© 2024 KALW 91.7 FM Bay Area
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Profiles of people who uplift, maintain, or change traditions within their communities.

A cultural shift in the Bay Area tattoo industry

Wolf - Diving Swallow Studio Storefront
Wendy Reyes
Wolf - Diving Swallow Studio Storefront

The culture of American tattooing has shifted over the last couple of decades, it’s gone from subculture to pop culture. And now, more artists from marginalized backgrounds are represented in the industry. For example, there’s more queer, woman and BIPOC-owned shops in the Bay Area than there were 20 years ago.

One of those is Diving Swallow Tattoo Studio in Oakland. Wendy Reyes spent the day with co-owner, tattoo artist Rocio, better known as Wolf.


You’re doing good.

Ahh, that hurts so bad.

You’re brave, you’re strong.

Itzel Gallardo is lying on a chair in the middle of a tattoo shop. She’s clutching onto her mom’s hand. Wolf, the tattoo artist, is carefully outlining the shape of a long vine, with a couple of leaves, on Itzel’s ribcage.

ITSZEL: Ah, god that hurts.

WOLF: Squeeze me as hard as you need to babe, you’re not going to hurt me.

Itzel is 18 years old, and she’s not only getting her first tattoo today, she’s also getting matching tattoos with her twin sister, their mom, their aunt and their grandma - little hearts on the insides of their wrists. It's a full house at Diving Swallow Studio.

There’s nervous laughter and excitement, but keeping everyone at ease is Wolf.

WOLF: I guess my thing is you’re pretty young.

Wolf has a very calm energy about them, like when they walked Itzel through the tattoo consultation earlier.

WOLF: So doing it bigger to begin with is going to ensure the longevity of it, cuz you can see I’ve had this tattoo here maybe probably over 15 years.

They’re pointing to a small dark sparrow on the back of their hand.

WOLF: And I'm brown, you know what I'm saying, and I don't get any sun on my skin if I can avoid it.

Wolf says it quickly, but it’s this moment that stands out to the Gallardo family. Wolf used their shared racial experience to facilitate a tattoo consultation. This is pretty cool and that’s why I'm here. Diving Swallow is known for their diverse staff, with mostly female and gender queer artists. More and more shops like this are coming up in the industry. For clients like the Gallardo family, this means getting to choose someone who relates to them.

I think that it feels safer for me to like, I think that's why I held off for a long time even going to get tatted at other places either because it's predominantly men, or a lot of white spaces.

That’s Alicia, Itzel’s mom.

ALICIA: It’s so intimate, like, it's your body and somebody's touching your body.

It is an intimate process and deciding who gets to touch your body should be part of that process.

WOLF: I like to let people know that they're in control of everything

Wolf understands this. That’s why they always ask for consent before touching someone. Their own experience as a young person getting and giving tattoos, informed who they are as a shop owner and artist today.

WOLF: I consider myself a non binary person, I never had people tease me or bully me or anything like that, but I always hid what I was.

They grew up in Southern California, but made their way to the Bay when they were 19 years old.

WOLF: And moving up here, getting tattooed, it definitely opened my eyes to the possibilities of tattooing, and as a form of like, self expression, and reclaiming your body and just being out there and sort of like having your insides on your outside, if that makes sense.

It was around this time that Wolf showed interest in becoming a tattoo artist. It was the 90’s and Wolf had an art show at a gallery called The Bearded Lady Cafe in the Mission District of San Francisco.

WOLF: And my friends came up to see that art show and we were like, oh, there's a tattoo parlor next door, let's go get a tattoo.

None of them had any money, but between all of them they had enough to pay for one tattoo for one of the friends.

WOLF: I asked them if they were looking for apprentices and the artist actually was like, oh, yeah, they happen to be looking for artists. They want to hire people of color, or, you know, women...

They were looking for someone exactly like Wolf. It was serendipitous, as they recall. And so, their apprenticeship began here.

WOLF: I felt like I was with my people, I guess, doing what I was supposed to do, like, working at a queer shop.

That shop was Black and Blue Tattoo — one of San Francisco's first woman and lesbian operated tattoo parlors. It would become a blueprint for Diving Swallow.

