Brooklyn-Based Tattoo Artist Tea Leigh On Sliding Scales, Hand Poking Myths, & Adding Astrology Into Their Practice
The tattoo industry has a history of catering to a community outside the mainstream, but until recently, that community of outsiders has looked fairly homogenous (read: white and male). Tea Leigh, a co-founder of Welcome Home studio in Brooklyn, is one of the many tattoo artists aiming to change who tattoos are "for" — specifically creating a space that is explicitly welcoming to queer folks, people with disabilities, and people of color. Leigh's machine-free tattoos are delicate, detailed, and celebrate traditionally feminine aspects of the world around us.
Ahead, Leigh talks about why they prefer hand poking tattoos, why they ask their clients to share stories of past trauma when requesting an appointment, the importance of offering a sliding scale even as their work gets more popular, and a new project that brings astrology into their practice.
Tell me the story of how you started tattooing.
I started to tattoo myself about five years ago as a way to kind of gain autonomy over my body. I wasn't a tattooer or anything at that point, but I tattooed some of my best friends who just went through a really traumatic experience. I started to realize the magic in tattooing with helping people through an experience. At that point, I realized that it was something that I really liked doing, and I wanted to pursue it. And so I started getting serious and taught myself.
You’ve mentioned in previous interviews that you knew you wanted to do hand poked tattoos, but that it was hard to get a traditional apprenticeship for that technique. Can you talk a little bit more about why you wanted to practice machine-free tattooing, and how you learned to do it?
There's much more of an opportunity to get an apprenticeship or to learn [how to handpoke] through somebody now. What I did at the time necessarily wasn't the smartest move. I definitely don't recommend other people just completely winging it.
I chose to tattoo by hand because I was really interested in the fact that you couldn't think about electricity. I've always done analog photography and performance art and never really used technology, or digital technology or, really, any machinery outside of the camera. I had been tattooed by machine several times, but had never really had a quiet or meaningful experience with tattooing. I think that when you're a tattooer — regardless of whether you're using machine or by hand — if you are have a calming presence and walk into the experience with the intention to heal yourself and the other person, then it's intimate no matter what method of tattooing you're using. But for me, tattooing by hand just seemed the most natural.
On the request form to get a tattoo appointment with you, you ask the potential clients to share a lot more personal details — like stories of past trauma, if they’re comfortable — than most tattooers. How important are those stories when you’re deciding who’s going to get an appointment?
I think that storytelling for assigned female at birth folk or female identifying folk is really important because it’s how we form an alternate history from the history that's been portrayed and talked about by men. That element is so valuable to me in my practice.
I wouldn't say that there's one story over another that would get someone chosen; it's just what I'm feeling like I can handle emotionally at the moment. Maybe it's an experience that I really relate to and have advice for that person. But there are also plenty of people I tattoo who choose not to share a story in the booking process, and instead it ends up coming out during the tattoo. I ask a lot of questions. I poke around. One minute, we're talking about the weather, and then I'm like, “What's your relationship with your mother?” I get something out of everybody.
Did that idea of breaking previous male-driven narratives influence the style of tattoos you do? Your style is pretty much on the total opposite end of the spectrum from what people would consider traditional, American-style tattooing.
You know, I wouldn't necessarily say that. I don't really know what forms my style, honestly. I use a lot of female forms. I'm really inspired by a feminine shape, if you will, regardless of whose body it's on. I started putting tattoos on the figures that I was tattooing as a symbol of autonomy, as a symbol of reclamation. Tattoos tell a story, and I like that this tiny little figure who has tattoos can be a little a story within a story.
How did you come to found your tattoo studio, Welcome Home?
I had my own studio for a couple years, and my now business partner, Kelli Kikcio, was living in Boston, and traveled down [to my studio], where we did a tattoo trade. I just really liked her and her energy, and kind of asked her what her future in tattooing looked like. We talked about what we wanted within our industry and within ourselves, and our ethos really lined up. I had the opportunity to move out of the studio I was in, and asked Kelli if she would like to pursue a joint business endeavor. Finally, the opportunity knocked and we weren't necessarily ready, but we both decided to jump in anyway.
Eventually, we found the space that we have. The name was because we wanted people to feel at home when they were getting tattooed. We just really felt like it was a name that describes our practice and the features of our studio. It was calm and safe. Normally, it's really hard to name things, but it just came organically.
Do you remember what your specific priorities and wishes were for the space when you were first developing it?
