Female Tattoo Artists Are Finally Getting the Recognition They Deserve

After eight seasons, the popular tattoo competition reality show "Ink Master" just announced its first female winner. We spoke to women from throughout the show's history about how they struggled, both on camera and off, to be taken seriously.

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Dec 7 2016, 3:50pm

Screengrab via YouTube

Kelly Doty was in her shop preparing to tattoo a customer when he threw her portfolio in her face and yelled, "I'm not gonna get tattooed by a bitch."

"[All of the female tattoo artists here have] been in these situations or worse," Doty told Dave Navarro, host of the reality TV competition show Ink Master, in an episode that aired earlier this season. "It would be great to see a female Ink Master. So if one of us can get there, then that's kind of a victory for all of us."

On Tuesday, there was a victory for the dozens of women who have competed on Ink Master over the years, and for female tattoo artists around the world. Even though Doty, a fan favorite, came in third, she was able to claim success when her competitor Ryan Ashley Malarkey became the first woman to win Ink Master.

Read more: Having Tattoos Can Actually Help You Get Hired

After just concluding its eighth season, Ink Master averages two million viewers per episode (66 percent of which are women), and is the number-1 rated show for viewers aged 18-49 in its timeslot, according to Nielsen. Unlike documentary-style shows like LA or Miami Ink, which followed artists in their own shops, Ink Master brings together tattoo artists from around the country to compete in timed challenges in which they're judged on technique and artistry. Winners receive a $100,000 prize and a feature in Inked magazine.

There had never been a female Ink Master since the show's debut in 2012. But this season was defined by the alliance the women on the show formed to carry one another to the finish. For female contestants, the top honor has meant more than the $100,000 prize or notoriety—it was a statement about who can create lasting body art.

The show is a microcosm of the tattoo industry at large, says Lydia Bruno, who appeared on season four: It generally features more male contestants because tattooing is a male-dominated industry. There isn't precise data to show this disparity because each state has its own artist licensing and certification processes—Florida, for example, has 5,809 registered tattoo artists, but doesn't keep statistics on the artists' genders, said Brad Dalton, the deputy press secretary at the Florida Department of Public Health. New York leaves licensing up to each county, and New York City doesn't have a reliable gender breakdown of its 2,389 licensed tattoo artists. But anecdotally, the female tattoo artists I spoke to noted that it was difficult for women to break into the industry, though they have also noticed an increase in the number of female tattoo artists over the years.

The first known female tattoo artist in the US was Maud Wagner, a circus performer in the early 1900s who is rumored to have agreed to a date with her husband-to-be in exchange for him giving her tattoo lessons. Decades after Wagner, "Shangahi Kate" Hellebrand became known as "America's Tattoo Godmother" after entering the scene in the early 70s and forging her way in the male-dominated industry.

"I ran into a lot of opposition," Hellebrand told Inked magazine of being a woman in the industry. "I didn't really pay too much attention to that. Someone telling me that I can't do something because I'm a girl is the biggest firecracker you could put under my ass."

It's also been a tough road for the women who have followed in her footsteps. Heather Sinn, who competed on the first season of the Ink Master, recalls trying to get her start in LA nearly 20 years ago and being turned away by male shop owners.

"This guy literally slammed the door in my face and told me no women were going to be in the tattoo industry," she says. "I was so surprised and terrified. It was really, really hard at first, and I still feel like some of the men in my industry are very disrespectful." Sinn ended up traveling all over the country before she was able to get an apprenticeship with an artist.

This guy literally slammed the door in my face and told me no women were going to be in the tattoo industry.

Lea Vendetta, Sinn's only female competitor on that season, had a similar experience when she began tattooing 20 years ago. She says people thought she was "out of her mind" for wanting to do something considered to be men's work.

"It was like I was telling people I wanted to be a mechanic," she says. "[Tattooing] had this weird stereotype of being undesirable. But I thought it was so amazing to be able to create art on skin and have something like a painting on yourself. It's like an ornament you're never going to lose. A memory."

Ink Master's producers say that stories from female artists have shown them the importance of putting more women on the show. After all, many of the people working behind the scenes are women themselves: The show's top executives include Sharon Levy, Spike TV's executive vice president of original series, who greenlit the series to run on the network eight seasons ago, as well as Andrea Richter, the show's executive producer and showrunner, and Glenda Hersh, the executive producer of the show and co-CEO of Original Media, which produces the show.

"I think it's been a hard road for women in the tattoo world, and they traditionally have a harder time breaking through," Richter says. "Earlier on it was harder to find women to compete, but we've seen a change and new generation coming up in that world."

The women of "Ink Master" season eight

Still, the competition is framed by men, hosted by Navarro and judged by renowned tattoo artists Oliver Peck and Chris Nuñez, all of whom ultimately choose the winner. The men often bring in guest judges to critique contestants' work, but they're also predominantly male, says season six contestant Katie McGowan. During her season, four of the five guest judges were men. This dynamic mimics that of the industry; many female contestants said they didn't have women mentors critiquing or investing in their work.

"I think that, generally speaking, women can be underestimated, especially in a male-dominated industry," McGowan says. "On my season, specifically, me and the two other girls were underestimated as soon as the other contestants saw us. Some guys referred to us as 'stupid little girls.'"

The show also captures the reality of the comments some women receive while working among men. Sarah Miller, who was the runner-up in season two, spent the entire season being called "emotional" and "weak under pressure" by her fellow male contestants.

"What I feel like people expect women to do in order to earn their respect is just take abuse and look cool and calm as a cucumber," says Miller. "If you have a snappy comeback, you're a bitch."

That's why it's been important for the women of season eight to stick together. Because the competition is like a "stressful summer camp" where contestants spend every minute together, it was natural for the women to form a bond, says Gia McKee, who was part of the alliance before she was eliminated this season.

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"We all highly admire and support each other knowing that, as women, our experiences coming up in this industry are unique and tough," McKee says. "We honestly stuck up for each other when we found it to be appropriate, because as women we do very much know how our voices can be silenced, dismissed, or drowned out."

The girl-power bond on this season of the show reminded season five contestant Caroline Evans of the relationship she formed with other female tattoo artists when she first started out in 1998.

"For me, [watching this season] has been a throwback," Evans says. "When I started, a lot of women would start and realize how grueling it was and not continue, so those of us who did tattoo stuck together. It was very much this close-knit, 'you go girl' [attitude]."

Even though it was tough, the female contestants overwhelmingly say that they are glad they went on the show. McGowan says the visibility it offers helps many female artists get the broader recognition they deserve, and Miller says appearing on the show pushed her to be a better artist.

"It broke me down and stripped me of my weakest bits," Miller says. "I still feel like I can do better."

Malarkey, who has only been tattooing for four years, said throughout the season that even though she had less experience than her fellow competitors, she wanted to prove that hard work and sheer determination could carry her to the finish. "I deserve to be the first female Ink Master," she said in a clip that aired just before she won the title.

The judges agreed.