Sema Graham Specializes In Traditional American Style Tattoos — With A Queer Twist

There's a fairly pervasive myth in tattooing right now that if you're an artist who identifies as queer, you only do delicate line work — flowers, fruit, and feminine silhouettes that are worlds away from the Sailor Jerry style flash so many people associate with traditional North American tattooing. But Sema on Instagram, and co-owner of Time Being Tattoo in Chicago, Illinois — has always been drawn to the bold lines, vibrant colors, and careful shading of that classic ink. There's even a Don Ed Hardy quote on the shop's homepage.

"As queer tattooers, we often want to reject a lot of what came before us, and just do something completely new and different," Graham, whose IG bio states that they are "Arab & Queer," says. "And I guess what I'm trying to do is more to build on what came before." Ahead, Graham chats with Bustle about how they navigated the traditional apprenticeship model of tattooing, opening their own shop, and the rich history of queer people creating all styles of tattoos.

How did you start tattooing?

It’s kind of complicated! I feel like for a lot of women and non-binary individuals, there’s not a direct path. I started getting tattoos when I was 16 and did my first tattoo when I was 17. Eventually, I landed an apprenticeship, but ultimately ended up teaching myself how to tattoo by talking to friends on the phone about techniques. I started hanging out at shops and watching people. My friends got a lot of my first tattoos and didn’t know what it would turn out like. Basically, I had a lot of community support and a lot of different methods of learning.

What did you feel were some of the pros and cons of going the traditional apprenticeship route?

I had an apprenticeship for about a year, and I'm really thankful for the shop that let me apprentice. When I first started looking for an apprenticeship, I noticed there was kind of this mentality that if you say that you want to tattoo, no one will tell you anything. You kind of just had to hang around the shop and prove that you wanted to tattoo, but not say that you wanted it. You had to make art, but not art that was too close to tattoo art. Then, you just kind of hope that someone would offer you an apprenticeship. I did that at the first shop that I was getting tattooed at. After, I ended up taking a portfolio around to a couple different shops, and exchanged a year’s worth of free labor for the opportunity to ask questions and just watch people tattooing.

I basically ended up doing everything at the shop except for actual tattoos, but I don't think it would have worked out if I just started off tattooing out of my house a year before. A lot of the hurdles people who want to get an apprenticeship face are just about who runs tattoo shops. Who do the people that run tattoo shops want to see tattooing? It's almost a generational mentality that's passed on. You want someone who thinks the same way that you do, that is the same demographic that you are — which, [in the tattoo industry], is largely just cis white men.

It's a lot of responsibility to teach someone how to tattoo. I have people ask me, and I'm just like, "I figured it out on my own." [If you let someone apprentice under you], you kind of are responsible for everything they do after that point. It's a beautiful way to learn how to tattoo, but I think it's very rare that it works out the way that it should.

How did your tattoo shop, Time Being, come to be? How is it different from other shops you'd visited before?

It's my baby! I tattooed my friend Keara [McGraw] when I was tattooing out of this little coach house. She was tattooing at an arts and design studio, and it was getting really big. She was booked. And we were like, our practices are growing bigger than our spaces. So, we were like, "Why don't we just open a studio where we shape the environment we want to tattoo people in?"

We went into it really hesitantly. We were like, "OK. It's just going to be appointment only. It's going to be really small and we don't want to step on any toes." And then we found this studio that had huge windows, and huge ceilings, and it was so below our budget. It was even big enough that we asked a third person to come on, our friend Emily [Kempf]. We wanted it to be all self-taught tattoo artists who were all working to keep it exactly the space that we wanted to tattoo people in, which is extremely affirming to any person that walks in the door. We wanted it to be accessible, and the shop that we found was ground level and wheelchair accessible, which was a huge thing for us.

I worked in coffee shops before I worked in tattoo shops, and it kind of makes sense [to accommodate your customers], right? You'd think that you would want people to have a good experience when they're getting tattooed. I don't think I'm better than anyone else. I value you if you're coming for the art.

