How Queer People Of Color Are Transforming Richmond’s Tattoo Culture

by | Feb 8, 2022 | QUEER RVA, TATTOO CULTURE

The world is healing in more ways than one. All over the world, people are standing together to fight against injustices, and the same is happening within the tattoo community. Once an exclusive subculture, tattoos are becoming more accepted in mainstream society and culture. What used to be an industry full of gatekeeping and hazing run primarily by White men is in the process of transforming into a diverse and uplifting community, highlighting a variety of beautiful art styles. 

I first met Isashah Pereira and Julisa Jaq Basilis in October 2021, during the weekend-long Anime Ink Convention. The two of them work together at Black Rabbit Tattoo, a woman-run tattoo shop in the center of Richmond. Kim Graziano, the owner of both Black Rabbit and Anime Ink Con, provided the first comfortable space for Pereira and Basilis to pursue their passion for tattooing. They share similar backgrounds, both being of queer and Latine identity. At Black Rabbit, they are celebrated for every part of their identity. However, finding such an inclusive and accepting tattoo shop was not an easy process. They have both come a long way in discovering themselves and getting to a place where they can live freely as their authentic selves within the tattoo industry. 

Pereira (left) and Basilis (right) working side by side at Anime Ink Con 2021. [Photos via @bootlegchrisevans on Instagram]

Pereira is proudly queer and Puerto Rican. She comes from Miami and has always loved art, music, anime, and video games. When she isn’t in the shop, she’s organizing community events and shows for the queer RVA community through her page, State of Sweat, with fellow DJs tommy2600 and IDE. She loves working and collaborating with queer people of color during these events, where they get to share music and party together. It was through these kinds of events that Pereira found her people in Richmond, and she has since grown to love it here. 

“Honestly, coming to Richmond helped me so much back in 2016 because there are so many young people here that are living their truth,” she said. “Everything is so open and beautiful.”

When Pereira moved to Richmond in 2016, she came by herself, not knowing anyone here except for Graziano. The two first met in Atlanta when Graziano visited to do a guest spot. “When I first met Kim, she was a pretty big inspiration for me, because I had never seen a woman own a shop before,” Pereira told me. 

Graziano’s vision was something Pereira always wanted to support. “I hadn’t visited Richmond yet,” she said. “But I told her, ‘I’ll leave today if you say you’re giving me a job.’” 

That boldness led Pereira to where she is today. Soon after their meeting, she moved to Richmond to join Black Rabbit, so eager to get there that she didn’t even find a place to live before she went. “It was very spur of the moment,” she said, laughing. “I was living on [a co-worker]’s couch and she let me crash there for like two weeks while I was finding a place.” 

Taking that leap has been one of her proudest moments and the best thing she’s done for her career. “It let me know that I could do this on my own and succeed on my own,” she said. 

Photo provided by Isashah Pereira

Pereira has now been tattooing for 13 years, and although the past six years have been easier since working at Black Rabbit, getting there meant dealing with constant struggle and hardship. Until recently, the tattoo community has been known for toxic and abusive apprenticeships. Many tattoo artists have experienced brutal conditions while they completed their apprenticeship, enduring hazing, sexual harassment, physical abuse, and financial hardship. 

“I was very vulnerable and I hadn’t grown into myself yet, so I allowed people to walk all over me and say terrible things,” Pereira said. “I would just see, every day, toxic things happening all around me and think that it was normal, because it was all the time.”

Basilis had similar negative experiences when she began tattooing. She is only a few years younger than Pereira, and just recently moved to Richmond. She began working at Black Rabbit in May of 2021. Basilis is a queer Dominican Jew who has been in the tattoo industry for six years. Since she was a child, she has loved creating all sorts of art. She grew up in a creative environment; her mother was an actress at the time, and her father is a cameraman and journalist. 

It took many years of trying to get into the tattoo industry before she was finally able to get her foot in the door. “The tattoo industry is essentially the exclusivity and inaccessibility of being able to learn how to tattoo,” she said while describing the hardships she faced to get started tattooing.

Once Basilis got started with her apprenticeship, she faced even more adversity in her journey to becoming a tattoo artist. Both Basilis and Pereira found the process eerily similar to the kind of hazing culture typically seen in college fraternities, full of humiliation, disrespect, and abuse.

“The whole idea is that if you really want to tattoo, you’ll go through anything,” Basilis said. “It’s racist, it’s sexist, it’s homophobic, it’s ableist. The idea that you should work for free for someone who treats you like shit in order for you to prove that you’re committed is extremely harmful in so many ways.” 

