"I really think it's more about the healing process for a lot of my clients than a subculture," says Sara Fabel of Costa Mesa's Outer Limits Tattoo. "They want to reclaim their bodies."
Erika Jurkovic rolls her eyes. The veteran tattooer doesn't say anything–she's too polite–but you can feel the snicker raring to erupt, how she's ready to teach this whippersnapper a lesson. Feelings and therapy and reclaiming, all over a little ink? The bikers and outlaws who taught Jurkovic in the 1990s, a time when female tattoo artists were as common as clean restrooms in grimy shops, would've laughed Fabel back to art school.
Brynne Palmer senses the tension between the two. "I think what Erika's trying to say is that tattooing didn't used to be as mainstream as it is now," Palmer says. "It was still helping people, but it wasn't as accepted by everyone. It was a smaller group of people; that's what a subculture is."
Jurkovic is still shaking her head, but she seems glad to not have to explain anything to Fabel, who gladly listens to Palmer's defense. All the while, Brandi Collins sits on the other side of Fabel and stares down at her phone, scrolling through Fabel's Instagram account, which is chockablock with some of Orange County's best tattoos. She isn't looking to jump into this debate; she also believes in tattooing's therapeutic nature, but she misses when it was a subculture.
The four women have spent almost two hours around a table at Memphis Café, scarfing down oversized vegetarian burgers and gooey mac and cheese. Jurkovic takes off her jacket to reveal gracefully aged art down to the middle of her forearms–a few flowers, some splashes of water. Bright reds and greens pop out from under Palmer's sweater; the edges of Collins' Japanese sleeves are still visible under her jacket. What little blank space is left on Fabel's arms is overshadowed by intricate black lines covering her neck and hands.
They've been shooting the shit about friends, co-workers and trends, but mostly about their shared lives as rarities in Orange County. All are hailed as top-notch artists in an industry that's still overwhelmingly male-dominated. They span generations: Jurkovic, of Costa Mesa's Port City Tattoo, is the queen bee; Collins, who works at Good Time Charlie's Tattooland in Anaheim, represents the rise of domesticity in the scene; Palmer, from Gold Rush Tattoo in Costa Mesa, is helping to make pop culture and femininity acceptable in tattooing. And Fabel, the touchy-feely one, is the young gun, someone who got into the trade not because it was rebellious, but because it was a good business choice.
For decades, female tattooers faced workplace ridicule and unfair criticism, and many male artists continue to insist gals can't cut it. Stats back up that pigheaded thinking: A 2010 study by Columbia University found that only one in six tattooers were female. "I don't think women tattooers should be viewed any differently than guy tattooers," Collins says as she sips her water. "There are a lot of shops that are all dudes, but if there's a woman who's a good tattooer, there's something there."
Fullerton's Classic Tattoo's Tim Hendricks–one of OC's most prominent artists and who has been featured on NY Ink and Miami Ink–also believes that female tattooers such as this quartet not only deserve a shot, but have already earned it. "I think, for the most part, they smell a lot nicer than 90 percent of the dudes I have worked with," Hendricks says, semi-jokingly. "Male, female or transsexual–as long as you are bringing good things to the table of tattooing, that's all that matters."
While well-known artists such as LA Ink's Kat Von D and Long Beach's Kari Barba brought female tattooers into the public eye, it wasn't always welcoming.
"When I first started tattooing, there were very few women in the tattoo field," says Barba, who started in 1979. She's a legend in Southern California, current owner of what used to be Bert Grimm's World Famous Tattoo and the first woman to repeat as Tattooist of the Year for the National Tattoo Association. "I was one of about six, I believe. Since that time, with those women and myself blazing the way, tattooing is fully open to all women . . . although you still see more men on TV and in print, women are doing amazing work every day."
One of her protégées, Jurkovic, has turned from disciple to colleague to friend. "She's a super-great person and a great artist who worked for us at Outer Limits Tattoo for many years," Barba says. "[We have] watched her life grow and change."
Jurkovic started inking in Atlanta in 1995, although her passion for the art began as a child reading heavy-metal magazines. "I would look at the tattoos on the guys in the magazines and draw them," she says. "They were always dragons, skulls, daggers, stuff like that, so I was always drawing masculine designs. I didn't know I wanted to be a tattooer at the time, but that's how I picked up my style."
It was a time when tatted women weren't an everyday sight; never mind seeing them working in shops. "People would come in and talk to me about a tattoo, and then they'd ask me when the tattooer would be ready," Jurkovic says. "They just assumed there couldn't be a girl tattooing. Even after I told them that I tattooed, people would wait for a male tattooer instead of getting tattooed by me.
"Looking back now, I don't know how I did it," she adds. "The shops were run by bikers, and it was just hardcore. It didn't attract a lot of women. Working around guys back then, you learned to have thicker skin. You just had to prove yourself and roll with the punches. Instead of someone talking behind your back and saying that chicks can't tattoo, they'd just say it to your face."
After moving to Washington, D.C., Jurkovic visited friends in California in the late 1990s. There, she met Barba at her shop and was hired immediately. "I worked for Kari for 15 years, and it was a really great experience," Jurkovic says. "I just like it out here. People get big tattoos, and there are so many people with tattoos. It's good because you're almost always busy."
