The soft hum of a tattoo needle vibrates under speakers blasting Black Sabbath in Nick Bergin’s San Mateo shop on a recent afternoon. He etches a male pin-up lounging inside a martini glass into the calf of his client, who is here for his second tattoo in two weeks.
When I stopped by his shop, Bergin had plans to showcase his work at the First Annual Queer Tattoo Fest alongside other local queer artists on Nov. 26 at The Stud.
But in the days leading up to the event, several artists have dropped out of the fest as disagreements arose between them and the organizers. Bergin and four other tattooers issued a joint statement on Nov. 21 explaining their withdrawal and announcing the formation of the Queer Tattoo Alliance, or QTA.
“The organizers weren’t from the tattoo shop culture,” Bergin says. “They didn’t know what would work for us, and they wouldn’t listen to us.”
Five tattoo artists remain on the line-up for the fest, according to a statement the organizers issued on Nov. 23.
The fest was slated to feature queer tattoo artists with a variety of styles, live performances, vendors, meet-ups and contests. The producers of the event, Dottie Lux and Kalash KaFae Magenta Fire, say they wanted to make it a safe space for queer tattoo artists and queer people with tattoos to fortify a community together.
"Our goal for this event is to put a stamp on it and say, you know, tattooing does not belong to cis, straight bros,” says Lux, who co-owns The Stud. “Tattooing is queer, it is a way to identify ourselves. It’s also a way to identify each other.”
Those who dropped out say the fest is a great idea in theory, and they're pushing to organize an event of their own in the future.
Micah Riot, one of the first tattoo artists to drop out of the fest, said the first red flag came when they saw the promotional materials. “This is not for an art fest; this is for something else. It never felt aligned to me with art," they say.
The QTA strives for professionalism and a convention that is more centered around the craftsmanship and traditions of tattooing, Bergin says. “Ultimately, our goal is to have a convention, by queer tattooers, for queer tattooers and everybody, that shines a spotlight on our community."
One of the major divides between the organizers and artists who decided not to be involved is the question of including information about home tattooing at the event.
“The show’s promoters insisted on including a segment on home tattooing and hosting someone selling DIY, home tattoo kits,” the QTA’s statement reads. “We feel this is terribly irresponsible and in no way want to endorse home tattooing for many reasons.”
Lux says the fest never planned to give home tattoo instructions, but would include an hour-long meet-up where home tattooists could present their point of view, which is that their method is autonomous and accessible.
“This is something that is kind of an inherent problem with our country,” Lux says, as she explains that there are few black, queer tattoo artists. She adds that it raises questions about elitism, classism and racism for artists to be against home tattooing.
“None of these white people are willing to participate in a conversation about how they are not accessible to all communities,” Lux says. “They’re continuing an old boys club hierarchy by keeping it exclusive, when I feel, and many feel, like tattooing and having skin is a right of all humans.”
In response to the notion of being elitist, Riot says, “How dare she call female queer tattoo artists who are trying to make a living and trying to take their art seriously elitists."
The QTA also cites safety and hygienic concerns when it comes to home tattooing, Bergin says, on top of wanting to protect the livelihood of professional artists.
“To a tattooer, this is more than a job. It is precious and we give our lives to it," he says. "It’s something to learn and you have to earn and work hard for it. Anything that cheapens that, the tattoo industry is against.”
The QTA’s statement also questions where the proceeds from the event are going. “We found ourselves feeling exploited and unable to trust the event’s organizers and their intentions,” it reads.
Lux says the event’s Facebook page states the money will go to pay performers and future endeavours. “My main goal is not actually this event, my main goal is the tenth annual queer tattoo festival,” Lux says.
On the day of the fest, Bergin, Riot and the other tattooers will convene for an open meeting to start planning an event that focuses on their culture through “research, education, outreach and celebration,” according to the statement.
“Let’s make this happen. Let’s make a real, queer tattoo conference," Riot says. "Let’s honor our elders, let’s talk about our history, let’s talk about where we’re at and how we’re gonna go forward and band together as a community."
The original fest planned for Sunday will go on. The organizers plan to center it on having broader conversations about the industry in and of itself.
“I’m happy that they are deciding to continue the conversation, but it seems like the conversation is best served to the community instead of within themselves,” Lux says about the QTA’s planned meeting.
A seed has been planted for future discussions within the queer tattoo community about who they are and how to create opportunities to fortify and share their craft. Sitting in the back of his studio, a week before the QTA released their statement, Bergin explained the fest as what it was and still remains: the start of what's to come.