I actually identify my gender as non-binary. There are some people who understand my gender identity and others who don’t. My physical gender doesn’t define the rest of me.
Mostly people come to me because of my style of work. My style is very ornate and decorative; it’s specific and unique. There are not many people in the world that do what I do, and I get customers that travel from all over. I do have female customers who comment that because I’m a woman, it makes them feel more at ease. Sometimes people say “Oh you’re very gentle, it’s that woman’s touch.” Believe me, I’ve been tattooed by women and it means nothing! Some people are just less painful than others. The gentlest person I’ve been tattooed by was probably the biggest, scariest man!
Tattooing has always been a boys’ club because of its origins. I mean modern tattooing of course – tattooing is as old as time; we have evidence of it. Interestingly it was very popular with aristocrats a few hundred years ago: a sign that you were wealthy enough to travel and witness exotic things. But then it became a pastime for sailors and criminals – so men! Men did tattoos. Tattooers of my generation have broken through that a bit and refused to be told we couldn’t do it. We are now at a point where have some influence and can encourage other women to do it.
I got to where I am now through hard work. I always knew what I wanted to do, but didn’t know it was possible. I was really lucky that I had my first tattoo done by a woman. It was 1997 and tattooing wasn’t public like it is now – there weren’t TV shows and magazines about it; people in the public eye didn’t really have tattoos, there was no David Beckham figure to make it seem acceptable. It sounds strange now but I genuinely never really thought it was a career I could have. It was such a lightbulb moment.
I dropped out of my Art History degree (which didn’t go down well at home) and started studying Fine Art. I was getting tattoos, reading everything about them, getting to know as much as I could about the industry. Then I started tattooing my friends who trusted me. I got a job in a studio I’d been going to for a while and would talk to the guys – and it was always guys. Women worked on reception or sometimes as body piercers. I knew that being a woman in that kind of industry was going to be a challenge. When I was offered the job, the owner actually said to me, “The only reservation I have about giving you this job is the fact that you’re female and I don’t know if you’ll be able to handle it.” I just took that as a challenge.
The moment I felt that being a woman could negatively impact my career, I made the decision to make my professional name ‘Dom’ so that no one could judge me in advance. It obviously worked, because when I moved on to work at my next studio the owner actually thought I was a guy. He had seen my work on my website, and he and the other guys that worked there unanimously agreed that I was the person for the job. But I realised straight away that if he had known I was a woman, he wouldn’t have given me the job. They just didn’t have women tattooers. Again, it made me more determined that I was going to prove them wrong, though eventually I found out that I wasn’t even getting the same pay as my male colleagues. I was left out of the social side of things too, because the guys often went out together and I was left with the receptionists. But you develop thick skin. It made me want to do better than that place – it made me want to be more outspoken, more proactive for women who want to get into tattooing. I turned something that could have been very damaging into something positive.
After that I worked in a really well-run studio in London. It was quite small, but there was another female tattooer working there and I was really excited. It was a more interactive environment and very international; it inspired me to push forward and be the best I could be. I had a great time there for about five years, but then the direction the studio was moving in changed and the vibe of the studio changed quite drastically. So I was at a crossroads. Professionally I was doing exactly what I wanted: my work was going well, I was getting great offers outside of tattooing to do design work and publicity – interesting things where I could raise my profile and be a spokesperson for the industry. Yet I still felt I was being held back. My job was full of subtle, everyday sexism: like if someone had a technical issue with a piece of equipment and I would say “this is the problem, change this or that part”, they would still go and ask one of the guys. It had been the same everywhere I had ever worked, and that was the point where I knew I needed to do my own thing.
So I took the plunge and decided to set up a private studio where I could do all my own design work and tattooing; where I could be my own boss, run it the way I wanted. It was a big risk and the best career decision I’ve ever made. I wanted to create a comfortable, safe space for my customers, which you don’t always get in a busy, hectic studio. Getting tattooed is quite a personal thing for a lot of people; it’s very intimate. Every tattoo has a reason to it – whether or not someone wants to tell you what it is – and so the experience should be personal and enjoyable. I wanted it to be a nice, quiet, relaxed environment where people could enjoy the experience of getting tattooed and take away a positive feeling from it. But I also wanted to change the mould of what a tattoo studio should be like – what tattooing has to be like, what tattooers have to be like.
My weeks aren’t as varied or manic as people might think. I’m quite organised when it comes to my business and very strict with myself; I try to keep very set hours and days, they’re just very long. I do work a lot and it takes up most of my time, but it’s very difficult to just switch off when you’ve spent fourteen years working towards something. I love what I do. I don’t want to expand my studio – I set up my own business to get away from those busy, crowded studios. I like my quiet, calm working environment, and don’t want my life to become mostly running a business then doing some tattoos on the side. About eighty percent of my working life is doing what I enjoy, so I’ll be happy if it can stay like that.
For all that I talk about my position as a woman in the tattooing industry, I actually identify my gender as non-binary. I don’t necessarily see myself as a woman, though to the outside world I look like a woman because I present as a woman. I think for my industry that’s still important, because I have this opportunity to do something to help other women. Plus, we’re a way off talking about gender identity in the industry, so I’ve made a choice to focus on women’s equality first. I can only fight one fire at a time!
There are some people who understand my gender identity and others who don’t. It’s been quite a journey; even I didn’t know what it was until fairly recently, which is strange, having been in and around the queer community for most of my adult life. Growing up I would say I was a tomboy, but I believed and thought that I was a boy throughout my childhood. I didn’t know what it was, I didn’t understand it. I was really lucky that my mum just let me explore that and was never funny with me about it. Then I got to high school and realised people thought I was weird for dressing like and thinking I was a boy. So I kind of put it to one side and tried to survive, like you do when you’re at school.
I’ve always connected with men on an emotional level; I feel and think things and process things in a male way. I don’t want to be physically male, and people do get confused by that. It wasn’t until I talked about it with friend, who is transgender, that it finally clicked. And there’s a name for it, and people understand it and recognise it. Suddenly it was simple: my physical gender doesn’t define the rest of me.
I also use the term ‘queer’ to describe myself; I think it’s a strong word. It covers gender identity, sexuality, even culture. My mum, bless her, says “When I say that you’re queer, people might think I’m a bigot!” She doesn’t think people of her generation will ever use the term now. But you can talk to people and educate them – help them see that it is now a positive term. I like to use it now because for so long I struggled with not knowing who I am, had moments of not wanting to accept myself. And so, the acceptance and understanding that I have finally come to feel for myself, the love and pride of being this person – that’s queer.
At least it is a conversation starter.