WOLF: I felt like it was like I was embraced by the culture in that time, but I do feel like it was a really good example for other shops to start popping up.

And just a few years after Wolf's apprenticeship, another one did. In 2004, a couple artists from Black and Blue Tattoo moved to Oakland to open Diving Swallow.

WOLF: I feel like at that point, maybe there really wasn't like a queer owned and operated shop over here.

There weren’t many, but that was 20 years ago. Today, more tattoo parlors are adopting a diverse culture, making room for artists who have been historically marginalized in the tattoo industry.

I think a lot of that has to do with an interest in creating spaces where clients and artists feel safe, feel like they can come and not worry about how they're perceived.

That’s Karly Etz, she's an art historian who specializes in the cultural significance of tattoos. She says the history of tattooing in the U.S. is mostly white and male, not surprising at all.

KARLY: Within the United States there's an apprenticeship system.

Meaning there are tattoo artists who will train other tattoo artists.

KARLY: And if most of the tattoo artists that exist at any given point in time are white and men.

Then it perpetuates a cycle. So, then, what broke that cycle?

KARLY: Lyle Tuttle was a famous tattoo artist that worked in that area in San Francisco, famously tattooed Janis Joplin.

This was in the 70s, in the South of Market neighborhood and people took notice of that tattoo on Janis Joplin’s wrist.

KARLY: And that was a big moment because of her notoriety and the fact that there was a celebrity who had tattoos that were visible, and a woman at that. 

The 60s and 70s were markers of social revolution. Think Women’s Liberation Movement, the hippie subculture, civil rights.

Within the tattoo world, this was also a renaissance. As women, like Janis Joplin, and other marginalized groups began to enter tattoo spaces, the artwork began to reflect this change.

KARLY: So new styles of tattoos get brought in, and once the tattoos themselves shifted away from like hard black outlines and sort of traditional Americana and stuff, I think also the perspectives on what tattooing is and who gets tattooed shifted as well. 

Then, just a few decades later, the internet changed everything. It exposed people to new images, practices, and opinions at a much larger scale.

KARLY: So we see new people who wouldn't have tattooed previously see themselves represented and new types of tattooing that they see online. Like, oh, that would actually be really cool, I would be willing to learn to tattoo, if it looks like that.

More artists picked up the trade and for clients, more artists meant more options, and really, a means to reclaim power over another part of this intimate process.

KARLY: Tattoos are, kind of, an ultimate way of laying claim to power over the body.

Karly adds that throughout history, there’s been a lot of involuntary tattooing, used as a means to dehumanize people.

KARLY: And so to tattoo the body is to lay claim to it, whether or not you're choosing to have your body tattooed or someone else is choosing that for you.

That’s why today, choosing a studio or an artist, is significant. Tattoos help people regain some sense of agency. At Diving Swallow, Wolf hopes that their shop reflects this ethos.

Back at the shop, it's the end of the day. Wolf’s now placing the final heart stencil on Maria, Itzel’s grandmother. And like her granddaughters it’s her first tattoo.

WOLF: And then put the stencil on you, you can take a look to see where it is ... Do you want to show everybody else? 

Everyone: oh, cute! *laughing* yay mom.

Itzel Gallardo describes that she often feels like the women in her family face misogyny and machismo.

ITZEL: I feel like the tattoo, the heart tattoo is such a big deal because it's like, our thing, and it's not being controlled. 

There was resistance from their own family about getting this tattoo, but much like Diving Swallow, the Gallardo women are pushing back.

Grandma Maria holds out her wrist, Wolf talks her through some final steps.

WOLF: You’re gonna be perfectly fine, but if there’s any point where that’s intense just say stop and I'll stop, but otherwise we’re just gonna go for it right now.

After a few moments, her family asks her how she feels.

MARIA: I feel free, free as a bird.

This story is meant to be heard, click the play button above to listen.

This story aired in the October 16, 2020 episode of Crosscurrents.

Crosscurrents Crosscurrents
(she/her/ella) I am a Mexican-american multi-media artist and activist. As a social justice advocate I strive to inform others about social issues and current events in order to promote healthy and just shifts in our society. I aim to use my knowledge, passion, and skills to face challenges with a creative and solution-based mentality.