Sacred Skin Incantation: Interview with Tattoo Artist Noel'le Longhaul

By Justine Morrow - 
Sacred Skin Incantation: Interview with Tattoo Artist Noel'le Longhaul

In this interview with Noel'le Longhaul, she opens up about her process, the craft of tattooing, and the Lupinewood Collective.

When I first saw Noel'le Longhaul's work it was like revisiting my childhood. That time in life when curiosity and symbols merge like magic, when the voices of the earth are still heard, when the flame of freedom or genuine self expression hasn't been extinguished by oncoming adulthood. Reconciling societal reality with our own authentic natures within can be a lifelong journey, but Noel'le makes this look not only possible, but powerful. In her illustrated microcosm I find that everyone has their heart unleashed, their body made perfect as it is, and their skin made sacred. Through transient destruction, like a forest fire creating fertile grounds, a place of Utopia is found. Here lives acceptance, protection, and adoration.

Her words are reinforcement for philosophical foundations set upon balanced, broad and open minded landscapes. Her actions, and those of the Lupinewood collective, are the gestures of careful, compassionate craftsmen who only wish to build the safe haven that the entire world should be. Unendingly inspiring in strength and vision, Noel'le expounded upon her ideals for us, including how tattooing, and creation in general, can have a transformative, healing role within our lives. 

Your oeuvre spans a vast amount of materials and mediums, and it’s clear that your entire life is fused with creative works. Do you remember the first time you created something? How do you feel your personal background has fostered your artistic growth?

Creativity has always been a means of survival for me. As a child, before being forced into the confines of a repressive gender system, the way I expressed my creativity was like breathing. It’s this way for all children. They draw, play, imagine, without the baggage of being assigned a societal position of power according to their identity and life circumstances. The way that they create realities for themselves out of the raw material of their sensations and observations is something that’s eroded by the punitive and carceral enforcement of social hierarchies, norms and expectations that come from being indoctrinated into adulthood. Because I am a trans person, my complete induction into normative adult reality was an impossibility: parts of me were dragged into the scrutiny of capitalist society and how it permits survival, and parts of me were left behind in the worlds of my childhood imagination, in which I was allowed to simply be. Growing older, those fractures began more pronounced, and yielded a reality in which I was not able to be present in my life because I was not permitted to inhabit my gender. I inhabited a split and dichotomized world: part of me in the world I am expected to deal with and part of me in the woods and wandering freedom of the non-being of childhood. I survived constant trauma by dissociating into an internal world of my own creation that remained a shelter for me, and chased experiences in my daily life that unified my present reality that felt like doorways back to that place. I have created compulsively using whatever is around me my entire life because it has been the way I have been able to survive and preserve a space in which I am allowed to simply be connected and alive. As I grow older, I am unifying those two worlds through ritual. That ritual is ordinary: chopping firewood, preparing food, taking care of my body, taking care of my loved ones, and taking care of the home I am building with many of them. The site of my future artistic growth lies in care and presence, with myself, my clients, and my community, and building around a reality in which I am becoming a less fractured self.

Traditionally tattoo artists are taught through apprenticeships, but many incredible tattoo artists are self-taught, including yourself. Why do you think there is a prejudice against DIY tattoo artists and why was tattooing an art form you were drawn to?

Some prejudice comes from concerns I share about teaching oneself the craft of tattooing, specifically health and safety practices. However, I think the majority of that prejudice falls along unethical lines, as it functions primarily to preserve a very conservative understanding of what tattooing should be, and not to encourage the possibility of what could be. In theory, I think an apprenticeship model of imparting old knowledge is a beautiful thing, and a very human thing, but the particular apprenticeship paradigm in modern electric tattooing is broken. Modern electric tattooing is only about a century old and was born into the almost exclusive control of white men, and as such, I do not believe it to have very much earned authority. I wish I had someone to show me the ways to take care of myself and my clients physically (proper posture, sanitation practices) and how to properly set up a machine, but I didn’t want any other knowledge. The idea of learning such neutral information coming at the cost of being assimilated into a culture that I didn’t see myself in wasn’t worth it. The standards “traditional” western tattooing has created around tattooing in that short amount of time are incredibly strict, extending all the way from formal conceptions of what a “good” tattoo is to the way you are expected to police the inherent intimacy and vulnerability of the process of causing consensual pain to another human being. Saying that there is not only another way but infinite other ways creates fear in that culture that their world will crumble, literally threatening their survival. I have many critiques of “the tattoo world,” but ultimately understand the real enemy to be capitalism, because that is the force that pits the people who approach it in one way against the people who want to create their own path.

I was drawn to tattooing like a moth to a flame, compulsively tattooing myself as a teenager with a sewing needle and thread, with no knowledge or real interest in tattoo culture. The physicality of it grounded me in my body in an immediate and powerful way. The fact that a mark was left behind that process felt like magic to me: that I’d always be connected back to that moment of presence in my body. When I started tattooing my friends, that power over time exponentially multiplied: no matter what happened, a part of us would always live in that moment of closeness and intimacy, no matter the physical distance between us, no matter what choices we made, until our bodies died.

