Oakland-Based Tattoo Artist Natasha Harden, AKA @inkthepainaway, Is All About Vulnerability In Her Stick & Poke Practice

Having tattoos is traditionally associated with being tough. In pop culture, full sleeves of ink are used to emphasize that the character you're watching or reading about is definitely no conformist goody two shoes — in extreme cases, it's an easy way to indicate that someone's a threat. (Think: biker gang members glaring menacingly at the protagonist who definitely didn't mean to walk into this bar.) But Natasha Harden, @inkthepainaway on Instagram, believes that the art of giving and getting tattoos is actually an opportunity to confront and celebrate our personal vulnerabilities. In fact, her bio on the site for the studio where she currently works, Diving Swallow, says, "She's an emo sad girl who loves feelings and flowers."

Harden has been hand poking tattoos for about three years, and those sessions have often proven to be cathartic for both her and her clients. "On the last Saturday when I worked, of the four people that I tattooed, three of them cried," Harden tells Bustle. "[A tattoo session] can be an opportunity for me to process things that are going on in my head, too." Her flash — which you can view in a highlight on her Instagram page — is mostly a mix of delicate botanical designs, Venus of Willendorf inspired sketches, and words of positive affirmation, like "enough," "cry if you need to," "healing is a process," and "doing my best." Ahead, Harden chats more about how she developed her distinct style of tattooing, the importance of collaboration over competition, and how mental health plays into her practice.

How did you start tattooing?

I got my first stick and poke from this person on Instagram who was a photographer. Soon after, the person that I was dating at the time called me and was like, "I bought all this stuff to tattoo, you should come over." We were pretty much at the tail end of our seven-year relationship at that point. I think [tattooing each other] was a way of trying to connect without fighting. I remember going over to his house that day, and we just kind of sat on the couch giving ourselves stick and pokes on the couch. I think I probably did three or four, and felt pretty confident in doing it.

When I left his house that night, he gave me a bunch of needles and ink. I just went home and tattooed myself a bunch more times until I was falling asleep. I think that I was drawn to it so much because my emotional state was very shaky, and I was pretty much sad the whole time. Giving myself these stick and pokes kind of just helped me snap out of it for a little while, maybe because of the adrenaline and the endorphins that it released.

After, I started posting [my tattoos] on Instagram and Facebook and my friends were like, "Ah I want one!" So I started tattooing my friends. At the end of the tattoos, they would try to give me money, and then I sort of thought that it would be a good side job. At the time, I still had my vintage shop in Oakland, so I started doing stick and pokes on the weekends here and there.

A few years later, I had closed the vintage shop and was trying to take tattooing a little more seriously. One day, a friend sent me an email because she was going to get a tattoo at Diving Swallow [a tattoo studio in Oakland, California]. She said, "I'm getting a tattoo and I was talking about you to the owner. I'm going to email introduce you guys. Hopefully I'll turn into something." And it did! This June will be a year that I've worked there.

Did you have any sort of formal art training before you started doing your tattoos? How did you develop your unique style of tattoos?

When I was in college, I took some art classes. And I still do ceramics. But drawing was not at all in my pocket of tools. In the beginning, I really, really struggled with it. When I would sit on the couch with my ex, he would draw things that he wanted on him. And I remember feeling so terrible, because I was like, "I can't think of any good ideas!"

When I started guesting at Diving Swallow, I assumed I needed to have flash sheets for people to choose from. In the beginning, I started to just kind of mimic things that I saw online. But I struggled with it a lot, and I was sort of having these mini panic attacks and being really hard on myself. Then something happened where I was like, maybe I should just try to use my handwriting [for the tattoos], instead of, like, trying to look at Times New Roman and copy it perfectly.

I'm also really obsessed with Frank Ocean and sad music, and being in my feelings. So I just started writing down certain lyrics that popped out to me. Then, images just kind of came to me organically. I was doing gardening [at the time] so I was drawn to drawing flower parts and other things that I saw in nature. I would say that for 96% of the designs that I draw, it's me working out my feeling. Most of them are messages for myself.

What's the story behind your Instagram handle, @inkthepainaway? You've already mentioned feeling sad a lot, so did that play into it?

