Words by Nneka Samuel
The stigma of tattoos on the female body bears a long history – one steeped in religion, the “tramp stamp” assumption of promiscuity and societal norms that dare dictate what women can and cannot do with their own bodies. Being simultaneously an inked woman and a female tattoo artist? Not exactly something you would expect of most Caribbean women. But these aren’t your everyday, run of the mill chicks.
From Puerto Rico, St. Lucia and Jamaica, three pioneers and businesswomen are making names for themselves in a largely male-dominated industry; one still deemed taboo by Caribbean society at large. But their work, talent, and sheer determination to be at the top of their game is helping to change negative perceptions, all while ushering in a new wave of ink-slingers.
25-year-old Lidiette Del Valle, owner of Crazy Tattoos in Carolina, Puerto Rico, is fully aware that being a female tattoo artist is not a common practice in her native country. Currently the sole artist at her shop, Del Valle has deliberately taken a female apprentice, Jojo Colón, under her wing. Fully acknowledging how “women in the tattoo world are marginalized,” Del Valle’s plan is to transform her growing business into a one-of-a-kind venue that solely employs female tattoo artists. She even wants all of the art on the walls to be made by women. And while the majority of her former work colleagues have been men, Del Valle admits that they gave her a warm and cordial welcome to the tattoo industry when she first began in 2009. But, she still had to prove herself.
“At [the] early stages of my career, I was treated differently. In the shop where I first worked, I was the only female tattoo artist. When male customers came to the shop, they doubted my ability and asked first to see my previous work to make sure that I could tattoo, something they did not do to my male co-workers and boss.”
Despite being called crazy by family and friends when she decided to open her own tattoo shop, Del Valle nonetheless had ample support. The “crazy” label clearly stuck and became not only the name of her business, but a means by which to gain ground on an art she says was once deemed diabolic and obscene.
St. Lucian tattoo artist Melanie Fraites of Dragonfish Tattoo describes herself as “a bit of a mad scientist environmentalist” who dabbles in everything from the cannabis movement to website design, computer repair and of course, body art. She has been tattooing for over 11 years and in that time has witnessed a change in social norms. “The taboo about tattoos is wearing off,” says Fraites. “People are more concerned with the design being tasteful and professional and safe, but the majority still believe that [tattoos] should be covered for work.” In addition, Fraites claims some customers only want a female tattoo artist and that many clients treat her better, if at all different.
With over a decade of professional experience under her belt, it is safe to say that Fraites has created a lot of work. Asking her to pick a favorite tattoo to date? The proud mother of three says that task is “analogous to asking a parent which is their favorite child.”
Ocho Rios-bred Candice “Needlez” Davis has a law degree from Jamaica’s University of Technology, but she’s way too fun for law. Specializing in cover-up tattoos, this self-proclaimed Olivia Pope of tattoos, is “completely and hopelessly” in love with her job. And while she has been treated differently being a female tattoo artist, she says it has its benefits. “Being treated differently isn’t always a bad thing. Most women prefer to come to a female to get tattooed. They like to think I’m gentler and more compassionate, [which] I am. And of course, most men like being touched by a woman.”
Davis opened her shop, NeedleZ Body Candy Services, in 2010, and in addition to cover-ups, enjoys portraits and designs inked in black and grey. Like her counterparts, she is well aware of the fear that body ink conveys – fear of its lasting permanence and of the pain often associated with the needle. Her take on the matter?
“I believe tattoos are still taboo because the morals, teachings and culture of most Caribbean islands are founded on the teachings of Christianity,” says Davis. “Most Christians view the body as the temple and as such, have taken this to mean we ought not mark our bodies. I, on the other hand, say if the body is a temple, why not decorate the walls?”
It’s a good thing she won’t be putting her law degree to use any time soon. Davis’ passion is much better suited in ink. “My work immortalizes me,” she exclaims. “Who doesn’t want to live forever?”
While Davis, Fraites and Del Valle have already made a lasting mark with their clients, the paths they’ve boldly forged as women, artists, and history-makers might have even more impact. For that, they deserve all the respect.