As an initiative to keep the tattoo community safe and empowered, Cover Ups Against Abuse has been bringing together a list of tattoo artists around the globe who are passionately dedicated to protecting the tattoo community. In an effort to stem the tide against a slew of #metoo moments within the industry, the tattooists who are a part of Cover Ups Against Abuse are pleased to provide free cover up tattoos to people who have been tattooed by abusers.
"In an industry where trust and vulnerability play such a major role, it’s very frustrating to hear horror stories about artists taking advantage of their position and being inappropriate and abusive physically, verbally and psychologically. It’s very important to call them out but it’s also important to take care of everyone they’ve affected negatively."
I spoke with Sabrina Drescher and Jessica Rubbish about their take on this initiative and how consensual actions, as well as the transformative power of tattooing, can help heal past experiences.
Sabrina Drescher, a tattoo artist based in California, is very intentional...not only about her practice but about her words, as well. “I am a self taught tattoo artist and in no way an expert. I can speak only from my own experiences and what I have learned in my practice and day-to-day life. I can not speak on behalf of an entire community, and thus my words should not be taken as such. They are words and testimony to my first hand/personal beliefs and are influenced by my own bias and privilege.” Her honesty and transparency are deeply admirable, especially when faced with the difficult task of surmounting the pain caused by abusers.
When asked how the idea for a global group came together, she notes that this is one of the beneficial aspects of the internet and apps. “It is scenarios like this, where social media platforms have the power to transform and unify communities, especially when geographical distance would otherwise prohibit. Organizing and working with other artists and among the tattooing community to do everything in our power to protect the ritual of tattooing, and to keep others in check for abuse of power, is a responsibility of the community. Allowing for small forms of abuse and not holding people accountable will lead to more and more damage both to clients and to artists.”
Having control and agency over my own body is incredibly important, and with each tattoo that I get, I make a choice to put it there.
Sabrina also notes that tattooing has an oft shadowed history that includes using this art form for derisive purposes. “Tattooing has been used in so many different interchangeable and transformative ways, including controlling or taking ownership of others. This ranges from using tattoos to brand sex workers, slaves, prisoners, and criminals. It is often used as a form of control and historically has been used for abuse.” But it’s with these facets of tattooing in mind that many of the artists who are part of Cover Ups Against Abuse recognize their responsibility to intentionally protect and empower others through their practice.
Sabrina, not only from her own arts creation, but from being tattooed herself, knows the integral dynamism that permanently marking the body can have emotionally, philosophically and physically. “I know that from my own personal experience of getting tattoos, that I have transformed in the way I write my own memories and personal history. Having control and agency over my own body is incredibly important, and with each tattoo that I get, I make a choice to put it there. However, if the choice to put it there, is not mine, but someone else’s, it pulls the ownership of my body away from me. It is very important that each choice of ink and process is organically mine in one way or another. Through that process of handpicking and consensually selecting and decorating my body, I have a new sense of pride, security and confidence. A stamp of my own ownership, rather than someone else’s, because it is something born from my own agency.”
Often artists get called out...but what happens to the people who are carrying work on their bodies forever?
The genesis of Cover Ups Against Abuse happened quite naturally: a spark of conversation during a necessary call out of a tattoo artist. Jessica Rubbish explains, “It all started after hearing about the umpteenth artist being called out for inappropriate behaviour towards one of his female customers. Under his “apology letter” posted on Instagram, Claire was suggesting the creation of a fundraiser to help people cover this artist’s works. I just mentioned the idea of listing artists that would’ve been happy to do it for free and it all exploded from there! It all happened in a heartbeat and everyone got on board very enthusiastically.”
She also mentions that the work to undo past harms is always expanding, and in very affirmative ways. “I have been replying to a lot of emails from people who got in touch to ask for advice on what to do and I feel like even just this is very positive. The fact that people have an option and don’t just have to stick with it forever, it’s important. I think everyone can trust artists again. The fact that they’re getting in touch with someone to do the coverup is, itself, an important act of trust. But maybe we have to create some sort of support-feedback-review-network like Polly was recently suggesting. Something where people could voice their concerns and warn people or vouch for their good experience with someone!”
For Jessica, the catharsis through tattooing is absolutely an important aspect of Cover Ups Against Abuse. “Often artists get called out and this is positive in a way, but what happens to the people who are carrying work on their bodies forever? Tattoos are now perceived (in western culture especially) like a transformative art, but also as a way of owning our body, expressing ourselves, healing from trauma…so carrying work by an abuser could potentially undo or disturb all of this process of self-love and ownership of our bodies.” But Jessica is adamant that the work that this global collective is doing should transcend all professions. “I think, regardless of your job, it’s important to create safer spaces around us whenever we can. This is an aspect of tattooing as much as it’s an aspect of any other work environment and industry. What’s maybe different in tattooing is the permanence of the 'product'. While it’s relatively easier to quit a job or stop supporting a company or distance yourself from some type of situation or individual, the idea that a tattoo is forever makes it more important to protect and keep this industry safe.”
...what sort of tools are given to these [abusers] to work on themselves and grow into better people?
Of course, one of the biggest pieces of this large community driven puzzle, is how to handle abusers in a way that is progressive but firm. Distinctly defining and communicating boundaries, openly expressing behaviors that should not be tolerated, and making it clear that consent is key to every single interaction is certainly part of this, but both Sabrina and Jessica realize that every situation is deeply personal; each one needs its own particular attention and set of reactions.
Jessica describes the kind of questions that arise during these call outs. “Depending on what [the abusers] did, we have to question whether or not they should keep working and if so, what sort of tools are given to these individuals to work on themselves and grow into better people? Are shops taking this seriously? Do they have internal policies to keep the space safe? Is it possible to “forgive” these people’s actions? Are shops offering enough education and support to avoid this stuff from happening in the first place? Are there recovery tools for the victims? What happens after a generic apology letter happens? Are they even acknowledging the fact? Are they doing any community service or therapy or anything to actually work on why they thought something was okay to do? In other industries where there’s contact with the public in closer ways, like doctors for example, an abuser would probably lose their license or get it suspended, so I think we have to create a structure to keep the industry safe by asking ourselves some of these questions. At the same time I think we have to also work on educating clients on how to read red flags and stay safe.”
Sabrina adds, “Offering resources for healing, both physically and mentally, from abusers, and reminders of that abuse, is incredibly important. Rewriting memories, and literally covering up those experiences can help an individual reclaim that skin, in their own way. Even if something isn’t completely covered up, the ritual of a new sensation from a place of care rather than abuse can help reclaim that personal agency and control, maybe even give something that was taken from the individual. A cover up tattoo has the power to literally and figuratively cover-up, and rewrite, or heal the body’s memories. It may not be able to erase the sensations, but it can maybe speak louder than those old memories, or muffle the sensations, rewriting and refiguring the personal narrative to one of more strength, power, and ownership.”
One of the many beautiful things about the tattoo community is that we hold each other responsible and accountable. We come together to encourage empowerment. We educate when things do not have a positive or healthy trajectory. We support each other and want all of us to embrace our most authentic selves through an art form that we really love.
Through recognizing the deep emotional assets that tattooing carries, we can begin to change past traumas inflicted by abusers through joyful, metamorphic experiences that make us collectively flourish and progress.
Each image included in this article is artwork from a tattoo artist on the Cover Ups Against Abuse list, including the featured illustrated image by tattooist Gekku. If you have a tattoo from an abuser that you would like to have covered up, please feel free to reach out to the artists individually, or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.