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Stateside Podcast: Inking up a space for Black women tattoo artists

Tattoo artists on the Ladies of Ink tour.
Lorri 'Lady L' Thomas
Tattoo artists on the Ladies of Ink tour.

Picture a tattoo parlor. There’s loud music pumping, the buzz of a tattoo gun, and a customer gritting teeth through the pain. But who’s holding the needle? Maybe a big biker guy, or a skinny rockabilly-type with a pompadour.

For so long, the tattoo industry has been dominated by men – most of them white. So when tattoo artist Lorri Thomas was coming up in Detroit in the mid-2000s, she knew things needed to change.

“[W]hen I first started, a lot of Black tattooers weren’t in the position to be in shops… we didn’t have formal apprenticeships which can kind of grandfather you into a shop, so we worked out of our homes," Thomas said. "So most of the shop scene was white-owned and mostly white tattoo artists.”

Though she didn’t find an apprenticeship, Thomas (known professionally as Lady L) did have a fine arts degree and a talent for illustration. She began to teach herself, asking artists questions when she’d get tattooed and eventually buying some second hand equipment. After a few years of building up a portfolio, Thomas was able to tattoo full time in a Detroit shop.

But something was still missing.

“I sat down one day, and I was like, ‘It’s surprising how I’m the only woman artist in our shop…When I go to conventions, I don’t see any…Black women artists. And I’m like, ‘It’s got to be more. I can’t just be the only person.’”

Slowly, Thomas began to meet other Black women artists through social media. And in 2015, she hatched the idea for Ladies of Ink: a collective and tour connecting Black women tattoo artists across the country. More than thirty artists now tour nationwide and in Canada, sharing their artwork and tattooing skin of all shades.

“When we go to these locations and [clients] say, ‘Well, I was told I can’t get color.’ Well, I have an artist on tour for you, you know, that actually specialized directly in color on darker skin tone…just having somebody and having all these different styles as well, like photorealism, realism, minimalism. We have artists for all these things and we’re actually coming to you so you don’t have to go shop, to shop, to shop. You just come to one place and find artists that suit you.”

Hear more about Lorri’s journey from art student to iconic Detroit tattooer on today’s episode of Stateside.

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Ellie Katz joined the Stateside team as an intern in September 2022.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Public in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the summer of 2020.