Jurkovic prides herself on practicing traditional tattooing or "tattoos that look like tattoos. . . . A lot of girls can't tattoo, and I really hate to say that, but it's true. Maybe it's just the style they like; it doesn't make for good tattoos. I'm not girly in any part of my life, so I don't want to wear girly tattoos."
Even motherhood hasn't lessened Jurkovic's commitment to her craft–she continued to work until she was eight months pregnant with her now-2-year-old daughter and inked through wrist pain so crippling she struggled to use keyboards. And, while she rolled her eyes at Fabel's comments about tattoo therapy, she believes it. "You take the words they come in with and make them into an image that will fit their body," Jurkovic says. "You're changing someone's life, so you want them to be happy and have a good memory of the tattoo. I'm not just going to sit there and put headphones on or ignore the person. You want them to feel like they're your best friend and that that's the best tattoo you've ever done."
As recently as a decade ago, Jurkovic was usually one of the only women at Southern California tattoo conventions. It was at one of those conventions that Collins was looking for inspiration; she found it in Jurkovic.
They didn't speak at all because Jurkovic worked on a Japanese koi half-sleeve throughout the weekend. "At the time, I had just barely started tattooing and was only doing really small stuff," Collins says. "Seeing this cool-looking girl doing a really nice, big tattoo was really inspiring for me. It made me want to do big pieces. It didn't look like tattoos done by some of the other women tattooers I knew. It was big, solid and tough, but still pretty."
One of only a few women to work under iconic tat-zapper Jack Rudy at Good Time Charlie's Tattooland, Collins has now been in the industry for 14 years. While Jurkovic spent the early years of her career being doubted by co-workers and clients alike, Collins never suffered such haters. "The whole experience was really different for me," Collins says. "Every person I've worked with has been very nice for the most part, and the shops have never been disrespectful or anything like that. I've heard a lot of those stories over the years, guys badmouthing girls for being bad tattooers and such, but I've never had that."
Nevertheless, Collins knows what the industry expects of female artists, and she hates the stigma. "Before, people thought that you only went to a woman to get little girly tattoos," Collins says. "Now, it's not just girls going to women to get a pretty tattoo; we can do tough tattoos just as well as the men."
Collins, who "couldn't wait to get out of" Lake Elsinore as a kid, moved to Huntington Beach at 19. She enrolled at Saddleback College, and then Orange Coast College. "I was getting my AA and taking an art class each semester," Collins says. "Those art classes reminded me how much I loved art after I'd kind of fallen away from it in high school. I had two really amazing art professors, and they really inspired me to want to be an art professor at a junior college. That was my goal until I got up the nerve to try to pursue tattooing."
While Collins was in school, a friend named Lucky tattooed her husband at Donovan's Autumn Moon Tattoos, then in Costa Mesa. Those pieces, a black-and-gray Jesus and several traditional designs, inspired Collins to ask Lucky about an apprenticeship. "She took on all of the grunt work and did everything that we asked," Lucky now says. "She stuck around for long enough that, eventually, it was time to start teaching her how to tattoo. I'm super-proud of her these days. . . . She's the only person I ever taught to tattoo, and I taught her so well that I don't want to teach anyone else."
Collins started off doing traditional tattoos, but her primary focus nowadays is detailed, fine-line black-and-gray work. Though she brags about a western cattle skull she did on a woman's wrist and a massive sea turtle shoulder piece, she says she's not above doing feminine designs, even if her peers scoff at them. "A lot of soccer moms and housewives want to get tattoos, and they're a lot more comfortable with me because I'm a woman and I don't look threatening," Collins says. "I take the extra time to talk to them and make them comfortable and happy. I'll go out of my way to do that for them."
When Palmer started tattooing at Electric Tattooing in Newport Beach in 2006, a lot of customers called her Brandi. But so many people kept getting Palmer's name wrong that her boss finally had to explain to her that Brandi Collins had worked at the shop before her arrival.
"I never actually knew who Brandi was until I moved next door to Tim [Hendricks' shop]," Palmer says. "They're all friends, and when I learned that she worked at Tattooland, which is kind of this badass shop, and had this adorable family, I knew she must be a badass."
Palmer came from a well-to-do Newport Beach family, attending Corona del Mar High. It was her dad who inadvertently gave her a push into the industry: At 15, after arguing with him over her desire to get inked, he responded, "Well, why don't you just be a goddamn tattoo artist?'"
"I always knew I wanted to be tattooed," Palmer says. "But I never really thought of doing it for a career until my dad said that to me. That kind of put the idea in my head."
So she became a shop helper at Electric Chair Tattoo, then in Costa Mesa. On her 18th birthday, during a lunch break, she walked across the street to another shop and got a star on her wrist.
Palmer soon met another remarkable female tattooer, Christine Nelson. "Brynne was possibly still in high school when I met her," Nelson remembers. "My roommate was the manager at Electric Chair Tattoo, and she brought the new employee home one night to hang out. She lied and said Brynne was 19, I think, so we became friends. For years, I thought Brynne was 19, which was hilarious on her 19th birthday."
