn’t always consider by coming to somebody in a house, or by coming to somebody who doesn’t work in these normative environments. There’s an assumption that they wouldn’t abide by those codes of conduct and be open to doing things like using other people’s artwork or tattooing things that are culturally inappropriate or tattooing underage. And the money thing also is something that I’m constantly working with or trying to figure out.
T: So how do you place yourself and position yourself? Because you’re not somebody who is 100% outlaw anti-establishment DIY tattooer, you engage with traditional tattoo shop structures as well. Where do you position yourself as far as working with tradition, paying homage to tradition and also queering it and being outside of it?
S: There are a lot of tiers and sub-categories to that question, more to be discovered than I already think about. I think I try to align myself the most with a universal understanding or idea of why we tattoo and get tattooed, rather than any kind of clubhouse rule structure or something like that. I want to align myself the most with the reasons behind people altering their bodies and whether that is from political or personal perspective, I think that’s really the number one thing that I pay total respect to. When it comes to traditional tattooing and tattoo shop culture I think we all serve our purpose. I think we all have our place within a body of artists who provide this opportunity for an incredibly varied group of supporters. There are so many people who want to get tattooed and there are just as many reasons why people get tattooed, so I wouldn’t really go as far to say I am in disagreement with anyone for receiving a tattoo. I try to remain really autonomous and offer that autonomy to everyone around me but when it comes to the industry or the art form, I do think that there are certain aspects that have strayed from a bit of an outsiders’ culture and have moved into a commercial, almost retail structure. Which is super crazy, because it is a permanent body modification. I just don’t think that I’m in a position where I can change much. I think we all have our own responsibilities to our own experiences and experiences that we wish to share or that we wish to provide, so if I were to have a more pointed perspective…I mean, I think that’s really fragmented by the necessities of the society we live in. Ideally I would tattoo for free and I would tattoo anyone and anything and… well, no- I would tattoo just queer people, that being an umbrella term for people who think outside the box and who are interested in autonomy and the respect for the individual. But in the real world, that’s where I start needing to do this for capital exchange and therefore needing to apply certain rules for what I tattoo and how I tattoo it. It’s a very complex institution we are working within and there are so many groups of thought and groups of experience and groups of intention that it becomes case-by-case in a way.
T: So what type of relationship do you have between your own body and getting tattooed?
S: I think it’s changed a lot, especially recently. When I was growing up and wanting to get tattooed I definitely related to it from a sense of inferiority as a queer body and wanting to protect myself and wanting to present a more bold image. I do also remember immediately being incredibly intrigued when I was faced with the art form on other bodies that I knew from a very young age. I think there was some barista one time that I saw when I was maybe 11 and I was like holy fuck, that’s what I want to do. So eventually, getting tattooed and tattooing myself was from a place of self-care, like an armor. I’ve heard that narrative before and I relate to that a lot, but then also developed a lot of initial experiences through tattooing myself. That was a really interesting way to achieve that kind of armor because I could not only relate to the tattoos on an aesthetic level, but also a physical intimate experiential way. It was administering pain in order to achieve a new idea of myself or a new experience of my body, which I think was not as conscious then as is now. I recently had a few experiences where I was really transported with the pain that was being administered to me during a tattoo session and that is something that I think I am relating to most nowadays. Something that I am excited most about is not really getting tattooed as an aesthetic choice but as a physical choice. I’m really excited to explore that and I’m excited for what that is going to look like, because I feel like the aesthetic opportunity there is a byproduct.
T: I was going to say it seems liberating to release the aesthetic as the most important end point.
S: Also incredibly interesting to then experience the aesthetic as a secondary feature for myself as well as anyone around me. Because then I almost look at my tattoos the same way as other people do, because I wasn’t necessarily present for the aesthetic choice, which I think is really interesting. I don’t really know how I plan on pursuing these physical experiences. They most likely will be loosely attached to some kind of aesthetic choice because I will be tattooed by other artists and filling certain spaces on my body, but I also am strongly tied to a disinterest in the physical form and I think that’s what has developed over the years of getting heavily tattooed. The realization that I felt most comfortable fracturing my physical presentation or that physical body and putting my mark all over it. This body is just a vessel and for that reason I’m gonna just do whatever I feel with it because that will provide me with a deep and experimental and lived experience.
T: I think that’s an important perspective. I think that it’s a necessary one now, especially. I don’t want to speak about the institution of tattooing as if I think it’s this massive problem because I love the institution of tattooing. There’s a lot of tradition in the craft that I adhere to that I think is important to maintain and that is important to me in my own practice, but I do think that the institution has become rigid and that the values in it have become Westernized as far as the standards of quality, or the standards of imagery, or the standards of what tattoos can be applied to who when and where and for how much. Right, a return to the experiential and to the more individualized. I don’t want to say that to undercut what tattooing has worked to achieve. I think tattooing has an unprecedented level of understanding and being validated. It affords me to make a living and it affords me to not have to justify my life choices to my parents and it widens the clientele tremendously.
S: I think that’s the side of tattooing or the aspects of tattoo culture that has paid attention to the physical and the experiential or maybe the more spiritual ideas, and has been in existence just as long if not longer. So I think it is important to explore them as the rest of tattooing makes such phenomenal advances within mainstream culture, you know what I mean?
T: Because otherwise they’ll be relegated to “primitive” or “unevolved”, “unenlightened.”
