Walking into House of Wands, down in Shockoe Bottom, feels immediately like walking onto the set of Practical Magic: high ceilings, dark wood, and even a large print of Morticia Addams tucked away in the corner. No Sandra Bullock to be found, but we’ll let that slide.
Opened in July of this year, House of Wands was founded by Fronkie L’Heureux (who uses she/they pronouns) and Micha Sol (who uses they/them pronouns) as the first queer tattoo cooperative in Richmond, Virginia. As a popular town for tattooing — proudly claiming the ranking of third most tattooed city in the country as of 2022 — it finds a comfortable home situated downtown among other queer and queer-friendly establishments.
L’Heureux and Sol, with seventeen and twenty years of tattoo experience under their belts respectively, began the discussion about opening a queer tattoo cooperative after leaving previous places. Joking that they both had a disruptive nature to where they were working, and what the DSM-5 calls a “strong sense of justice,” their palpable chemistry made it clear they are the perfect duo to run a shop like this together.
When doing their research about opening a shop together, they were not fans of the traditional shop model. Friends suggested investigating a cooperative model instead. L’Heureux found a book that helped break down some of the things that successful and unsuccessful establishments in the cooperative model had done.
“As I was reading about cooperatives, I was just like ‘Holy crap, this would be amazing to try in a tattoo setting,’” said L’Heureux. “Traditionally, tattoo artists pay commission to the shop, anywhere between 70% to 30%. Even 30% hurts, especially when you’re coming in with your own clientele, having done everything for your clients, and you’re really just paying for a space.”
And this is all before tax, for the record.
“The government wants 30% of your, in some cases, remaining 30%,” added Sol.
“This is how in some cases you can look at a tattoo artist and go, ‘You look broke, but you’re charging as much as a lawyer,’” L’Heureux continued. “‘What is going on here, are tattoo artists irresponsible?’ And the answer is, well, partially yes,” they both added with a laugh.
L’Heureux and Sol continued to explain that between existing in a boom-and-bust economy, contributing the aforementioned commission costs, and other factors, it is a bit of a challenge to manage money as a tattoo artist. There aren’t any widely known money management techniques for folks who earn money the way they do.
Tattoo artists do not earn money like an average 9-5 gig. There isn’t a salary or biweekly paycheck; they’re effectively independent contractors. This brings up the issue of shops that treat their staff as employees as opposed to independent contractors, which prevents them from moving around more seamlessly to earn funds and benefits, gain experience and clients, and protections, among other things.
“There are a lot of rules in the US regarding independent contractors and what makes them different from employees,” said L’Heureux. “Employees get benefits, they get overtime pay, they get worker’s comp insurance, unemployment insurance, things like that. And protections, too. You can sue your employer for terminating you without notice. Whereas with tattoo artists who are independent contractors, you don’t get any of those things but in exchange, you are supposed to get these freedoms. You can make your own schedule, tell your boss when you are working, set your price. You can work anywhere else that you want to, you do not have to work at just one place. You can work at however many tattoo shops around town that you want to. Your employer can’t tell you where to work, and all of those rules are broken by some tattoo shops.”
Some tattoo shops, according to L’Heureux, break these rules to the point where you can allegedly find your equipment out in the street if you are found working somewhere else. After having done the private studio gig and knowing that they both didn’t want to profit off another artist any more than they wanted an artist to profit off them, they began to ask, “What is another way?”
And oh, there was.
“What drew us out of the shop that we were in, and has to do with the name of the shop, is Parker from Gallery5 reached out and said ‘Hey, over a year ago you and I sat down, and you wanted to start a space’,” said L’Heureux. “I saw this space, and this space really needs to be a community space, and I’d feel bad if it was a capitalist space, like a bunch of tattooers coming in and I’m taking their money and leaving.”
Ultimately, they found their current space downtown in Shockoe Bottom with some interesting aesthetics.
“We actually weren’t originally looking at this space, but we were in Church Hill when the realtor was like ‘I’ve got this spot down in Shockoe Bottom if you want to check it out’,” said Sol. “We had looked at this online and came to the same conclusion every time. ‘That is really big, and it looks like a restaurant.’”
However, once they entered the building for the first time, they both came to the same conclusion: it just felt right.
Both Sol and L’Heureux have their own specialties but share a common thread with a fantastical vibe, which lent to part of the meaning behind their name, House of Wands. In the tarot, wands is the suit of fire, and “House of _” is a nod to…
“I wanted a tattoo studio that would be a safe place for queer people to come get tattooed,” said Sol. “Ballroom culture is big in queer culture, and has contributed to a lot of things. Fashion, hip hop, all trickles down from ballroom culture. Ballroom styled itself after the things that queer, trans people of color didn’t have access to. So they styled themselves after fashion icons of the time. ‘House of’ was taken from fashion. Ballroom adopted that sort of naming style on itself, so we did the same thing.”
While House of Wands is not the first queer-owned shop (Xenith, which is a collective, is actually the first trans-owned shop in Richmond specifically), and there are quite a number of allies in the River City, it is the first cooperative.
“A cooperative is similar to a collective in that it is meant to be run democratically,” said L’Heureux. “Everyone knows how much everything costs, everything is run democratically, even when we have non-members in the shop they are welcome to meetings and to know where all of the money is going, and to have a say in meetings. Members get to vote on how things are done. We, like a traditional shop, will charge you rent or commission, depending on what you are comfortable with, and keep track of how much you have put in through rent or commission payments, but also through labor.
For example, if you’re an ace at social media marketing, handle the socials and your hours will be tracked that way as well. Are you great at bookkeeping? Then take on some bookkeeping responsibilities and your hours will be tracked in that manner. The ultimate goal of a cooperative is to foster a vibrant community environment where members have a voice and a say. Votes are held on assets, where profits go, how they are dispersed or saved, whether they go towards a retirement plan, a new building, and so forth.
For many individuals, the next step is opening a shop, which in this case, has been undertaken by Sol and L’Heureux. Members maintain their independence, but still have a say and a voice in what happens, and are treated as equals.
“The point of a cooperative is to really spell out what those responsibilities are so that at no point can it shift in any way that makes it untenable for any one member,” said Sol.
L’Heureux also discussed the power dynamics in a traditional shop. In a cooperative, you can express dissatisfaction with the shop without fear of ending up on the street with a tarnished reputation that precludes you from working in another shop. The bylaws of the cooperative are drafted so that members can always feel heard.
We could talk for hours about why representation is important, and every minute of that discussion would be valid and significant. And while it’s wonderful that the Richmond queer community has so many allies, it’s critical to recognize the value of a shop that is actually queer-owned. Especially in these times, with daily attacks on queer and particularly trans communities, having a shop run by femme and trans individuals is more important than ever.
“It’s kind of the difference between, and this is kind of a funky analogy, but it’s kind of the difference between a hug from your mom and a hug from your stepmom,” said Sol. “Allies can take you a certain distance, but they may never understand the type of oppression that you’ve had to endure. If you’ve never been there, you simply can’t fully comprehend it, which means there are inevitable missteps from places that label themselves as ‘safe’ but may unintentionally do things that make the queer community or any minority community feel unsafe within those walls. And that’s something I have experienced in every single tattoo shop I have ever worked at. Now, I am in a position to always prevent that. I can always confidently say in this space, ‘Not here.’ And sometimes that’s what it takes.”