There are definitely really traditional tattoo shops that I've been in where I've felt immediately welcomed and excited when I came in the door. And then there are definitely ones where I haven't at first, but then you get to be family. There's a push to be more accommodating now. You don't want to scare people away, which I think a lot more people are working toward.

Do you feel like that shift stems at all from the queer tattoo movement, which has really exploded into the mainstream recently?

Yeah, I think we definitely spearheaded a lot of the shift in tattooing. I think, also, as much as I'd rather not admit, with sites like Yelp, artists are held a little bit more accountable. More people are getting tattooed and then talking with their friends about their experiences. If you have a good experience in a tattoo shop, you're going to tell your friends. I think that clients are just naturally coming to people that are nicer. And the people who are nicer are mostly queers and freaks and people that are genuinely really nice people, not just putting on a front.

I think that's a lot of the reason why, when I started tattooing, I had a lot of people willing to get tattooed by me. It's not that hard to be a kind tattooer. But because the bar has been set so low, when you're a kind tattooer, people notice.

Your Instagram bio has the rose emoji — which has come to signify socialism — and then your only description (beyond your location) is "Arab + Queer." How do those politics and identities play into your tattooing, if at all?

That's so funny. I didn't think about it as socialism, but that's awesome. For me, [emphasizing those identities] has been super transformative. My mom is Arab and I knew I was queer from a really young age, but I didn't think that there were other Arab queers at all. It was before I started tattooing that I put that on my profile. Then, a handful of people reached out to me, saying, "I can't wait for you to start tattooing. I'm Arab and queer." I don't really know of that many other tattooers who are proudly Arab or have a connection to the culture. It's brought me so many incredible friends — Syrian, Palestinian friends who are queer and proud. It’s this really cool community of people that I had no idea existed before I put my identity out there.

I get a lot of clients who are just really excited to touch base with someone who's both of those things. I tattoo a lot of people who are looking for someone who is just not a cis white dude.

Getting back to your tattoos specifically, I know you're currently focusing on doing more flash art. Can you tell me a little bit more about your process for creating that flash, and what types of designs you're loving to do right now?

I still do custom tattoos, too, but I just was getting so many requests! I was saying yes to everything, working 10-hour days, and not taking time off. I was like, this isn't sustainable, 'cause I'm not making any of my own art. Tattooing mostly flash lets me have a creative outlet. Plus, people are really into what I'm making, which is so cool. I would be tattooing whatever people wanna get, but it's really cool that they want to get my art. I like to think about what makes a good tattoo when I'm drawing the tattoos in my sketchbook, then I'll hand people a book full of all of these different sketches to choose from. And then they pick whatever speaks to them.

We collaborate on what they're going to get tattooed. I give them all the options, and they'll often say, "I like this and this." So, we combine those two elements into a tattoo. I like tattooing pomegranates. I feel like they're the ideal queer, Arab symbol. I like tattooing flowers and skulls. These are things that are traditional tattoo subjects, which just symbolize life and death. I love to hand people all of these symbols, and then they can put whatever meaning they want into them. When they're more common, traditional tattoo symbols, maybe there's a little bit of myself put into them as well.

Have you always enjoyed making tattoos in a more traditional style?

Yeah. When we opened Time Being, people would ask, "Why do you do traditional?" When I was apprenticing and painting flash before that, no one questioned it, just 'cause that was just tattooing at the time that I came into it, in my little world. Even in high school, I was drawing skulls and flames, 'cause I thought they were really tough.

There's something really beautiful about the pared-down structure of the traditional tattoo. You can't really hide anything. You have to have good lines, and you have to have good shading and pack in color well. I have mostly traditional-ish tattoos on my own body. I've always really been drawn toward tough-looking tattoos.

Do you think people were surprised you were doing traditional tattoos because there are so many prominent, queer tattoo artists doing more delicate line work?

My friend Tom was joking with me the other day, saying, "If you're a gay tattooer, you probably can't shade." But there's definitely a little pocket of queer traditional tattooers: Ace and T-Bird in the Bay area are two I can think of.

