Women in Inkland

Austin's badass female tattoo artists lead the charge in male-dominated field

Austin's female tattoo artists lead the charge in male-dominated field

Deb "Mom" Obregon, owner of Mom's Tattoos
Deb "Mom" Obregon of Mom's Tattoos. Photo by Dagney Pruner
Southside Tattoo
Women lead the nation in tattoos but are still the minority when it comes to doing the inking. Photo by Dagney Pruner
Leila Willis-Newton of Southside Tattoo
Leila Willis-Newton began tattooing in her father's shop at age 10. Photo by Dagney Pruner
Deb "Mom" Obregon, owner of Mom's Tattoos
Southside Tattoo
Leila Willis-Newton of Southside Tattoo

Editor’s note: Four leading women in the tattoo industry share what it’s like to work in the male-dominated field. These are their stories.

After she slowly pushes her walker along the graffiti-tinged floor, 80-year-old Lorine Christie lowers herself into a weathered leather chair. Accompanied by her granddaughter and great-granddaughter, she is grinning — and it’s not just because it’s her birthday (which she calls turning 40 twice).

She’s beaming because it’s the day she gets her first tattoo. “When I was 20 you would never even think of getting a tattoo,” Christie says.

Suddenly, the other women in the Austin tattoo parlor erupt into chatter as they reminisce about a time when only criminals or men in the military sought out the permanent artwork.

“We’ve got women’s lib, we can do anything now,” Christie says as an artist fires up the tattoo gun and makes its first piercing hum.

Christie is getting a tattoo of the University of Texas’ famed longhorn logo from Deb Obregon, who runs Mom’s Tattoos on the city’s funky south side. She is one of the few female tattoo parlor owners in the state — and in an industry that has long been male dominated.

Obregon drives a minivan and goes by “Mom.” She wears a floral top and a long skirt and has several intricate tattoos on the side of her face. She is a successful business owner, inked from head to toe. And she knows how hard it is for women inside the often-misogynistic world of tattooing.

“I’ve always done what I’ve wanted to do without thinking, ‘Oh, this is a male-dominated industry.’ I didn’t really care when the boys didn’t want to play with me,” she says.

A study by Lightspeed Research found that 59 percent of people with tattoos are women. Another study found that for people under the age of 35, women were tattooed twice as often as men. Overall, the numbers are growing, as 1 in 5 people in the U.S. have a tattoo, up 13 percent since 2007.

But when it comes to who's doing the inking, women are still the minority. Industry insiders say that women are still finding it hard to gain entry. Texas has 1,312 licensed tattoo shops, with 100 in the Central Austin area. Very few of the shops are run by women, but the ones who do are industry leaders.

Marcy Molkenthen founded the sprawling Star of Texas Tattoo Art Revival in 2001 and has seen the desire for female tattoo artists grow. Her convention boasts over 4,000 patrons and 300 tattoo artists, and the number of female artists growing every year.

“I would say most shows around the country have around 15 percent [women] artists, but we have at least 30 percent female artists,” says Molkenthen.

She says Austin has always been a welcoming place for female artists — and women who want tattoos. When she moved to the city 20 years ago, she noticed something. “There were a lot of women with sleeve tattoos, especially at Whole Foods,” she chuckles.

She has a theory on why some women were initially not as present in the inking world. “You can’t have a bad day when you’re a tattoo artist; you’re changing somebody’s life, it’s very important to them,” she says. And maybe, she says, the toll of that responsibility could weigh more on women.

Leila Willis-Newton was tattooing her first customer in her parents’ kitchen in Austin at the age of 10. Her father was so impressed that he let her apprentice at his shop — Southside Tattoo — where she is now the only female artist.

“Somebody will walk in the door and see me drawing at the counter and they think I’m the secretary,” says Willis-Newton, now 22. Customers ask her to point them in the direction of a tattoo artist, and when she responds that she is an artist, she is met with laughs or a second request to see a real artist. Sometimes she puts on what she describes as a “more of a masculine persona” just to make a point.

“I’m confident in my womanhood, and I don’t try and hide that, but I will put on a cold face and talk to people sternly. I won’t apologize for it.”

Willis-Newton’s budding career owes a debt to tattoo pioneer Kate Hellenbrand — known in the industry as “Shanghai Kate.” The 72-year-old's career began in the early 1970s as protégé of famous tattoo artist Sailor Jerry Collins and close confidante of artist and designer Ed Hardy. 

She began tattooing in New York, illegally, in 1971. In 1979, she moved to Europe and would sit at bars and offer to split the tattoo fee with the bartenders if they would let her ink the patrons. One evening at a bar, she says she saw three gangbangers stampeding her way, purportedly ready to teach her a lesson about women encroaching on their turf. She escaped with her life by hiding in the basement. Ultimately, she decided to head back to the U.S., eventually ending her tour de wanderlust in 2013.

“Austin is a great city and very livable. It’s drawn a great deal of incredible tattoo artists,” she says.

Tennessee-based archaeologist Aaron Deter-Wolf, who studies ancient tattooing practices, says that technology is making it possible for more women to enter the industry. Ten years ago, “lighter weight and alternative technologies like rotary machines favored by many women were often scorned and mocked,” he says.

Instead, artists used two-coil machines, which are heavier, thus harder for most women to hold for hours. Now, rotary machines are often the norm.

Back at Mom's Tattoos, 80-year-old Lorine Christie asks “Mom” if her tattoo is almost done. Obregon places her rotary gear on the table and proudly holds up a mirror for Christie to see her permanent display of Texan pride. Her granddaughter’s soft-spoken voice chirps up for the first time all session to ask if the new body art hurt.

“Only a little, but I’ve earned my stripes now, honey,” Christie says as her wrinkled reflection beams in the mirror.