More than anything, we really wanted it to be a multi-disciplinary space. We didn’t want it to be only about tattooing, but also about learning other trades or community gathering. We wanted it be a place where people felt like they could belong, no matter why they were there.
The second thing we wanted was to create a space for the marginalized communities who don't have opportunities in other realms of the tattoo world. Whether that be clients or teachers or tattooers, we wanted to have a space where everyone was welcome.
Currently, there are four other tattoo artists who work at Welcome Home, and I saw that you’re hiring someone else [at the time of this interview]. How do you usually find people to work with?
Either we reach out to people and ask if they're interested, or people will email once they know that we're hiring. Then it becomes a long process of interviewing a lot of people. At our shop, it's like a family. We don't want to just hire. We want to make sure that they're going to fit in with our family really well. It's a really interesting process. I've never experienced anything like it. It's really fun to get to know all these different people who are applying and interview them. But it's also stressful. You want to make the right choice, and you don't want to leave anybody out.
You list your price range for tattoos on your site, which is more common now, but used to be basically unheard of. Why did you decide to list your prices, and do you think that more price transparency is a trend the tattoo industry is moving toward in general?
I hope it's a trend. I remember when I was younger, I would get tattooed and [the artist] would not tell me how much it costs. And then I'd get it, and it was like $600. Like, that's fine, but I wish I would have known. Especially because we work with a lot of people of color and queer people, I want them to know that this is my hourly rate, but if you can’t afford that, let's talk about sliding scale.
Money is... Well, should we get into, like, late stage capitalism? Jesus, that could be a whole rant. It sucks because every single action we take revolves around money, for the most part. And so when you're transparent about money, and you can talk about money in a way that capitalism doesn't have a hold over you, that's freeing. Right? And so, when you give people more information, the better equipped they are to make a decision. You want to give them agency. That's why I think talking about price and offering a sliding scale is so important. And I realize that a lot of tattooers are not in the privileged position to be offering sliding scale prices, especially tattooers of color. I'm a white person, so I should be offering sliding scale, you know?
How do you balance wanting to offer that sliding scale but also making sure people are understanding the value of your time and your art?
Well, unfortunately, I can offer only so many sliding scale spots because I do have bills and a business to run. I offer a set number [of sliding scale appointments] a month, and that number changes month to month, depending on what my financial situation looks like. But I definitely try to consider every project. If it's an amazing project I want to do and the person has a $200 budget, and they fit my requirements for sliding scale, then I just offer it to them because I'm just really stoked to do that project.
Another thing on your FAQ page is that you won't tattoo the torso. Why?
I mean, I can tattoo the torso, but tattooing the torso by hand takes so much longer. And usually when people want things on the ribs, they want something small, like a flower. If I am going to do a back piece, I don't want it to just be a small thing. So occasionally, I'll work with clients if they want to do a really cool project on their sternum or back. But for the most part, I just say I don't tattoo the torso. It just usually ends up being, unfortunately, somewhat of a waste of time for me.
Do you have a favorite tattoo that you've ever done?
People love to ask that question, and the answer really is no. I think I can't have a favorite because what I love about tattooing is that once I’m done, these tattoos take on a story and a life of their own. And I think that's really cool. I just like to imagine that all of these tattoos have their own lives and stories and secrets now. It's hard to have a favorite.
What types of tattoos are you really loving to do right now?
I love doing the figures a lot. I really want to start playing a little bit more with symmetry and really large scale pieces. Unfortunately, I've been out of work for the past month due to an illness, and so I haven't really been able to get my hands dirty, so to speak, which is a bummer. This interview is making me really miss work. [Editor’s Note: At the end of May, Leigh announced on Instagram that she was taking appointments again.]
Do you mostly do flash work, or is it a pretty even split between flash and custom designs?
It's a split. There are some stretches of time where I won't take any custom requests, especially if I'm trying to change my style or explore something different. But other times I’ll take custom, because I understand custom pieces are really important to people.
A new project that I'm working on is to offer birth chart readings as part of the tattoo appointment. I'll read your natal chart for one hour, give you an explanation of it, and then I'll tattoo three things from a flash page that represent your sun, your moon, and your rising signs.
How did you get into reading charts?
I started with tarot. Every time I would get my tarot read or talk to anyone who was in that world, they kept just asking when I was going start to incorporating that into my tattoos. Through tarot, I got really into astrology. I knew that I wasn't quite ready to cross them over; I was in the process of opening my business and had these huge life changes going on. When my life started to quiet down a little bit, I realized that I was ready and knowledgeable enough to offer this to other people.
