Dawn Cooke: Lady Tattooers

Today Nick (our shop guy) asked me why there weren’t that many good women tattoo artists. He felt there should be more I suppose. I said two reasons, first most women aren’t tough enough to work ten times harder than their male peers and take tons of shit along the way. Second they aren’t taken seriously enough in the first place to even be offered the opportunity. Then if they are offered the opportunity based on their skill or looks which ever go back to reason one.

They aren’t willing to put up with the nonsense that will go along with being in the shop environment. Either you have some scumbag trying to get down your pants or you have some other asshole that gets off on making you do shit. But that is the way it goes for any apprentice and women shouldn’t expect special treatment there. But it’s the sexual harassment that becomes a bit much. In the tattoo culture there is still a lot of sexism that goes on.

The women who do make it are usually forced to put on a facade of ultra bad-assness. Then criticized for it and often accused of being gay when they don’t want to have sex with their male peers. Some women become very promiscuous thinking that this will get them where they want to be and only find that they have given their male peers more reason to not respect them.


It is a delicate tightrope to walk. I personally resolved to take every situation on a case-by-case scenario and to never let my sex interfere with my success. Instead I try to maintain self respect and respect my peers as much as possible by rarely or never getting sexually involved with clients or peers and working on the quality of my skill in the craft. Increasingly there are more female tattooers who are good at the craft of tattooing.

I am proud to say that I am part of a growing community of strong and skilled women in tattooing. What is happening now is that women are struggling to regain their role as a woman. It is difficult to embrace the beauty and softness of femininity and still play a respected dominant role in the culture. Women are often not included in projects and opportunities because they aren’t part of the boy’s club. I feel the need to point out that it shows the insecurity of the male counterparts when they purposefully exclude females from the equation.

dawn tattoo

In my experience I have been respected and included in many ways and I am grateful. Guys, if you know or work with a female tattooer who throws down and kicks ass, think of her the next time the boys get together to do a project. Don’t just think about her tits or how nice her ass looks in those jeans. We all have to help support and promote one another in positive ways to keep our craft sacred and thriving. The whole cutthroat approach is unnecessary really.

You don’t have to give out every secret of your trade to any old Tom, Dick and Harry but seriously anything anyone wants to know is out there. Everyone and their sister wants to be a tattoo artist. But no one wants to really put any work in, both guys and girls! Guys and girls have to respect themselves and the craft before they can gain respect from others.

(Dawn Cooke is a contributing blogger for Tattoo Artist Magazine can be found at Depot Town Tattoo, 33 East Cross St. Ypsilanti, MI 48197 www.dawncooke.net and www.dawncookeart.com)

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13 thoughts on “Dawn Cooke: Lady Tattooers

  1. There are so many great lady tattooers today! When I started there weren’t many women I looked up to in this industry. Most lady tattooers were playing it safe. The only thing that set them apart from the men was neat and tidy, thin line work, but now women are flourishing! These days there are so many female tattooers that have distinct and recognisable styles! I remember having dinner with a group of tattooers last year and speaking with an old timer about the female tattooers I admire. I was gushing about one lady in particular and he said if she’s good she must be ugly. Jeez Louise!! If this was the reality some time ago it is certainly not the case anymore! There are so many attractive and talented ladies working today! 🙂

  2. thanks for the comments!!!! When I started there weren’t many female tattoo artist that I knew of. I am sure there are so many that get swept under the rug. That’s sort of what I’m getting at. I encourage all women who are at a good skill level to send in work to magazines and publish work as often as possible.