I've struggled with [sadness] for as long as I can remember, mainly because of ancestral trauma and the way that I was raised and how I pretty much just don't feel like I'm worthy of any love and attention — all that sad stuff. The first Instagram that I started was called The Vulnerable Show. Along with the vintage shop and the tattooing, I thought that I was going to do like workshop for people about being vulnerable and sharing their feelings and and trying to wear themselves on their sleeve.

That sort of turned into Ink The Pain Away when I started working at Diving Swallow, because they recommended that I have a page that was fully for tattoos. I kind of struggled [to come up with it] because a lot of people just have like their first name, dot, and then "tattoos," and I didn't really want to that because it didn't feel good or exciting. And I was sort of using the hashtag #inkthepain away already, because that's how I started tattooing: to ink my pain away.

Did you get into hand poking intentionally, or has that been your method because those were the tools first provided to you?

Those were the tools that were available to me. Now, I'm looking into adding machines to my toolbox, mainly for like pieces that are like four hours long [when I hand poke them], that could maybe be a little bit shorter [with a machine], or if they're in a part of the body that would just be easier to do by machine.

But machines like the ones that I've been asking around about — ones that are really good, but sort of for beginners — they're like $500. Right now, I just have to order needles, which you can probably buy a box of — if they aren't the top name brands — for $20. When I first started tattooing, I was using india ink that I just bought from like an art store. [Stick and poke] was just really affordable and accessible to me with my budget.

Tell me about your experience working at Diving Swallow, which feels very different from a "traditional" tattoo shop.

It's been almost a year that I've been working at Diving Swallow. It's a shop run by women and people who are non-binary. Before working at Diving Swallow, people came to my house and we sat on a couch and that's how I tattooed people. I really love Diving Swallow, because it helped me to step up my game — including just learning how to do things in a more sanitary way.

Also, every single person I work with is so amazing. If I have a question, they're more than willing to sit and talk with me about how they do it. They're willing to share, like, the email that they send to people for bookings. I think it's like a teaching hospital model in that, no matter what level you're at, there's always someone there to just sort of share their experience. At least in my life experience, once you're out of college, it can be really hard to ask people about the craft that they do, because we live in a world where people are afraid that you're gonna steal from them.

It's really helpful to be in an environment where people are rooting for you, even on the days that you feel like the work that you do is not good because we're our own worst critic. I love that I'm just a part of a community.

I struggle with anxiety and because I'm a woman of color in the world we live in, I think that I struggle a lot with like feeling fake. [Working in a supportive environment] means I can show my authentic self and be a happy nurturing adult that can stand up for myself and be in a space, where I'm holding space for others.

I think [the nature of the shop] just filters out a certain type of person — this bro-y like, white, cis, hetero male that's gonna like not let you talk or have your own space or allow you to sort of advocate for yourself during an appointment. [The environment at Diving Swallow] sort of sets the stage already for the type of clients who can appreciate what we're doing. I talk about my feelings. I do a lot of work about healing for people processing through all types of things. And so I think when people find me, they really appreciate me and that's so magical.

How big of a part does mental health play in your daily tattoo practice?

I feel like it's that way for like 90% [of my clients]. People also come to me with stuff that they're holding. Last week, this woman had experienced a death of a significant other, and then her best friend, and then she found out she had cancer. [Getting a tattoo] was just like her way of like processing all of that. I had another woman get her first tattoo and I was just trying to create for her an experience that I hope that she has every single time she gets a tattoo. Because I've had a lot of tattoos from cis man where like... well, it's just nice to have the option to ask questions, because this tattoo's going to be on your skin forever.

Machine tattoos are really loud, and it all happens really fast. It feels like there's a lot of heat and a lot of pressure, but you don't feel the needle going up and down. [With hand poking] you are feeling me going up and down, so I say whenever you feel me poke you, I invite you to either let go of something or invite something in. Seventy-five percent of the time, that alone makes the person cry.

You do a lot of first tattoos. What about that experience is particularly special for you?

I just appreciate it because it takes a lot of trust. The clients are so nervous. I've had so many people scream and jump when I put my hands on them to hold the skin. But after I poke them for the test, they're like, "Oh my god, that's like nothing!" I think they think I'm gonna be stabbing them the way you see in a horror movie.