S: I had a really funny conversation with my mom, speaking of parents. She noticed the increase of visible tattoos on my face and you know, she has been the best mom ever because I too don’t necessarily have to justify myself being that I have developed a lifestyle that supports who I am and what I do and a clientele and all that stuff. I recently had my genitals tattooed and that was such an incredible experience. I’m pretty transparent with my mom and somehow I think I mentioned to her this idea of tattooing as an experience of pain and a transcendence through pain. I said that I had a tattoo session that was overwhelmingly sensitive and sensual and that it helped me get to that place and she inquired and I told her. She was so immediately shocked and almost disgusted, not intentionally because obviously her reactions don’t reflect on how much she loves me, but it was her immediate reaction and she said ”you’re not gonna end up like that German guy, are you?” It’s so interesting because recently I have been looking into the life and the impact of Albrecht Becker the last few months and I wasn’t even aware that my mom knew who that was. I mentioned his name and she was like “yeah, that guy.” I don’t know If you are familiar but he was known as the last gay Nazi because he was put in a concentration camp for being queer in WW2, but them because of his Austrian heritage was removed when they needed more troops. So he survived the concentration camp experience and was pulled out because of the necessity for the troops. And I guess he was not as fucked up as they perceived everyone else to be in this weird hierarchy of fucked up-ness that they were operating within. So he was able to be removed and was put in the army and then that’s when he started tattooing himself, through that experience. I haven’t found much information on him but his body of work and his relationship to his body was something that immediately triggered a vast amount of interest and this intense personal kind of intrigue. He moved from tattooing himself to other forms of genital torture and other forms of CBT and body modification and suspension and all this kind of stuff. It’s wild that my mom can accept me as a visibly tattooed person and as a tattoo artist coming from her own background, but when it’s brought into this “alternative” or “underground“ representation it’s still considered really grotesque or really uncomfortable or unacceptable or unmentionable.
T: And that’s fascinating, where is that threshold?
S: Yeah, so I think it’s really not that I’m some kind of voyeur… or not a voyeur necessarily, but I don’t want valorize my position at all. I just think it is important to explore these areas of tattooing as I’m being tattooed even for my own personal idea of who I am or how we relate to tattoo culture as a whole. There are certain threads that maybe aren’t being woven as prominently in today’s understanding.
T: Are there ever significant points where you find yourself in conflict with the structure of traditional tattooing as you have encountered it? Whether that be shops or people that you have worked for, as far as the normativity of it?
S: Well I mean, there are definitely shops that I feel less comfortable in.
T: I’m not trying to be overly simplistic, like “what’s it like being queer in tattooing?”
S: No I mean, I think that’s something us queer people have had to fight for forever- that space and how we deal with discomfort in spaces. That is something that I can say has been prominent throughout my relationship with tattooing… is fighting for my space and letting go of my expectation of other people in those spaces for my own safety and my own mental health. I can go into tattoo shops and feel disgusting and feel horrible and feel angry and feel hurt and still get tattooed there and walk out and be fine with that experience because it’s just something that we learn to digest and something that I have tried to focus on other ends to that means like... okay, it’s serving a purpose for me at this moment and it’s not my responsibility to just walk in and flip the place on its back and say “what the fuck are you doing?” And as we talked about before, as these unconventional tattoo styles have emerged and become more prominent or popular I also recognize when I work in shop spaces or when I visit shop spaces sometimes I’m used to almost legitimize a practice or a shop space, because I can tell what they are doing has become very normative and I represent a non-normative aspect of the culture that they maybe used to be more rebellious within.
T: Do you feel that way about your tattoo style, or do you feel that way about you as a person used by a shop wanting to say “look, we are inclusive”?
S: I think both. Being that I still work primarily without a machine and the quality of the tattoos that I’ve managed to be able to create on whatever comparative scale you want to use. I think that shop artists and shop owners are excited to have that within their establishment, and also as a non-normative, non-binary kind of queer presenting individual I think also they are excited to have that under their establishment. So it’s something that I have been able to use to my advantage. In that sense I have got something out of it, which I think is one way that we can use these fucked up systems to our benefit. But it has also inspired me to remain outside of that.
T: I was going to say, on the flipside of that do you find that people seek you out because they want an alternative to those structures, so they want a space where they can know that they will feel more comfortable?
S: Yeah, totally. I have people asking for house calls because they are maybe not sure of the space I work in, and I assure them that it’s a private space and I pay attention to who is there and what is going on in the space during that session. I have a lot of people- most who say they don’t like going to shops because they are queer or a woman or of color, and that for me validates my position more that any other tattoo artist ever could. I also come from tattooing sort of as a downtrodden client. I was someone who couldn’t get tattooed for A B C reason or was afraid to get tattooed for A B C so I still relate so much more closely to that. I could never leave that part of myself behind, that validation or the idea of success that might come from it. I think that’s what I learned from working in shop spaces. That was not something I expected to happen or sought out and I was really excited when I was given those opportunities. I still am humbled and honored to work with these artists and establishments at times, but I wasn’t satisfied in the same way. Tattooing someone who is truly seeking out a very unique and safe experience satisfies that part of me that wishes I had that experience. It’s amazing, that’s when my investment into the trade and art form is renewed, is when I get those moments to say that I provided something for someone who lacked before.
T: Is there anything else you want to add/ anything else you want to speak on?
S: I’m still learning so much. I feel like even since we first met and started talking about ideas and working on creative projects together so much has already changed from them. I don’t know what’s going to happen next or how I will feel. I guess that’s something I would like to say. I hope that tattooing is always subversive and alternative, like no matter what shape it takes and even if that’s toward itself- like we were saying, contradiction and conflict with itself is really special too and I hope that it just stays that way. I think we can find much more meaningful experiences when we pursue that. So that’s something that I would like to say as well, is maybe it’s scary or maybe it feels lonely at times but I always find…it takes longer, but the experience of truly carving our own paths is a real gift of this lifestyle. I’m grateful that I have gotten somehow to a point where I’m facilitated in doing that. It’s pretty wild.