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All-female tattoo shop makes its mark in male-dominated field

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All-female staff
Caroline Johnson got tattooed at Jackalope in Minneapolis for the fifth time on June 25, 2015. Johnson likes both the art and the atmosphere at Jackalope.
Nikki Tundel | MPR News

When many people think of getting a tattoo, they likely expect to go to a shop run by men.

  That's not surprising, because male tattoo artists in the United States vastly outnumber their female counterparts.

  But these days, more women than men are sporting ink. Polls show about 23 percent of women have tattoos, compared to 19 percent of men.

Jackalope Tattoo in Minneapolis, one of the few tattoo shops in the nation with an entirely female staff, aims to capture that growing market.

  The shop's artists rapidly and repeatedly puncture the skin on their clients' shoulders, forearms and rib cages. But the prevailing sound in the room is laughter.

  As artists tease each other from their workstations, patrons like Caroline Johnson join in.

Staff meeting
Jackalope employees gather for an afternoon staff meeting. Clients whose sessions fall during this time get a short break from the needles -- and a chance to offer their thoughts on the issues being discussed.
Nikki Tundel | MPR News

  "It's just a happy-go-lucky environment," said Johnson, who recently came to the Minneapolis shop for the fifth time. "It's nice to hear people interacting like friends. When you're going through something kind of painful — getting needles shoved in your skin — it's really comforting."

  At first, tattoo artist Nichelle Gabbard describes the atmosphere in Jackalope Tattoo as family-like. But she's quick to clarify.

  "It's like working with a bunch of sisters instead of working with a bunch of brothers who are gross and inappropriate," she said.

  The shop employs seven female artists. That's a scenario that is almost unheard of in what remains a very male-dominated profession, said owner Bambi Wendt, who has been tattooing in the Twin Cities for more than a decade.

  "The shops have been almost all male," Wendt said of the places she has worked. "Sometimes [there was] one other chick. But that was pretty rare."

Perfect job
Katie Kroeck originally worked in book illustration, but the solitary nature of the job wasn't for her. "I wanted to paint. I wanted to work with people. Tattooing basically allows me to do both," said Kroeck.
Nikki Tundel | MPR News

  Wendt said misogyny is common in the industry. Other Jackalope artists agree. They recall the co-workers who commented more on their bodies than their work — and patrons who rejected the very idea of a "girl" wielding a tattoo machine.

  Tattoo artist Katie Kroeck will never forget the time a male tattoo artist said, "Oh, let me warm my hands in your thighs."

  That kind of behavior inspired Wendt to launch Jackalope in 2013.

  "I think that the industry is ready to see a kinder, gentler side," she said.

  There are those who assume an all-female staff means all kinds of cuteness. Indeed, a fair number of flower motifs and cat designs do come out of Jackalope.

  On a recent afternoon, client May Weiss came in to have an artistic representation of her family's beloved feline, Virgil Tibbs, tattooed on her wrist.

  "He was named after a character from my dad's favorite TV show, 'In the Heat of the Night,'" she said.

  It's an ideal assignment for Kroeck, 27, who has "Cat Lady" tattooed on her knuckles.

  Still, the artists get plenty of requests for skulls, barbed wire and classic pinup girls — some with a modern twist.

  "Zombies," Gabbard said. "Zombie pinups are pretty popular these days."

  As it turns out, the all-female aspect of Jackalope is reflected less in the content of tattoos than in the experience that customers have while getting them.

  Nicole Luck, who chose the shop for its low-key feel, came in for tattoos of matching sparrows on each forearm — one for each her two children, ages 5 and 1.

  "Some places can be a little more intimidating or tough," Luck said. "Is it OK to say, 'That's not the vibe you guys have?'" she asked the Jackalope staff with a laugh. 

  For some, the fact that Jackalope has a completely female staff makes little difference.

  But the judgment-free atmosphere cultivated there has been a draw for members of the transgender community and for women who have had mastectomies and want their chests tattooed, Kroeck said.

  "It's really great to have females working in the tattoo industry just as much as anything else where someone's going to be laying their hands on your body," she said.

  That can be important for customers who have been through tough experiences. 

Artist Emi Monson
Tattoo artist Emi Monson worked on returning client Hayden Gadde. During this visit, Gadde got the image Batman tattooed on his shoulder.
Nikki Tundel | MPR News

  "You never know someone's personal history," Kroeck said. "Sometimes they survived some crazy trauma. Emotions can be triggered by the pain of the tattoo. Why not put someone in the most comfortable setting for them in that point?"

  Sunlight fills the studio. That alone makes Jackalope a standout in an era of decidedly dark tattoo shops. Instead of heavy metal music, the pop-rock sound of Madonna pumps through the speakers.

  Wendt said there is room for all kinds of tattoo shops but hers offers an alternative to the typical one.

  "I've had people who won't get tattooed by women; they just won't," she said. "It doesn't hurt my feelings. If that's not what you're looking for, that's not what you're looking for and I can't change that for you.

  Wendt does want to make one thing clear: Just because Jackalope has an all-female staff doesn't mean it only takes female clients.

  "People ask me that," she said. "They're like, 'Oh, does that mean you don't tattoo dudes?' It's like, 'Of course we tattoo dudes. We just tattoo rad dudes.'"