Your style is incredible, easily recognizable, and translates beautifully to every medium you work with. Your voice is definitive and crystal clear. How did you grow self-confidence within your art forms, what artists inspire you, and what advice do you have for younger artists trying to find their voice?

Thank you! I have to say that I see why somebody else might see it that way, but perhaps predictably, I do not. I still don’t feel like I’ve found my “voice,” and in fact, I’m not looking for it. What I’m looking for is to become transparent, and to step out of the way of the forces that move my life forward. The tiny thing that is “me” in that ultimately doesn’t have a whole lot of agency around how it speaks: what I have more control over is when I do not speak. My life project, as a human being and as an artist, is to try to quiet my own voice so that the worlds I am connected to can speak through me. My confidence comes not from having intentionally developed a style, but from the deep body-knowledge of the forces I am connected to. I create compulsively because I want to feel those forces moving through me. The wind moves through the throat, vibrating the vocal chords: that is the voice. The voice is only the symptom of the breath. If I had advice, it would be to not look for it. It’s there already. Build a life that connects you to the places and people you draw power from, and let that be your breath, and let that shape your voice from singing.

The tattoo industry is notorious for being predominantly cis straight white male oriented, but LGBTQ tattooers are getting an overwhelming amount of support through many media platforms, communities, and more. This seems to throw a positive light on the tattoo community becoming more open, welcoming, and aware which hopefully means, overall, society will follow suit. What has your experience been, and what do you think is the best way to promote understanding and acceptance outside of, and within, the queer community?

The support that marginal people are receiving culturally at the moment pales in the ever-mounting violence, aggression, and rejection directed at us. Much of the support is symbolic; individuals and institutions taking on stances of support as a way to be on the right side of social conflict. Before the rise of fascism in Germany, it was a place of a rising tide of queer liberation. I fear, but firmly believe, a similar dynamic is occurring in this country. Because of this, I am not interested in acceptance: I’m interested in power. I want trans people and other oppressed identities to have access to real resources, and for the building of those resources to create a material network of support and solidarity. I do not desire for a society built on the destruction of the cultures and bodies of queer people, Indiginous people and non-European people to understand me: I desire to build a different and liberated reality, not to be accepted and folded into the one responsible for the destruction of communities, of magic, and of the planet.

I love that you equate tattooing with witchcraft. The ritualistic aspects of tattooing, the energy transfer between artist and subject, it’s all very spellbinding. How do your practices weave together and do you think this is why people are so enraptured with your work? How can we practice magic in our everyday lives?

Magic is simply about cultivating ritualized practices of listening, presence, and intention: merging our innate connection to life with daily practices of stewarding that connection. I endeavor when tattooing to be fully present with my clients in the fullness of their experience through being present with my own. The transfer of energy that occurs from seeing, being seen, and then shedding blood to document that event is a form of intention magic. I take their experience and weave it into my own world, finding the connections, and thus create a unique image that is an allegorical summary of their experience. Less than divining the future of a client, I create a tapestry of where they are, producing a doorway to the place where their power and struggle reside. That doorway shapes the ways in which that power and struggle moves through them into their daily life, so that they may have more agency in how they shape their future relationship to that power and struggle. I believe this to be what attracts people to my work, and not anything as crude as my “style.” Although I have built boundaries to take care of myself in the painful artificiality of turning my instinctual relationship to art and tattooing into a way to survive through making money, my tattoo practice is wound deeply into the way I approach making music, walking in the woods, or making a woodcut. All of it is about listening and letting what I hear move through me.

Because you stand for such strong concepts (being anarchist, trans, a witch, etc.) do you find that your art becomes socio-political in nature? Do you ever think of your art as a catalyst for change?

Yes, but because of my process. I believe dogma to be one of my many enemies. At the age of twelve I knew something was deeply flawed with the reality I had inherited, and began a process of reactive rejection of the institutions I was raised in. First I abandoned christianity, then capitalism, then its early replacement communism, until I found anarchism in conjunction with realizing I wasn’t straight, or the gender I had been raised as. Because of my reactive state, the way that I entered politics was through a conservative set of cultural doctrines. To be an anarchist, I believed I needed to dress a certain way, think a certain way, and act a certain way. I was angry, and didn’t know what to believe, so I let others do the thinking for me. That was a victory of capitalism: that even finding liberatory politics carries the burden of social punishment and authoritarianism, and requires conformity to even confront the idea of conformity. Over time, I have striven to make art that is political because I live my politics in a way that is daily and meditative. Paradoxically, I choose not to make “anarchist art” so that I may better practice anarchism. I desire through art/ritual to create liquid pathways towards liberation, rather than to create images intended to serve as statements, immovable and plunged into the ground like a property marker.

