Tattoo artists advocate for safe spaces as #metoo movement hits Regina industry

Regina tattoo artists are offering help to people who say they have a tattoo from someone who was sexually violent or inappropriate toward them.

Artists offering support to survivors of sexual violence, education

Sara Derksen (pictured working prior to COVID-19) is one of several artists in Regina who have spoken openly in support of sexual violence survivors, and offered to help rework, cover or finish a tattoo that was done by an abuser. (Submitted by Sara Derksen)

Tattoo artists are extending support to sexual violence survivors who say they were violated by someone who inked them.

"As an artist, you're in a place of power. They have to be vulnerable to get it done and that power can't be abused. It has to stay professional," said Regina artist Sara Derksen. 

Multiple allegations suggest there has been misconduct within the Regina tattoo industry. In July, allegations implicating people either in or associated with the tattoo scene were posted to an Instagram account dedicated to sharing anonymous stories of sexual violence in Regina.

Similar movements associated with sexual violence in the tattoo industry are happening across Canada — mostly through Instagram. 

There are few things more permanent than artwork inked on skin. Derksen said this visible reminder can be incredibly traumatic for people violated by the artist. 

"They already have to deal with the actual trauma of that happening; they don't need a visual reminder," she said. "I want there to be a safe place for people who need to finish their tattoos that were done by predatory artists." 

She's one of many artists now speaking out with the goal of creating a safer tattoo scene in the city. Artists are also offering to do cover-ups or finish incomplete work. 

Sara Derksen says her tattoos helped her reclaim herself and help heal after past trauma, which is in part why she wants to help others heal. (Submitted by Sara Derksen)

Harassment in the industry

Derksen entered the industry at 18. She said both clients and female artists like herself experienced sexual violence, but that nothing was done. 

She said the man who brought her on board for an apprenticeship sexually harassed her for two years. 

"To get an apprenticeship was huge. I wasn't going to mess that up, even if it meant being abused," she said.

Derksen said she was made to question her own merit and told "no one else will hire you." 

She also remembers her boss targetting a client he said was "hot." 

"He actually went through our waivers and infringed on her privacy to find her contact information," she said. "I was convinced that was my livelihood and I had no other option. I didn't whistleblow, and I should have." 

Now Dersksen is encouraging others in the industry to speak up and intervene. 

"We can't assume the quiet client is actually comfortable." 

Education is key 

Regina artist and advocate CJ Pannell posted a call to victims of sexual violence in early June, as #metoo movements were starting to shake up the industry in other cities. 

"We're creating a really strong community," Pannell said.  "As a survivor myself, I wanted to be able to provide a space that is safe for my clients." 

She and her coworker Geanna Dunbar said they can't keep quiet as survivors come forward. 

"We're doing our best to educate our clients and to educate people to notice what's normal and what's not," said piercer and artist Dunbar. 

CJ Pannell called out on social media in early June to victims of sexual assault and people who have been victimized by tattoo artists. (Submitted by CJ Pannell)

Dunbar said she's using social media to show what's appropriate and what might be a red flag.  For example, she said you don't have to remove your whole shirt for a tattoo. There are options for draping or nipple coverings. Derksen added that letting people bring a friend or having cameras in the shop can bolster comfort. 

Pannell and Dunbar said some victims who have reached out to them didn't realize at the time that what they experienced was wrong.

"They didn't even realize they were taken advantage of as minors," Dunbar said.

Geanna Dunbar and CJ Pannell are working together to educate clients and other artists about what's appropriate in the industry. (Submitted by Geanna Dunbar)

Pannell said they're also trying to educate people who might be unaware they are behaving inappropriately. 

Both are encouraging people to seek other resources, like counselling, for support if they need. They're also calling for accountability from artists who have been accused. 

A permanent shift 

Dominika, who works for Wright Ink and Artwork in Regina, said education efforts like this are key, because she's had countless clients express that they don't know what's normal and what's not. 

She said industry lacks regulation for such intimate work.

"There's been a lot of abuse of power — where artists know full well that young girls look up to them," she said. "It's time to change that." 

The industry has seen more female artists leading the way in recent years, she said, adding there have also been transgender artists, Indigenous artists and people of colour who are blazing trails. She said this can also contribute to safer, more inclusive spaces. 

A new way to speak up

Dunbar said it seems victims historically haven't come forward in a city as small as Regina because they feel like they wouldn't have credibility, especially if their claims are against someone who's been in the industry for years or well-known for their art.

"It's really hard to sit around and hear people who worked with these abusers say yeah, they've been doing that for years," Dunbar said. 

She said there hasn't been a forum like this for people to share their experiences or to report sexual violence until the Instagram account popped up. Derksen added there's no "Rate my Tattoo Artist" website, nor is there an HR department. 

Geanna Dunbar said the industry lacks regulation, so shops must take it upon themselves. 'Everything was thrown out the window because it’s like we’re this cool hip industry... but we're professionals.' (Submitted by Geanna Dunbar)

She said she has seen some survivors being accused of "ruining reputations." She doesn't want that to deter others. 

"Reporting an abuser doesn't ruin their lives, they already did that by being an abuser," Dersksen said. "Reporting an abuser doesn't damage their reputation, it makes their reputation more accurate."

Dunbar wants survivors to keep speaking out, regardless of any pushback. She's hopeful this movement will create lasting change in the local tattoo scene. 

"There's the momentum with the #metoo movement and people feel like it's time."