The first time I got my chart read, it was really meaningful to me and changed my life. I wanted to incorporate that sense of getting tattooed, reclaiming your power, your agency or whatever, with having an access to information about yourself and how you work, which I think gives you even more agency to access your power. Combining those two things just felt seamless, and kind of like a no-brainer.
What are some of the examples of the flash art that goes with the reading?
Of course I have the symbol that goes with each sign — like the ram for Aries, the bull for Taurus, and so on and so forth. Also, each Tarot card that has the major arcana related to a planet or a zodiac sign. Also little bits and pieces from those Tarot cards for each sign. And then just other things that incorporates either air, water, fire, and the constellations that go with each zodiac. There's a flower that goes with each zodiac. Each sign gets 12 images to choose from.
Is the pricing going to be different for this project compared to your usual tattoo rates?
I'm still kind of working on just offering like $500 to $600 sessions, because it is a ton of work to prepare for the birth chart reading. And then it's about an hour to two hours of tattoo time depending on what the person decides to get and how big.
There are a lot of common misconceptions about hand poked tattooing — that it’s something people can do themselves, that it’s less sanitary, and so forth. What are some of those myths you’ve encountered?
Well, I definitely understand why people think those things. There are a lot of people who do not practice safe tattooing. If the person [giving you the hand poked tattoo] is professional and works at a shop, you should have nothing to worry about. I really encourage anyone who happens to be tattooing from home to take bloodborne pathogen tests. You can take them online and see your local state laws for getting licensed to be tattooer. I'm still not condoning tattooing out of your house, but there's an access to information online now that there wasn't when I started tattooing.
As far as thinking these types of tattoos should cost less... I mean, it's still people's time, and hand poking actually take way longer than machine tattoos. And I think that that's a silly thing to think when you think that someone's labor should be cheaper just because it's not the "traditional" way to tattoo. That's unfortunate.
Everyone asks, "Is this going to last the same amount of time that a machine tattoo would?" It's like, yeah, if you're getting it professionally done. So many people that get stick and pokes get them in their dorm and they've faded or fallen out, so for some reason they think [professional hand pokers] are going to give them the same caliber of work.
[Hand poked tattoos] last just as long, and I think they're less painful. They cause way less trauma to the skin around the tattoo, so they heal faster. I've had clients that have only machine tattoos and they come and get tattooed by me. Some of them are like, great, I'll never do this again. Other people are like, well I'm never going back to the machine. It's just different person to person.
What makes them hurt less than machine tattoos?
The vibration from the machine causes a lot of trauma on the skin. When your body reacts to that trauma, your pain receptors kick in. Hand poking still pierces two or three layers of skin, but it's less traumatic. That's also part of the reason it heals so quickly.
Are there other tattoo artists you recommend Bustle readers follow?
Oh, yeah. I have so many. I really admire Tamara Santibañez, who works at Saved [in Brooklyn, NY]. She's a f*cking legend, dude. And she's a f*cking badass queer icon. She's been tattooing forever, and is just down to earth. She's not pretentious. I am just blown away by her 24/7.
Another tattooer I really admire is Esther Garcia, who goes by @ButterStinker. I think Esther is full of humility, has been tattooing for 20 years, and is so willing to share her tricks of the trade with literally any tattooer.
There's also woman named Emma, she works in Seattle and goes by @thorn_pokes. I really admire her because she offers up a lot of information to DIY tattooers about how to be safe. You don't see a lot of tattooers who do that. She's a great resource for those people who are wanting to learn how to tattoo, but don't really know where to turn.
There's also a tattooer in Toronto named Brittany, who she goes by @humblebeetattoo. She is just an amazing tattooer, and a black woman who prioritizes tattooing other black folks. I cannot wait to see her blow up.
There's also another tattooer in Toronto, who's a good friend of mine; she goes by @__jesschen__ . She has a new approach to tattooing that is really abstract and new and fresh and pushes the boundaries of large scale tattooing continuously. And not only that, but she's an amazing fine artists. Everything she touches is literally just f*cking beautiful. It's a real honor that she's in our industry.
Follow Tea on Instagram: @tealeigh
Book an appointment with them by: Keeping an eye on their Instagram, where they announce when their books are open and how to apply for an appointment.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.