The goals and concepts behind Lupinewood are beautifully inspiring, like a Utopian novel come to life. How did the collective begin, and how did you all happen to find such a marvelous chosen family?

Lupinewood has its roots in a small group of people persevering in the face of constant adversity to create permanent sanctuary for a more radical and liberated way of life: to create a space of respite so that our efforts can daily turn outwards to addressing the needs in our communities. Rather than finding a chosen family, ours was built: a core group of people cultivated their relationships with local and national organizing and activism communities over many years while simultaneously attempting to secure a physical space for those efforts to flourish in. The collective invested thousands of hours and their personal finances into many such possible spaces, only to have those attempts hit different walls at some point in each prospective space. The sheer energy of the effort and dreaming of those people created a beacon, attracting people towards it from a disparate set of sources and experiences, all converging on a particular moment in which the circumstances necessary to create Lupinewood aligned. Although the immense synchronicity of the particular moment that allowed Lupinewood to be created is quite mystical and still astounds me with its apparent unlikeliness, it is the result of hard work sustained over many years by people who weren’t willing to dispose of each other or their collective goal, who were motivated to push against reality with incredible sustained force, fueled by the sheer conviction of the necessity for that to occur.

There seem to be so many projects and events going on at Lupinewood, that the work behind the scenes must be intensely overwhelming. How does the collective handle tasks equally? How do members handle moments of disagreement or struggle? What resources, if any, did the members use to base the collective on? Are there any present or past communities that inspired Lupinewood?

You don’t know how right you are! The effort involved sheerly in the daily maintenance of this place is overwhelming. Stacking, organizing, and chopping the ten cords of wood needed to heat the house would be a monumental task in and of itself, let alone the coordination of construction projects, events, childcare, accounting, fundraising, and community outreach. As such, tasks are actually not divided equally. Although the idea of egalitarianism is common to the point of being a norm in “leftist” organizing, it is not something that is ascribed to at Lupinewood. Rather, we endeavor to organize ourselves according to individual ability and desire. I chop wood a lot because I am able to: I do not coordinate the electrical work at the house, because I am unable to. This scenario absolutely produces conflict, in that it rests on a heterogeneous understanding of agency and ability: it means people have to admit they can’t do certain things. However, this is a long-game endeavor: we know that some conflicts will take years to understand, much less resolve. As such, rather than being able to do any of the labors involved with this place, we expect each other to clearly name what labors we are able to do and what we are not able to do and then follow through on those commitments. Formal decisions about the space are made during weekly collective meetings through consensus, in which the diversity of position and opinion is mediated through structured conversation. Our accountability and conflict mediation, however, comes from a more emergent place of each individual learning how to show up for the space and each other with humility and hard work, and the collective variously supporting individuals in our struggles through that through honest criticism and earnest care. Everyone here lived collectively in various forms for years before Lupinewood was created, and bring what worked and what didn’t work about those collectives to our massive table.

How can people help support Lupinewood? What does the future hold for Lupinewood that we can share with our readers?

Well, it is true that we're in need of resources for fire safety and building code projects that need to be completed if Lupinewood is to survive. And since we've decided to devote our public fundraising to support other radical collective projects—particularly QTPOC-led and centered ones—we're looking to connect with people who get what we're trying to build here and have the capacity to substantially support us clearing the final hurdles we face to Lupinewood's permanency.However, more so than directly supporting Lupinewood, I would encourage your readers to take inspiration from it: to assess the circumstances of their life, and find ways to prop up each other’s efforts to create genuine resistance to the state sanctioned violence of this society. Many people I speak to who have spent time living collectively burn out on it feeling like a possibility, and most people simply don’t consider it. In the escalated crises we are living in, Lupinewood is possible because we treat each other as non-disposable, meaning it is essential to be honest with each other about what isn’t working about interpersonal dynamics, and to seek solutions rather than simply abandoning relationships. Trauma is recursive: a group of traumatized people building a life together means confronting the ways that trauma plays out in our daily lives, and the ways in which our various wounds wound each other. We seek to heal each other, which means in the process, we will harm each other. Accepting the inevitability of harm and understanding that there is no such thing as safety under capitalism is the only way to build a place of resistance to it. Nothing about this is comfortable, and we are not seeking comfort: we are seeking liberation. As such, the nature of this project is constant crisis. Most of the reality that surrounds this project does not desire it to succeed. If it is to do so, then we cannot do it alone. Not only do we need direct support for the project in terms of material aid and advocacy, we need comrades: people out there who are willing to do something similar with their own lives, to assess the content of their life and relationships and try to make something out of it that can provide sanctuary for people consistently in harm’s way, so we can organize against state violence. Those projects need to support and care for each other, to share resources, and to create a defiantly living world in the midst of all the violence that surrounds us.

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