The women of Hemlock Tattoo Studio. From left to right: Geneva Haley, Janeen Scott, Marlee Watts, and Taylor Hudson. PHOTO COURTESY: MAIA KOWAL

When Taylor Hudson became a tattoo artist, she was driven by her love of creating art for others. But, as she learned about the problems female customers faced when they came for tattoos, she and three other women decided to open their own studio, Hemlock Tattoo.

Coming out of high school, Hudson wasn’t sure what she wanted to do.

You can read more about Hemlock Tattoo and its owners here

“I was kind of hemming and hawing about it and that’s when my mom suggested it. It was something I felt like I could be really good at, because I get to do art for a living and do these really awesome tattoos on people. I just love drawing all the time.”

She has worked in a few different shops around Calgary, and says that each one functioned a little bit differently. While she did enjoy her time in the other shops, Hudson and her three co-workers, who worked at the same studio previously, made the decision to open their own place. The change was partially for their benefit. Their customers’ safety was the top priority, though.

In July 2020, an Instagram profile called Victims Voices Canada began posting stories of victims of sexual harassment and assault within the Canadian tattoo industry. Hudson had known about issues in the business, but wasn’t aware of how bad it actually was. 

Hundreds of stories filled the account. Victims recalled experiences of being asked to remove more clothes than necessary and receiving inappropriate messages after appointments. Some even went on to graphically describe instances of sexual assault or abuse.

“It was pretty alarming to read,” she says. “Once that came out, we realized that something needs to happen in this industry to change to keep people safe. …We decided that if it’s not going to happen where we are, then we’re going to move on and make it happen ourselves.”

And so came Hemlock Tattoo studio. The shop’s policies are centred on the consent and safety of their clients. Hemlock Tattoo’s general manager, Marlee Watts, says that transparency between the artist and client is what it’s all about.

“We reiterate to people that they’re fully in control of the process, they can stop at any time,” she explains. “We can have a specific safe word for them. We have a clause saying we have a security camera, … we are filming you … and are only using that if there’s an emergency.”

And other shops should do something similar in Hudson’s eyes.

“It should be a basic thing for shops to have these policies in place, but it’s not … shops and artists should have this and at the bare minimum have it on your site. People will feel safer coming to your shop and getting work done by artists.”

Hudson works on a tattoo while adhering to both the CDC’s pandemic restrictions and Alberta Health’s general health guidelines. PHOTO COURTESY: TAYLOR HUDSON

The shop is doing a notable job of putting their clients’ well-being first. Kelsey Morin, a regular customer of Hudson, has enjoyed a number of visits to Hemlock. Morin doesn’t hold back her praise for Hudson’s bedside manner.

“When I was getting work done close to my wrist, … she knows I have a pretty high pain tolerance, but … she was like, ‘Just a heads up, this [is] going to sting a little bit more than the other spots.’ … She’s just so thoughtful, so gentle.”

Making their shop’s environment as comfortable for their customers hasn’t come without a considerable amount of work outside the studio. Behind the curtains, they attend workshops whenever they can.

“In the beginning … that was [a workshop] called consent culture for tattoo artists. … We did a disclosure workshop,” says Watts. “We took bystander intervention. … When people would come in with their partners or group of friends, … [they] would really inject their opinions into [the client’s] decision.”

But Hudson says that it feels as though the situation regarding women trying to fix the industry is a little backwards. The women are doing the work while the male artists sit back. 

“We kind of felt like we were doing the labour. That was a little challenging, realizing that we’re the ones doing the work when it should be the opposite. Obviously, we want to learn this stuff, but it’d be great if men were like, ‘Yeah, we wanna take this too, to try to better the industry,’” says Hudson.

However, Hudson doesn’t put the blame entirely on the male workers in the trade.

“I’m not saying it’s solely men doing this stuff. Again, I feel like everybody should be mindful and take workshops like that just to kind of implement policies.”

Although Hemlock has has been open for less than a year, the women who run the studio believe it’s their determination that will positively shape their future.

Hudson hopes that their studio’s values on customers’ safety and consent will eventually spread to other shops and artists in order to change the industry for the better.

“The tattoo world doesn’t have an HR department, so we have to hold ourselves accountable. We have to continue learning. It’s a huge and blatant issue that we feel needs to change. I feel like people are becoming more aware of it … but we’ll see what happens in the next few years.”

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