Palmer began searching for apprenticeships across California, from Los Angeles to San Diego, even San Francisco–anything to get her foot in the door. "I'd just blindly walk into shops, not realizing that people only wanted to apprentice friends or people recommended to them," Palmer says. "They'd see this little blond girl from Newport walk in with no tattoos and ask for an apprenticeship; I got a lot of looks like I had three heads."
After a year answering phones, making appointments and cleaning floors at Electric Chair, Palmer finally got the apprenticeship she was looking for, spending 18 months under Nelson at Tattoo Mania in Hollywood before beginning her career at Big Daddy's Tattoo and Piercing in Harbor City. She spent time in a few shops in LA and OC over the next couple of years, then landed at Gold Rush.
Her designs are generally traditional, but they almost always have a bit of a feminine flair to them. Her skills come in handy in performing nipple reconstruction for breast cancer survivors. "A bunch of years ago, a normal client asked if I could do it for her," Palmer says. "I figured it couldn't be that different from a normal tattoo, so I agreed to do it. It makes them feel really good about themselves, so it's pretty awesome."
She's also one of the few tattooers certified by Lucasfilm. A lifelong fan, Palmer got a Darth Vader tattoo in her early 20s. From there, she started doing Star Wars designs and saw the immense reactions they drew on Instagram. Upon finding out the Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim would feature tattooing, she sought out a contact with Lucasfilm. The company reviewed her portfolio and gave her a contract; she then worked the convention in a Han Solo outfit.
In the summers, she runs an arts-and-crafts class with the Down Syndrome Association of Orange County.
"I'm really happy where I'm at right now at Gold Rush, but who knows what the future holds," Palmer says. "I'm thankful I have a job that gives me the freedom to travel the world."
While Jurkovic, Collins and Palmer began tattooing at relatively young ages, Fabel is an admitted latecomer. The Finnish native has been an art teacher, a graphic designer and an actress. She has lived everywhere from Australia to England, Lithuania to New Zealand. But three years ago, she learned how to tattoo.
The ice blonde had been making a good living as a tattoo model, but she didn't see a future in it. "You can use your looks to your benefit, but using your looks can be harmful if it becomes a gimmick," she says. "A lot of girls sell tattoos with sexiness, but your looks are going to fade. Your career is going to be short if you're depending on your looks."
Her respect for the art form made her hesitate to jump to the other side of the needle. "I just thought I wasn't going to be good enough to tattoo," Fabel says. "I was always thinking, 'What if you screw up?' That's on someone's skin forever."
But even with a relatively young career, Fabel is already in demand for her style, which hearkens back to medieval lithographs and etchings. "Since it's based on the original image printing and all in one solid color–more often than not, black–it's about the dimensions, shades and shapes to make the tattoo masculine or feminine," she says.
"There's a big difference between feminine and masculine tattoos, so you have to take into consideration the client's need. The client might want to do something lighter that breathes more versus something rough and tough, so that corresponds with the design."
As an industry newcomer, Fabel is more open than her peers about tattooing's inherent battle of the sexes. "I've been lucky to have so many good people in my career, but there's always going to be rotten apples, no matter what profession you're in," she says. "Males can be sexist, but some clients prefer to be tattooed by a woman. Like women are more comfortable with another woman touching their butt, so I might spend a lot of time tattooing someone's butt.
"I don't think your talent is related to the shape of your genitalia," Fabel adds. "Whether you're a girl or a boy, just do it because of your passion and because you can express something within you."
Fabel believes her ornate blackwork style is popular among clients not only for how it looks on their skin, but also because it's a form of healing for many. "There's a difference between creating something pretty, but not meaningful, and making something truly impactful," Fabel says. "When you make an impactful tattoo, such as a memorial tattoo or a tattoo for someone reclaiming their body, you have a deep connection with that tattoo. Sometimes, my clients are dealing with a lot of self-hate or have a rough sexual past, and getting the tattoo is part of the healing process to reclaim their body."
That's about the time Jurkovic rolled her eyes–and back to the dinner.
As Memphis Café empties out, Fabel starts showing everyone Instagram photos of her beloved cat, Dawn. Palmer joins in on the discussion about pets, while Collins and Jurkovic chat about tackling motherhood while tattooing.
"I don't know how you've done it," Jurkovic says, referencing Collins' years as a mother and tattooer. "Everything's so different for me now."
"That's why I like working evenings," Collins says. "I almost never have to go to work before my husband gets home."
An older couple stands up a few tables away. The bald man fixes his golf shirt as his gray-haired wife grabs her purse off her chair. The woman turns toward the door, but catches a glimpse of the four tattooed ladies. She waits for her husband to slowly hobble around to her before whispering in his ear.
It's been like this for most of the time the women have been here–nothing said, but lots of glances at the inked-up women. Collins, Fabel, Jurkovic and Palmer say they don't mind, that at this point, it's just part of the job description.
"Half of me understands that in their generation, being heavily tattooed meant you were a prostitute, a sailor or a criminal," Palmer says. "But the other half of me kind of wonders if they they think it's cool and wish they had more freedom to do things like that when they were younger."