Oakland Tattoo Artist Starts a Movement to Ink Pansies in Support of Trans Rights

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A collage of five images: Center image a tattoo artist tattoos a pansy. Four other images show people displaying their tattoos.
Piper Kerman (top left), Leola Davis (top right), Preeti Mistry (bottom left) and Mia Birdsong (bottom right) show off their tattoos. Cedre Csillagi (center) at work. (Photos courtesy of Cedre Csillagi/Collage created on Dec. 17, 2022)

The pansy is a delicate flower — but it’s more than just a flower, it’s also a symbol of trans solidarity. Oakland-based tattoo artist Cedre Csillagi started the A Thousand Pansies project as a way to dedicate their art to something bigger, and also raise money for a Black-led trans organization in Alabama called The Knights and Orchid Society (TKO). Thus far, over 18 people have received matching pansy tattoos, and, as of today, the project has raised nearly $15,000 dollars.

“I think that it’s a beautiful project and an example of how to show up for grassroot organizations,” said TC Caldwell, director of community engagement for the Alabama-based organization. They added that Black trans-led organizations in the South don’t see the same funding opportunities as others. The needs of their clients range from assistance with name/gender marker changes on IDs to food and stable housing.

“We can’t do this work without community. This is critical life-saving work,” Caldwell said. Solidarity is key to their work, which can "look like fighting anti-trans legislation, making sure trans youth have safe places/spaces to exist whole, making sure that there are jobs for trans folks, and allowing trans people to lead the work,” they said.

Piper Kerman echoed the importance of ensuring Black trans people are financially supported, in an interview with KQED while she got her pansy tattoo.

“Black trans people need love and support and resources, and that's what the project is going to bring,” she said. Kerman is a Bay Area resident and author of Orange Is the New Black, the book on which the hit Netflix series is based, chronicling her experience with incarceration.

Kerman said that when she was incarcerated, she had a Black trans neighbor who was an important figure in her life. In the Netflix series, that figure is played by Laverne Cox.

Kerman said she also has an aunt named Pansy, and that one of her great-grandmothers was named Pansy.

Csillagi, co-owner of Diving Swallow Tattoo in downtown Oakland, explained that the word "pansy" used to be a derogatory term and that the choice of this flower is also a nod to the work of another artist, Paul Harfleet, who began planting pansies at the sites of homophobic incidents he experienced in Manchester, England. “The species of plant was of course vitally important and the pansy instantly seemed perfect,” Harfleet wrote, explaining the project on his website. “The name of the flower originates from the French verb; penser (to think), as the bowing head of the flower was seen to visually echo a person in deep thought.”

For Csillagi, care and thought in action is what the A Thousand Pansies project is all about. It's a way to connect their own politics to something bigger. The custom-designed tattoo is part of a vision to spread a physical symbol of “love, alliance and protection.”

Csillagi grew up in the South and has seen the impact of homophobia firsthand. For them, it's solidified the importance of creating a shared symbol in the Bay Area and beyond.

“I just started to feel like I needed to do something, anything to help,” Csillagi said.

“Being a tattoo artist is [an] incredibly beautiful profession, but it is often very individualized. It's like one person's journey through grief or transition ... I wanted to open up my job and my skills to be more community-minded.”

Csillagi, a highly sought tattoo artist, is booked until 2024, but they will be creating a weekly time slot for those looking to get inked with a pansy tattoo. And they are also sharing the design so other tattoo artists can participate.

“I feel more and more connected to the image every time I do it," Csillagi said. "Which is really beautiful to just do it over and over. It's like I'm reiterating on my own ideals and my own politics around this.”