However, not all hope is lost. There is a movement in the tattoo community currently to dismantle these old ways of teaching and providing services. There have been a lot more “cancellations” happening recently: young people speaking out against unethical tattoo artists, exposing harmful behavior, and holding them accountable for their actions. 

“People are not getting away with the shit they used to get away with,” Pereira said. “I like seeing people be outspoken because I was scared back then. I was scared to call out my superiors. I was scared I wouldn’t be able to do tattooing.” 

Basilis believes that a lot of this change and advocacy is thanks to marginalized identities within the tattoo community. “Tattooing in its inception is Indigenous, Black, and very queer, both culturally and historically,” she said. “So I think in a lot of ways it’s becoming a reclamation. It’s revisiting what tattooing has been used for and what it could be used for, and how really, in its roots, it’s ritual, it’s practice, it’s melanated — not this white man’s boys’ club of torture and abuse.”

Photo by Sage Analog

We are witnessing a cultural shift happening in tattooing right now, one that is allowing space for people of all backgrounds to express themselves and their art through tattooing — whether it be as the artist or as the client. It’s creating connection and community in a way that is healthy and authentic, and Pereira and Basilis are excited to be a part of this change.

“I wanna have people in the industry that are representing my community,” Pereira said. “When I started, if I saw someone like me tattooing, it wouldn’t have taken me so long to understand who I am through my art, or through my identity and sexuality.”

Basilis was inspired by Pereira for a long time before they started working together. “Isashah has been a huge part of what has made me feel so comfortable coming to Black Rabbit,” she said. “They were a huge inspiration to me before I got the job at Black Rabbit. They were a Puerto Rican tattooer who was out here doing alternative tats and being so hot and so cool — I was obsessed with them! And now I’m working alongside them, so that’s really exciting.”

Pereira and Basilis’s relationship illustrates how important it is to have minority representation in the workplace, especially in tattooing. Their connection comes from the deep bond of understanding each other’s culture and identity. They share many unique and precious memories tied to their shared background. 

“It’s funny, when Julisa first came in, my station has a Puerto Rican flag in there and she told me, ‘Damn, I had to go get a Dominican flag because I saw your Puerto Rican flag!’” Pereira recalled. “And now hers is a little bit bigger than mine, so I think she was flexing on me. So I take offense to that a little bit. [laughs] No, I don’t. I love her so much, by the way.” 

Not only did Pereira make Basilis feel more comfortable as she adjusted to a new environment, Basilis has helped validate Pereira’s identity in many ways too. “I’m super fluid, so my pronouns are she/they, but I do mostly lean towards being more non-binary,” said Pereira. “Julisa was one of the first people that when she came in, she was like, ‘Hey, we should make it more inclusive.’ We used to advertise as an all-female shop, and I never thought about that being not-as-accurate. But when she mentioned it, I was like, ‘Wait, that’s sick,’ because it made me realize we should just be an all-inclusive kind of shop. I mean, regardless of the fact that we all represent pretty femme, we don’t all fit that mold, you know?” 

Pereira (left) and Candy Corpse (right) at Anime Ink Con 2021. [Photo via @candyxcorpse on Instagram]

As the growing diversity of the tattoo industry helps to build a more inclusive and safer community, more and more tattoo artists come together to uplift and celebrate each other. The world of tattooing is slowly healing, and with the healing comes healthy boundaries, respectful education, safer practices, and more love. 

“We need to be really humble about what we do, because what we do for people is so personal,” Pereira said. “Every time you tattoo somebody, they are letting you into such an intimate part of themselves.”

Basilis wanted me to share a message for all aspiring tattoo artists:

“If you’re reading this and you really want to get into tattooing — be patient, get tattooed, and be safe. Don’t put yourself at risk, but also make sure you’re not putting anyone else at risk. It’s really important to keep getting tattooed, meeting tattooers, and becoming a part of the community. The path will present itself.”

Left: Isashah Pereira’s tattoos [Photos via @lil_tat_mama on Instagram] Right: Julisa Jaq Basilis’s tattoos [Photos via @papifritastattoos on Instagram]

When I listen to these two talented artists speak, I instantly feel comfortable and safe sharing a space with them. They truly represent the positive changes in the tattoo industry with everything they do and say. The care they have for both their artwork and their clients is something I could not describe in words — it’s immeasurable. 

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go book a tattoo appointment.

Top Photo via @marvbrox on Instagram.

Veronica Fernandez

Veronica Fernandez

Veronica is a student at Randolph-Macon College, exploring the art of journalism. She enjoys learning about culture and on her free time, she loves driving into Richmond and playing board games with her friends.

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