More Than Skin Deep: The Melbourne Artists Making Tattooing Part Of The Queer Identity

2 August 2017 | 10:09 am | Maxim Boon

"It's also a visible symbol to the world that you are who you are and you don't give a fuck."

Crucible tattoo studio artists Adam Traves, aka _Disinhibition

Crucible tattoo studio artists Adam Traves, aka _Disinhibition

Getting a tattoo is an intense experience. The shrill whirr of the needle and the sharpened pain as it drags across the skin; the smell of ink and blood in the air, like a sweet-metallic musk; the throbbing warmth of inflammation and endorphins, mixed with the coiled, hair-trigger high of adrenaline. It's a cocktail of potent sensations. But beyond these physical responses, there's a deeper, intangible aspect to getting inked.

It's an act underpinned by a kind of vulnerability, an expression of self that reveals a candid glimpse of something private and personally profound. There's a uniquely intimate exchange between artist and client: a lowering of our defences, and an invitation to bear witness to parts of ourselves that even our closest confidantes might not be privy to. A tattoo is a statement, and for those who identify as queer, it has become an increasingly important rite of passage. Tattooing is a means to express their most authentic identity, bringing parts of themselves that exist in the abstract into the physical world.

But such bold and open honesty, indelibly recorded, reflects a level of bravery that has become obscured, at least in part, by the zeitgeist in recent months. In the past, the queer community has considered its place within conformist societies with a mix of guarded caution and protective isolation. Similarly, queer bodies have often tried to mask those tells that might reveal their true desires. In search of safety, confronted by intolerance, this is a community that has often been forced to uncomfortably assimilate or face unprovoked hostility.

But now, the queer identity is in a state of flux. As the gaping, grasping, pussy grabbing horror of the emboldened political right has threatened diverse communities, aspects of queer culture have rebounded into the mainstream. Previously mysterious and stigmatised quarters of queer society,  particularly members of the trans community, have found themselves popularised, drawn from the fringes and welcomed into the spotlight.

Trans and queer folk gaining prominence in the public eye is, of course, a positive thing, as it has humanised the transgendered and those who identify as non-binary, beyond the LGBTQI scene. Celebs like Orange Is The New Black star Laverne Cox, former Olympian and inexplicable Republican Caitlyn Jenner, and writer and son of Cher, Chaz Bono, have demystified the trans identity in a globally reaching way. But they have also given it a sheen of "unclockable" showbiz glamour, projecting a misleading impression that the ultimate goal of all trans people — who exist across a huge spectrum of non-biologically defined notions of gender — is to "pass" as cis-gendered (as male or female).

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In the face of the emboldened alt-right sentiments gaining prominence around the world, the gulf between the haves and have-nots of the queer community feels especially stark. As transness, queerness, and gender fluidity has gained greater attention, it has also been commodified by mainstream media. At the same time, LGBTQI rights have remained hard won. Simple everyday dignities —  such as having access to public bathrooms according to personal gender identities, accessing medical services related to transitioning or to drugs like PrEP, having a choice over the pronouns used on official documents, or the simple right to marry — have remained subject to conservative, heteronormative legislation, discriminating to the letter of the law. Right-wing media peddle demonising attacks on "deviant" queers, as fashion editorials package in-flux gender identities as must-have "transversal" accessories. President Trump can reject the brave service of thousands of trans servicemen and women with a few casually tossed off tweets, stoking the moral hysteria of his conservative base; meanwhile, former One D-er and cis-male heterosexual Zayn Malik can claim to be gender fluid, as he recently did in a controversial Vogue interview, because he sometimes borrows his girlfriend's pea coat. 

Tattoo artist and founder of Crucible Tattoo Studio, Zero

According to the mainstream, right now, being queer is fashionable. Just so long as you're the right kind of queer. And this raises a question: has this led to a form of cultural appropriation that may belittle the way queer people express themselves authentically? Will those expressions be seen as merely jumping on a bandwagon?

For tattoo artist Zero, founder of queer-run Melbourne tattoo studio Crucible Tattoo Co., these polished and over-simplified depictions of queer culture can be a problematic misrepresentation. "How queer people think of themselves is often very multidimensional, and I feel that in terms of reclaiming the body and reclaiming a sense of pride in oneself, that complexity is very consistent among the queer clients I meet," he explains. "But if you look around a city like Melbourne, you'll see a more heterosexual crowd, a more mainstream crowd, outwardly adopting those markers, getting heavily tattooed. So, that's where you get a sense that there are, or have been, gatekeepers there for queer bodies to feel comfortable or respected."

Tattoo artist, as a profession, is a job that comes with plenty of baggage. Historically seen as a part of biker, gang and prison culture, in recent decades tattooing has done a full 180, becoming oh so mainstream, and Australia is amongst the most liberally inked nations in the world. But during its evolution from underworld subculture to high street pop culture, tattooing has retained a strong leaning toward hyper-masculine, hetero-centric, homophobic attitudes.

Zero, who is a trans man, opened Crucible Tattoo in the central Melbourne suburb of Kensington in response to the casual discrimination he experienced working in the tattoo industry. "For years, in the tattoo shops I've worked in, the kind of derogatory talk I'd hear would be about sexuality, gender, direct racism, jokes about HIV and people who are positive, jokes about transgender people, about sex workers. I just felt like, that's my family, you know? That's my home," he shares. "There's no overlord in the tattooing industrial. There's no big boss or unions or caucuses. There's nothing, no collective within the tattoo industry that's monitoring the way artists relate to their clients and if they're being discriminatory in the workplace. It makes calling out that kind of talk really difficult."

And it's not just queer clients that Zero's shop protects. Queer artists, who may not have been able to access apprenticeships in safe spaces, are being nurtured at Crucible. One of Zero's stable of queer tattooing talent is Adam Traves, aka _Disinhibition. His bold, in your face yet playful designs have earned him a huge online following, particularly on Instagram where he has over 35,000 followers. "Queerness doesn't abide by the rules or even have any rules. Queerness is about being an individual," he says. "For me, I see queerness as something that is more expressive, inclusive, more open minded and individualistic. There is no cookie cutter mould for queerness - it's an identity free of expectation."

This ethos is writ large in Traves' body of work, with some designs broadly exploring ideas of otherness and anti-establishment rebellion, with others connecting more explicitly with sexuality and queer counterculture. "When I was younger, I wanted to be seen as something more, an outsider. I wanted to change myself because I didn't feel like I belonged - in my own skin, or society. I found myself going down a road of intentionally not belonging, of making myself look different to empower that difference, to celebrate the fact I was different," he explains. "Queer clients have a different perspective on the art they adorn themselves with. It speaks to their identity. Your body, gender, sexuality, have all been things that you've fought for and have been forced to consider. It's an empowering moment when you get something that represents who you are, in a permanent visible way. But it's also a visible symbol to the world that you are who you are and you don't give a fuck."

But beyond the social pros, there's an artistic benefit to the thinking behind Crucible and other similar queer tattoo studios. Making the tattoo shop a more inclusive, welcoming environment helps clients open-up, share more comfortably with artists and play a more active role in the development of designs that honestly express their individuality. "In my experience, queer people learn to relate to their bodies in a very different way to the heteronormative lens," Zero suggests. "The way that we come to terms with our bodies, come to terms with the way we use our bodies, I feel like, for us to indulge in tattooing is a way for us to engage with those ideas. And certainly, I've found that the ideas that clients come with, their personal concepts that go into sculpting their bodies, are far richer and more meaningful because they've come to a space where the artists can relate to their experiences. We can relate about our childhoods, our ambitions, our love lives, our sex lives. We are connected by that shared experience."