How LGBTQ+ Artists Are Redefining the Industry | Painful Pleasures Community

How LGBTQ+ Artists Are Redefining the Industry

Explore how queer tattoo artists are changing the industry with inclusive spaces and groundbreaking artistry. Plus, meet 6 trailblazing artists we got to chat with this month!
by Danny Tress Last Updated: June 24, 2024

The year was 2021, just three Prides ago. My team and I were in a conference room… and there, we made a pivotal decision. It was time to showcase more LGBTQ+ artists. We had shown off their work on social media before but without any direct mention of their queerness. Moreover, we hadn’t yet taken time to dig into anything beyond the tattoos: not their motivations, inspirations, insights, nor personal experiences.

Eager to do just that, I immediately compiled a list of queer artists I wanted to hear from, reached out to them, and once I had a mess of transcribed interviews in hand, I typed furiously with feral Dr. Frankenstein energy for an entire workday. The result—(it’s ALIIIVE!)—was the queerest article we’d ever produced as a company.


The article (which you can read here) and its promotional post blew up. We saw an outpouring of love, support, and enthusiasm, alongside the inevitable antagonizing comments we queer folks have come to expect. But that just meant we had something worth saying! As a gay-as-the-day-is-long copywriter who loves tattoos, I got a little emotional in a dewy-eyed kind of way. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of writing a Pride article every subsequent Pride month. I get to hear from queer artists across the country, learn about their experiences, and see firsthand how the industry is changing.


I remember my very first tattoo. It was my eighteenth birthday (I’ll avoid mentioning my current age, but the year was 2011 if you care to do the math). My parents agreed to buy me a tattoo as a rite-of-passage birthday present. By then, I was four years out of the closet, but not yet as effusively gay as I am today. I still felt societal pressures to fit a certain mold. While I loved my first tattoo, a little phoenix on my inner right forearm, I could feel that pressure in the shop I visited.

The staff was almost entirely comprised of hyper-masculine men pressuring me to get the largest piece possible. They were not friendly or welcoming, nor particularly professional. But I haggled them down to a tattoo in the size and placement I wanted. I left with a bloody little phoenix on my inflamed arm, both excited and uncomfortable about my new body art.

Today, some of the most friendly, welcoming, professional tattoo experiences I’ve had have been with queer artists. I haven’t yet been tattooed by any of the artists we’re featuring in this article, but I hope to someday. So, without further ado, let’s shine the spotlight on this year’s queer tattooers, all of whom are shaking up the industry in their own way.


Like I said, I haven’t had a tattoo experience like I did in 2011 for a long time. This is largely because, as more talented queer artists pick up a machine or even open their own shops, we’re seeing more and more safe spaces for LGBTQ+ clients. But the space isn’t only safe for clients—it’s becoming safer for artists, too. Nemo, who works at Black Rabbit Forest Hill in Richmond, Virginia, emphasizes the importance of safe spaces:

Queer tattoo artist Nemo headshot over top a close-up of their candy hearts and floral tattoo

“We already have limited spaces in the world that offer a chance to build community and provide affirming care. I strive to be an artist my clients can come to and have a tattoo experience where they feel seen and supported, and they leave feeling heard.”

Cake, from Girls Own NY in Brooklyn, echoes this sentiment. She’s been tattooing professionally for ten years and has always prioritized her clients’ experiences.

Close-up of black-and-gray New York tattoo with headshot of Cake, a queer tattoo artist, over top

“My clientele organically has always been mostly queer folks and women. I think this is because I’m a queer woman and it’s who my art attracts. I really wanted this to be enjoyable, memorable, in a really positive way,” she says. “Tattooing is really intimate, and people are giving you a piece of themselves. So you want to always make sure that everything is intentional.”

Cake’s insights show that as LGBTQ+ artists continue to enter the industry, clientele is growing and becoming more diverse. She attracts mostly queer clients, many of whom might have been too intimidated or uncomfortable getting tattooed in the fringe shops of decades past. Tattooing is for everyone, and artist diversity clearly revs up client diversity, too.