  3. I’ve been tattooing 32 years now and this is a subject that i feel strongly about.
    i was introduced to tattooing by my ex, also a tattooist.
    This was the case for most females in the business 20+ years ago( with the exception of only a handful.)
    Most single women, no matter how tough couldn’t safely enter this business back then without a male partner or perhaps a trusted male mentor.
    Remember tattooing was not the strip mall, soccer mom, reality tv shop business that it has become.
    One had to be able to maintain in a roomful of outlaw bikers and drunken servicemen and still put on a nice tattoo.
    For the first 10 years or so that there were conventions, it was only an annual event. The opportunity to learn from a group of others was not so available to anyone, let alone women.
    The camaraderie that exists today among women tattooers with their male counterparts just did not exist then.
    It’s Henning and Mike or Jack and Brian — Not Henning and Mike and Mary!. And it’s those relationships, groups of like minded gifted people that encourage and feed off one another’s talent.
    Do you know I actually worked for a man for 4 years without his wife knowing that he employed a female.
    And when the magazines started publishing stories about tattooers– Do you think they cared if a male tattooist was handsome or muscular? Not so with us ladies.
    And you still had to try to put on a nice tattoo.
    Ive been tattooing over 30 years, my husband just 20 but when people come in to our shop they often ask me if my husband has any availability, believing that tattooing is his trade but only my hobby.
    I love tattooing as does my husband. We have a wonderful shop and 4 children still at home. But when my children are sick or there’s a school play it is usually i who must attend to them. Now this is a matter of priorities- a choice a women has to make and a societal thing— but still another issue where fewer woman artists can flourish as do there male counterparts.
    Anyway that’s my 2 cents

    1. That was really insightful! Yes, I was a kid at that time hanging out at the club-house while my mother got tattooed. I totally understand this culture because I came up in it. I am grateful to hear your experience. Thanks for sharing it. In my experience, as a single mother of 2, I would never have survived if not for my ability to make a living tattooing….without the help of any man. But My peers helped me. My male peers, who provided me with a place to work, or went into business with me and work for me. I still went to all those things with my kids. But I still am the bread- winner. This is not an attempt to pat myself on the back. It just illustrates what a woman must do today. I am really excited that there is a communication about this topic among women and men. It is even bigger than the tattoo subculture, but this is where we can start discussions like this. We have balls of steel. 🙂

  4. Great article! I’ve been in this industry since 1998 and it’s been a struggle to be taken seriously for a long time. Now a days, it’s a easy a pie, but when I started it was absolute hell – 7 years of it. Moving shop to shop, trying to work with people that were ‘just themselves’ or didn’t care if I was a girl. I never considered myself to be a ‘typical’ tattooer/type. Artist threw and threw, and didn’t seem to fit in. Fortunately, my love of tattooing and incredible amount of tolerance (and a sense of humour!), I’ve ‘survived’ the boys club with metals of honour!
    Times are changing and I’m more then proud to be apart of the healthy progression of tattooers, as a whole.

    Sarah B Bolen

  5. I’ve been tattooing for 7 years, and I can’t agree enough with all of you ladies just said! I never really done anything that girls were supposed to do, like graffiti or skateboarding when I was younger…and to be honest being laught at it’s something I just learnt to live with and i learnt also the only way to shut those guys up was with my talent…thank god i had always great male friends and collegue that supported me and believed in me.
    I don’t tattoo like a man, I don’t draw like a man I don’t paint like a man….I’m a woman and there’s nothing wrong with doing all of these things like a woman!

    1. That’s a good point! You tattoo like a woman and there is nothing wrong with that! RIGHT….for someone to say I tattoo like a man is interesting…because I have often wondered what that means. Jeff Zuck was quoted to say that about me. And like most compliments he ever gave me it was a bit off-handed. But I look it and I take it because is the language of a man that is the highest compliment. How ever….I am a woman so doesn’t that make everything I do, “like a woman”? If we keep letting men dictate everything we define ourselves as then that is how we stay inferior. Nothing against men. I love men. I think they are fascinating creatures!

  6. I am 26 years old, living in Central Valley, California. I have been tattooing as an apprentice for two years. My friend was kind enough to start teaching me outside of the shop he works at. I can not for the life of me even find someone who is willing to professionally apprentice me in a shop to get the experience. Men have been rude, crude, and plain out mean to me. It is so nice to see other women plowing through, and getting where they need to be. Here’s to hoping I can get where you ladies are! <3 much love and respect.

  7. Stephanie, I really really hope you get out of the kitchen and into a shop. If no one is letting you in you should really think about why. It may not be just because youa re a woman. If you are serious about this trade you need to do it right. If it doesn’t work out there is the possibility that it’s not the trade for you. No offence. I just think that you can’t stay in the kitchen for 2 years man! You do a few in the kitchen and then you get good enough to get into ANY shop or you just quit! If your tattoos aren’t looking good enough by now after 2 years kitchen jocky- style then you might consider a different hobby!

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