It's definitely more rare. As queer tattooers, we often want to reject a lot of what came before us, and just do something completely new and different. And I guess what I'm trying to do is more to build on what came before. And if you really start to look into tattoo history, there are queer voices. [Samuel Steward aka] Phil Sparrow was a gay tattooer in Chicago in the ’60s, and Cliff Raven. It's important to me to not just be starting from scratch, [but] to kind of have this community of artists that built up the foundation that I can add to.

[Gay tattooing] was in the shadows before. There would be one gay tattooer, but he wouldn't be out. The history, I feel like, is still being written. We've definitely experienced so much innovation and so much exposure in the past couple years, just because of the visibility from the internet. But our history's so deep, especially with non-white tattooing. The oldest tattoo shop in the world right now is Razzouk in Jerusalem. When you look outside of the Western hemisphere, there's so much history in tattooing. And if you look at tribal tattooing, a lot of it wasn't done by men.

Is there any difference in how you tattoo on darker skin? One of your Instagram posts noted that you'll add a little bit of color to a tattoo at a time, just to see how it'll heal on your skin tone. Is that something you do for everyone?

It's anyone who asks, really. When I started getting tattooed, I remember I definitely felt weird about color on my skin. And I'm pretty light skinned, as far as the spectrum of human skin goes. There's kind of this myth in tattooing that if you're dark skinned, you can't get color. It's totally not true. You totally can.

There are ways you can apply certain colors and change the design so that it reads well. You just have to be thinking about it. A lot of people will come to me for their first color tattoo. If someone's hesitant to get color, we'll just put a tiny bit in a jewel, or a dagger, or on the fingernails in a hand, then see if it heals well before we add more.

I don't ever want to tell people with darker skin, "Color will look great on you, don't worry." It's your body. You're 100% in control of the process. I just want to be a tool that helps the client get to the point where they feel extremely empowered during the whole process. I want someone to walk away from a tattoo thinking, "Whoa. Tattooing is magical. I feel incredibly empowered. This is my body, and I'll do what I want with it."

Do you have a favorite tattoo you've ever done?

I have a couple favorites. I tattooed my little sister, and that was really cool because it was her. And she got a skull with flowers on her side right after she turned 19. It was a cool connection.

Overall, I think my favorite tattoos aren't only about the imagery. The imagery is, of course, important, but I think it has to do a lot with the circumstance. First tattoos are really fun for me. Really big tattoos are really fun for me.

Are there any types of tattoos that you won't do?

Definitely, and it's becoming more common that I can be more choose-y with what I take on. There are certain things that I won't do, just 'cause I know someone else can do them better. I won't do portraits. I won't do text. I've done two portraits, and they're more traditional portraits, but generally I know someone else can do that better. I will do Arabic text, just 'cause no one else knows the Arabic alphabet.

I won't do appropriative imagery, or anything that's outright a hate symbol, but I don't think anyone's really coming to me for that kind of stuff. The people that come to me for tattoos are generally really like-minded, and the best people in the world.

You've said in the past that you wish the tattoo community did a better job of listing up brown and black bodies. Are there any other specific artists you think are doing a great job, who you want to recommend people check out?

Yeah, totally. There are a lot. My friend Brandon [Phillips, @brandontearztattoo], he's an incredible tattooer. He's doing a really innovative style. My friend Lauren [O'Connor, @tattoo.tales]. Tamara Santibañez [@tamarasantibanez] in New York has been an incredible force in changing a lot of things in tattooing. She and Anderson Luna [@andersonluna] have been being extremely intentional in uplifting newer tattooers and shaping what they want tattooing to look like. My friend Laura [Hammel, @mathgoth] in Pittsburgh is amazing. I could definitely go on and on. I'm blanking right now. Also, Jay (@jay.babytattoo), Cierra (@the_finest_trash), Leina (@tattoo_sioux), Tomas (@tomas_garcia), Stephanie (@stephanietamez). There's literally too many; I'm really lucky that I have a really incredible community of friends.

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Sema is located: Mainly at Time Being Tattoo in Chicago, but they also do pop ups around the country. (Follow their IG to find out where they'll be next.)

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.