Tattoo artist Christian Hernandez, aka Cohvey, who runs Wonder Heart in Chicago, makes this point way more eloquently than I can:

Close-up of Barbie tattoo with headshot of queer tattoo artist Christian Hernandez over top

“The significance and influence of being an LGBTQ+ artist today cannot be overstated. Working with somebody who resonates with your identity and can provide a comfortable space for you and your body can fundamentally transform the way that you experience tattooing for the rest of your life,” he explains. “It’s been an honor to serve my community and beyond ever since then.”

The idea that tattooing is a community service is certainly a new-age idea. It goes against the past idea that tattooing was a gatekept world exclusive to certain types of people. That medieval perspective emphasized the importance of toughness and pain. But Des Smith from Youngstown, Ohio, who has been tattooing for about two and a half years, points out that tattooing can actually be healing, especially for the queer community.

“A common experience in the queer community is to not feel like you belong in the body that you were born in. What better way to learn to love the body that you have than by decorating it and making it more you?” D shares. “I’ve noticed that the art I’m able to give people allows them to express parts of their identities that they may not have been able to show in other ways.”

Tattoo artist Szabla, a Polish tattooer working out of Ink-Centre Tattoo Shop in New York City, agrees that tattooing is “something bigger.” It’s a connection between two people:

Close-up of Press Start tattoo with queer tattoo artist Szabla headshot over top

“You should be grateful that somebody is choosing your art to have on their skin for the rest of their lives. So I’m always very grateful for my clients and whenever they open up about their experience, their journey, how they open up to their parents or how they were not accepted by their family. I struggled with that myself a lot,” Szablasta says. “So I feel a big connection whenever somebody opens up to me about it. And those talks are very genuine for me. And I don’t mind if someone treats a tattoo as therapy. It’s a ritual. And for everyone, it’s a different experience. It’s not just like a service for me, it’s something bigger.”


Each artist brings their unique flair to the industry, challenging norms and pushing creative boundaries. Christian’s surrealist new traditional glittery style is jewel-bright, fruity, and so energetically colorful, it looks alive. D’s micro realism and stipple work evoke the intricate details found in an I Spy book, giving clients a fun but profound way to connect (or reconnect) with their bodies.

Szabla specializes in surrealism, new traditional realism, and color. She interweaves the fundamental principles of traditional tattooing into abstract concepts that twist and open your mind. Cake’s delicate black-and-gray fine line work is both soft and striking. Nemo takes their own twist on neotraditionalism and pop culture tattooing. They span the ambitious gamut of each style, from kawaii tattooing to portraiture.

Tenebre, who tattoos out of Other Delights Tattoo in Chicago, Illinois, creates vibrantly colorful pieces inspired by American and European traditional work. LOTS of color is their forte… and more than that, creating custom pieces that spotlight each client’s individuality:

Close-up of fairy tattoo with headshot of queer artist Tenebre over top

“Some of my most treasured moments in tattooing is when I get to come up with these custom figures for clients that will be very individual to them. I’ll add tattoos, piercings, scars, elements that are gonna be very individual to that person to represent either themselves or someone that they love. And I get super excited coming up with those, creating those, because even though they’re gonna be for that specific person, others will see themselves in that also and kind of relate to it and connect to it too.”


Beyond the ink and needles, these artists are building communities and enhancing visibility for the LGBTQ+ population. Des notes,

“Art is able to reflect diverse experiences and identities for the queer community, who sometimes isn’t represented in mainstream media or art. It’s a cool way to bring that to my clients and give them a safe environment to express themselves.”

Micro-realism tattoo by D Smith along with her headshot

Nemo adds,

“I strive to be an artist my clients can come to and have a tattoo experience where they feel seen and supported, and they leave feeling heard.”

The impact of queer tattoo artists on the industry is vibrant, far-reaching, and still growing. By creating inclusive spaces, offering representation, and pushing artistic boundaries, these artists are reshaping the whole tattoo experience. It’s safer. Welcoming. Healing. And it’s for everyone.

Whether you’re an artist who’s part of the LGBTQ+ community or not, we should celebrate this cultural shift. Let’s keep opening doors rather than closing them.

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