In the lobby of the tattoo shop Black & Blue Tattoo on a recent Sunday afternoon, the sound of a child filled the room. Family and friends of soon-to-be-tatted patrons flipped through pages of artists’ portfolios as they waited in the lobby for loved ones going under the needle.
Getting a tattoo is a vulnerable yet indelible experience, much like the tattoo itself. But for many women at the Black & Blue, having female artists makes them feel more comfortable.
“It’s Amy’s first,” two women from North Carolina said as they waited patiently on a comfy couch in the sun-filled studio while supporting a nervous friend.
Started by lesbians, Black & Blue is a female-owned-and-operated tattoo studio at 381 Guerrero St. that has been serving the Mission District for 19 years. It was a 2014 Bay Area A-List finalist for best tattoo and piercing.
“I think that most shops are men-owned and they have only one woman working there,” said owner Idexa Stern, who started tattooing after immigrating to San Francisco from Germany in 1991. “But the women here are the norm.”
Stern has long taken women under her wing as apprentices, but a few years ago, she realized that she was cutting out a “big part of the world” and started hiring men to appeal to clients—a mix of men and women. Now, four out of the 10 tattoo artists at Black & Blue are men.
Yet for Stern, no distinction is made when it comes to her inking practices. She relies on getting to know her clients as much as possible, regardless of gender.
“I believe [the tattoo] is already there and I’m just bringing it out,” she said. “I believe in finding what’s inside and drawing in collaboration on the skin with the client. I’m aware of the process of growth that my clients go through, if they’re at a crossroads in their life or a rite of passage.”
As for the name, Black & Blue comes from the women who established the shop in 1996 and practiced S&M, or sadomasochism.
“It’s a code for the intense, painful process,” Stern said. “For people who know this code, they know what consensual pain means and the tattoo artists know how to warm somebody up with compassion.”
In the lobby, one man admired the many intricate designs on every part of the body—including entire backs, knuckles and even one penis tattoo. His faced winced as he imagined the uncomfortable sting.
“I’m going to wait toward the end of my life to get one because then I’ll know what I want,” he said.
“And if you don’t like it?” his friend asked.
“Then, I won’t have live with it long if I don’t like it,” he said.
Some tattoo artists refuse to do cover-ups or expansions, but Michael DeMatty, who started working at the tattoo parlor in 2012, is eager to please any client who walks through the shop’s doors.
Beth, who lives in the Sunset District, came in to breathe life into an old tattoo, sporting a Chinese lion that spanned her upper left arm. A half-finished chrysanthemum flower flamed out of the imperial creature, but she wanted more.
“I’m going to add orange, gold and pink today,” said Beth with a smile. “I want to make it more feminine.”
She got the original tattoo 10 years ago in honor of her two-year-old son whose zodiac sign is Leo. Now, a decade later, she’s bearing her skin again.
“It’s cool if it has a meaning because it’s something permanent on your body,” she said. “You’re not just slapping a bat on and that’s it.”
Likewise, Stern recognizes that permanence is what gives a tattoo its power.
“It’s a mark—paint, blood and change,” Stern said. “It gives people an opportunity for growth and conscious meaning.”