It's also a lot of stress, because sometimes they have a lot of expectations. But I try to see it as like a gift that the person has chosen me to do their first tattoo. I just try to model the experience that I hope that they'll have moving forward with every tattoo that they get. I hope that the other tattoo artists will just like, hold space for them and not rush them and make them feel small and stupid, and like their opinion is insignificant. It should be a collaboration, you know?

What is your collaboration process with the client like?

Sometimes, people come with their own ideas, and then I sort of translate that into what I think I can do. And... I don't know how much I should be sharing this. Whatever. I'm vulnerable, right? I think that almost every single time that someone sends me a design, because of my internal struggle of like not feeling good enough or worthy, I usually say to myself that I can't do that. But I think that that's just like part of my process. Once I actually like pause a little bit and look at the design, I make it into what I can do or what I see.

I really appreciate how people can see an image that I've drawn [on my flash sheet], and they want to pair it with something else that I've written and make it something that goes together. I think that's a really great collaboration, because I might never have thought of combining certain things.

I really try not to look at so much of tattoo imagery [as inspiration], because I want the clients to come to me without it being the way that somebody else did it. That automatically stresses me out, and then my brain shuts down.

Are there any misconceptions you hear often about hand poked tattoos that you want to clear up?

I don't know if it's because of how I look, but most of the time, when I tell people that I do hand poked tattoos, people think that I'm doing the type of hand poked tattoos that are done in Polynesia or Thailand, where they're using a stick and they're like, tapping it. I always have to correct people and tell them that that type of tattooing doesn't belong to me, the culture that I've come from.

Also, a lot of people think that they're going to get an infection, or that it's not clean. Of course, I'm working in a tattoo shop now, so it's super different. But even if I'm doing it at home, I'm not doing them with, like, an unsanitized sewing needle. Whether you have a tattoo license or not, there are [safety resources] available to you online.

Do you have a favorite tattoo you've ever done? And what styles of tattoos are you currently really enjoying?

Most recently I've loved [tattooing the words] "love me love me" which is from a Cat Power song. I've given it to myself, and I've given it to clients. Last week, one of my sort of semi regular clients came to me and they wanted it to say "love me love you." And the "love me" part was backwards, so that when they look in the mirror they see it reflecting back to themselves. I almost cried.

I'm also really liking doing botanical drawings now. I did a guava branch recently. I did a lavender branch recently. It's different than tattooing a phrase in my own handwriting. It's like two different sides of the brain. Also, I haven't done so much color [in the past], so it's been nice to play with doing color [recently].

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

Yeah, I think that it's sort of tricky sometimes. Being a tattoo artist, you basically go on a blind date at least three or four times a week with your clients. You don't know who they are and what their life is like. So the two types of tattoos I won't to do is if you sent me the image of somebody else's tattoo and want that same tattoo. The second type of tattoo I won't do is if you want, like, Sanskrit, and that has nothing to do with your diaspora.

I also want to have influence [on the tattoo design], but not too much influence. I recently did a tattoo that said "I am magic" on somebody's chest. Her original idea was to have it say "you are magic." But the way that she proposed this in an email was that her ex had said that to her and she wanted to remember it. And I struggled with that a little bit. Ultimately, I said to her that it just felt that it didn't belong to her because it came from somebody else. So I said, it would be nice if we can word it where you were saying it to yourself instead.

I often get emails the day after [an appointment] almost like a thank you card. I think that I cry at least once a week because there's this behind-the-scenes reprogramming that is happening for myself too. Tattoos are very meaningful in the moment, but if I'm doing three or four tattoos a day, as much as I'm holding that experience, I think that sometimes I come home and I'm like, so tired that I sometimes forget the moment. So it's nice to have these emails, where people are letting me know how much I did, especially in the moments where you're like, why am I doing this? Is this what I'm supposed to be doing? I think the universe comes in at the right moment and is like, "You're doing what you're supposed to be doing right now."

Follow Natasha on Instagram: @inkthepainaway

Book an appointment with her by: Sending her an email at Inkthepainaway@gmail.com or checking her Instagram for availability.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.