A woman’s journey in a male-dominated industry
As far back as 3250 B.C., humans have been getting tattoos. In more recent years, tattooing has become more socially acceptable, though it remains a male-dominated industry. One tattoo artist breaking that mold and making a name for herself is Mercedes “Mercy” Wright. Wright grew up loving to draw, saying, “I’ve always been a good artist, so it just kinda came naturally to me, because I thought it would be the easiest career for me, personally. I was always good at drawing and it led me to tattooing.”
Now in her fifth year tattooing at Chicago Ink in Portage Park, Wright has come a long way since trying her hand at tattooing while she was in high school. To begin the journey of studying to become a professional tattoo artist, you need to first start as an apprentice. Often the first couple months are spent learning the layout of the shop, how to clean and sanitize all equipment and taking courses to expand their knowledge. All apprentices need to put down a down payment to secure their spot, pay for materials and confirm their commitment to working at the shop where they’ve been learning. This can be a challenge for many aspiring tattoo artists, as oftentimes the down payment can be several thousand dollars.
Once a tattoo apprentice has moved past the first phase, they get to start tattooing on fake skins, sometimes using fruits, pig skin or synthetic human imitation skin. They’re also encouraged to tattoo themselves to learn the feeling and depth the artists are meant to use with the different types of needles and tattoo machines. Next, they start working on clients and generally charge much less than more established artists.
Although the tattoo industry may be a more stable artistic career, breaking into this industry can be challenging, especially for women. Women make up only 25% of current tattoo artists, which is a big step up from the 16% they accounted for in 2010. While the tattoo industry is filled with more male artists than female, 59% of women have tattoos, compared to only 41% of men.
Why is this so important? According to Margot Mifflin, author of Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, “tattoos appeal to contemporary women both as emblems of empowerment in an era of feminist gains and as badges of self-determination at a time when controversies about abortion rights, date rape and sexual harassment have made them think hard about who controls their bodies — and why.”
So, why has it been so hard for women in this industry to get due recognition? Journalist Steve Martin says it’s because, “for a long time tattoos were associated with deviance. If a man with tattoos was considered ‘outside’ of society in some way, a woman with tattoos was considered downright improper.”
After she completed her apprenticeship, Wright was looking to change shops and get hired on as a full tattoo artist. She found Chicago Ink, which was originally located in Irving Park. She said she was surprised a bigger name shop like Chicago Ink would give her a chance because she didn’t have much experience at that time.
“It was definitely the hardest getting into the shop and the shops wanting to give you a chance,” Wright said. Now that she has her chance, she is able to take being a woman in a male-dominated industry and use that to her advantage. Clients seek her out. Wright is one of only two female artists out of the 21 in the shop.
One thing Mercy feels she’s learned from her career so far is patience.
“A lot of times people walk into a tattoo shop and they want something right away and they want it real fast. I learned to kinda just sit with them and work with them and ask them important questions on why they want the tattoos, and it kinda helps them get a better mindset,” she said. “It helped me work with people more. I’m not the best people person, so it’s nice to get more exposure like that.”
She’s also learned that through patience comes discipline. Tattoos often take a long time to create and craft correctly, both for the artist and client sitting through the tattooing process. Her number one tip to new clients? Don’t come in inebriated.
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Wright says since most of her clients seek her out, she’s able to have a more collaborative experience and help create the perfect, custom design. Her goal is to stay consistent. People come to her for exceptional line work and solid coloring, and she wants to make sure each new client is just as happy as the last.
Though tattooing has, for a long time, been regarded as being part of counterculture, it’s becoming more and more mainstream. Tattoo artistry is a beautiful practice and Wright is excited to see where the rest of her journey takes her.
Header photo by Michaela Puscas