art and therapy
An Interview with astrid elisabeth
Interviewed by Mandy Grathwohl and John Lachausse
TMR: How did you build your successful online following and tattoo shop presence?
AE: Instagram began as a place to post my drawings. Some of them were popular, some weren't, but I gathered a small, supportive audience. When I began tattooing, the switch made sense to me and it seemed to make sense to the people who liked my work, so the transition felt seamless. I really just got lucky.
TMR: How has Instagram benefited (or perhaps antagonized) illustrators and the tattoo industry?
AE: Instagram in the glory days was the perfect platform for artists of all mediums. Simple, straight forward, and you saw what you wanted to see, chronologically. This created a level playing field, organic growth and authentic engagement. The quality and appeal of your content mattered. Now, Instagram is a cesspool of advertising, bots, censorship and shadowbanning. Especially against sex workers and artists who engage in nude content. The new rules feel unclear and arbitrary. We're struggling to have our work seen by the people who chose to see it. Isn't the follow button supposed to represent some form of autonomy? My account gets hidden regularly. Is it because I post frequently about Zuck being a messy, prude lizard humanoid? We may never know.
TMR: What works and artists inspired your visual art career?
AE: Egon Schiele, Klimt and the Art Nouveau genre in general. I love faces and bodies, I love organic forms, and I love disrupting them in a tasteful way. I look for feeling and authenticity in people's work and I hope people can see it in mine. There are a lot of folks out there trying to join the tattoo world because they think it will bring them cash or clout (or both), but only emulate whatever is trendy on pinterest. But I can see soul radiating from certain work. It feels so different than art made from a dishonest place. As pretentious as that sounds, I think it's a real phenomenon.
TMR: What brought you from illustration to tattoo work?
AE: I tell this story often, but I met a friend of a friend at a bar who was an apprentice. He said he bought his machine online and was practicing on his legs. I didn't even stop to think it through— I purchased a machine that night, without even having a single tattoo of my own. While the initial instinct was that I wanted to tattoo myself, I also knew that tattooing could merge the two most important points of interest in my life—art and therapy. I love talking to people and I wanted to eventually have a job that could incorporate healing into my art. It just seemed like an obvious choice.
TMR: In the male-dominated tattoo industry, how was your experience with mentorships and launching your own business?
AE: Thanks to old Instagram and foolish friends who let me practice on their blessed skin, I had very little trouble finding people who wanted me to tattoo them (in my apartment, of course). I waited as long as I could before tattooing strangers. I did a lot of things wrong and I did a lot of work I regret. I learned how to set boundaries with every misstep. But I'm lucky that I skipped out on the horrors of a traditional mentorship at a bro shop. I have never heard anything positive from my fellow tattooers about experiences in that specific environment. Tattoo shops are not a frat and white men didn't invent and don't own tattooing.
TMR: What are the stories—if there are some—behind your own tattoos?
AE: You would think I had more stories behind my tattoos, but they're pretty straight forward. These days, I just want to get tattoos from friends because it's art from people I care about. I care less and less about the actual content as time goes by.
TMR: What creative and business preparations are required with long-distance tattoo gigs?
AE: It's really expensive and challenging! I just ask that people don't reach out to artists and say "come to ______!" unless they legitimately want a tattoo and will book when you visit. I'm looking at you, London. You're on the blacklist!
TMR: As some artists refuse to do color work on people with dark skin, how do you challenge and expose racist practices in the tattoo industry?
AE: Those people are garbage. What can I say? The queer tattoo community is pretty tight knit and I feel like we do a good job sharing information and supporting each other. I'm not into cancel culture, but in this case, there's just no excuse to say you can't tattoo dark skin. That's a choice and it's ugly.
TMR: In the broadest or most particular sense, what do tattoos represent?
AE: They represent so many things to so many people! That's what's great about them. "Ownership / reclamation of the body" is a common theme and I agree with it. But tattoos can also just be a silly experience during a night in with friends, doing stick n pokes. Or a marker of a particularly important moment in time.
TMR: What freedoms and challenges come with running your own shop alongside Mars, your business partner?
AE: I love working with Mars! The expenses (expected and unexpected) are the most challenging part, but we were prepared. I love our shop, our guests and our clients. We're a solid team and we respect each other. Sure beats giving 40% of my income to a shop owner.
TMR: With experience working across the country, what is the tattoo industry culture in NYC?
AE: I can only speak on the queer / femme NYC tattoo culture, but it seems pretty relaxed to me? I'm lucky to know so many amazing tattooers and I feel like we support each other so much. It's a good feeling. Maybe I'm delusional or out of touch, but I'm having the time of my life!
TMR: What personal and professional advice would you give to someone interested in tattoo work?
AE: I speak out on this a lot because I'm a harsh, reality-based bitch. I'm coming at prospective tattooers like a stern, 80 year old grandfather.
Tattooing is hard work, like any job. It's also super rewarding. Most importantly, the market is completely saturated. I only suggest tattooing to people who have already been making art forever, care about drawing more than anything else, and have something new to offer. Even those of us who have "established" ourselves wonder if we'll still be able to do this in a few years. Follow all the rules, get licensed, pay insurance, pay sales taxes, and get nothing in return except a pay cut from Uncle Sam to the tune of 38%. Job instability is a wonderful feeling.
Business bullshit aside, can you work with people? I mean, really, truly work with people? Because that's what it's about at the end of the day. Making people happy, being trusted to permanently alter their skin. You will make mistakes, you will do tattoos that keep you up at night. A friend of mine showed me photos last night at the bar of their client who had an allergic reaction to blue ink. You can't prepare for issues like that and you can't fix them. It's a horrible feeling. You might email someone difficult back and forth 56 times, only to have them not show up to their appointment. You might do a memorial piece and cry together before, during and after the session. You might tattoo someone with super delicate skin and all the lines blow out four days later. Your client might make you spend three hours redrawing in person just to change their mind at the last second and end the session. You must be kind, understanding and accountable, no matter what.
You won't be just a tattoo artist—you'll be a boss, an accountant, an assistant, a scheduler, an emailer, a promoter, a parent, a teacher, a negotiator, a therapist, and then, only then, an artist. Do it because you love it, not because you want to appear cool on Instagram. Because thanks to Lord Suckerberg, we won't have our platform much longer. We're all on a ship that's both sinking and hurtling towards the horizon. No lifejackets allowed.