By Lauren O'Neill
Photographs by Shriya Samavai
Tattoos let us be exactly who we are. They allow us to wear our loves literally on our sleeves, or they serve as protective talismans, or they help us to remember, or all of those things, or none. They allow us to render our bodies exactly as we’d like them to be seen—to remove them from societal narratives and return them to ourselves, to the story of our lives.
When I look at my limbs, and the scribbles I have collected on them over the years, I see a map of my existence: there’s the alien frog for my 19-year-old self who felt so much of her own unarticulated pain and joy in the music of Daniel Johnston; the scorpion needled onto my shin on my 23rd birthday, when I felt harder; the roses blooming on my knees, which make my legs a garden.
For me, and for many others, tattoos also act as powerful tool in sloughing off the patriarchy and re-centering the self—whoever that might be. So it’s frustrating that the tattoo industry itself has historically been woefully macho, centered on cisgender men and outdated iterations of masculinity. I’ve spent so much time in tattoo shops where I’ve been the only woman present, an experience that, more often than not, can feel intimidating and vulnerable. This is exactly why we need more spaces like Welcome Home Studio: a Brooklyn tattoo shop born out of the necessity to provide space for womxn, poc, trans, queer, and non-binary people. Founded in spring 2017 by artists Tea Leigh and Kelli Kikcio, who respectively hail from from Texas and Toronto, the shop is home to both hand-poked tattooing (their specialty) and community events.
“We have known one another via Instagram for about four years,” they explain by email this spring. “When we first started tattooing, we somehow found each other and would encourage each other throughout the years—we both lived in different countries at the time, so there was no real way to meet up.”
But, as with so many partnerships between far-flung souls, Tea and Kelli’s connection was sustained over Instagram, until they were eventually able to meet in New York for a small tattoo trade. Before long, the seeds of Welcome Home Studio had been planted.
Tea and Kelli exude an attitude of quiet but determined revolution. In providing not only tattoos (most often, of delicately realized people or aspects of the natural world), but a sanctuary too, Welcome Home defiantly centers communities which have previously been marginalized out of tattooing by the industry’s old norms. “We need more radical softness in our industry,” they say. “We shouldn't have to act like cis, straight, white men to fit into this industry, and Welcome Home exists as an antidote to white cis patriarchy.”
Having your body tattooed can feel like arming it against all the bullshit it encounters in the world—from objectification to illness—and the power of doing so in a space which also seriously rejects that bullshit should not be underestimated. (Tea and Kelli note that artists at Welcome Home also participate in “body work,” to help clients reclaim their bodies or gain a greater sense of autonomy over themselves.) The studio is populated by resident artists and employees representing a range of identities, thereby fostering an inclusive environment where everyone who walks through their doors can feel comfortable.
Despite the fact that, regrettably, enough spaces like this one do not yet exist on a global scale, Tea and Kelli have hope that their project will inspire others to build spaces to meet their needs, and offer advice for anyone who’d like to emulate their path: “If you're opening a space for a marginalized community, know that the answer is yes, you should do it; but make sure you listen to the needs of those folx along the way. There is a pressing need for spaces like this all over the world. Without these spaces, we cannot have the conversations and experiences we need in order to grow.”
To learn and to heal, you need somewhere to do it. Through Welcome Home, Tea and Kelli have joined forces to create something rare and valuable: a space that will have a material impact on people’s lives, one with the power to welcome so many people back to their own bodies. To welcome so many people home. ★