In 2016, Out & About Nashville readers chose a new tattoo shop, Alchemy Nashville, as the best place to get a tattoo. In addition to being new on the scene, Alchemy also has the distinction of being owned and operated by an LGBT artist, Tai Orten.
Tai has been tattooing for ten years, but she only established Alchemy in East Nashville between December 2015 and February of 2016. Before that she had worked at four or five different studios—most recently Electric Hand—honing her craft. Her own studio is a one-woman shop, open by appointment only. And that’s working for her: through word-of-mouth and referrals alone, she’s booked out four or five months in advance.
Tai was gracious enough to chat with us about how she got started in tattoos, what it was like developing as a lesbian and female artist in a male-dominated field, and to give some pointers to newbies.
O&AN: How did you first get into tattoos and tattooing?
Tai: I was introduced to it when I was about sixteen. I ended up doing a tattoo kind of as a bribe from my mom. She absolutely hated piercings, and I wanted one, so she's like, "I'll take you to get your first tattoo if you do not get this awful tongue ring." I was like, "Okay. That's totally done."
She took me for that when I was 16 at a local shop in Murray, Kentucky. It was owned by this guy named Jerry Riegger, who was an old time tattoer, and I was just lucky enough to have access to him. Over that course of time, probably about a year, I would drop by and kind of bug him and ask him about tattooing and stuff. At that point I had pretty much had a fire under my a**, and I knew I wanted to get involved in some way because I had always been drawing.
I guess I finally bugged him enough because he definitely didn't take me seriously when I first came in there. He ended up giving me an apprenticeship when I was around 17. That's how initially I got my foot in the door was through him and through that small town that I lived in.
O&AN: Were you out back then?
Tai: Selectively. I didn't make it known where I lived or at my high school. It was in Murray, Kentucky—it's very small, pretty Bible Belt, very conservative overall. I'm sure there wer a few people that would have been okay with it, but I just wasn't wanting to put that out there to where it might backfire and stuff. I was selectively out as far as friends and with Jerry I was as well.
That was actually probably one of the cool things about being a gay female: at that point it wasn't as prevalent. So I think I was kind of was able to avoid some of the things that sometimes women have to deal with in the male dominated industry by simply just being gay. I was different.
O&AN: I was going to ask what it was like developing a career as a woman, because I do know it's kind of a ‘macho’ industry sometimes.
Tai: Yeah. I would say it definitely draws a certain crowd. Even more so as you go back, and then back even further: it was slimmer and slimmer in terms of the women that were involved in it. Now it's a much more open environment and I think it embraces women a little bit more.
O&AN: How would you advise someone on how to find an artist who meshes with the style that they're looking for?
Tai: I would say just research, look online. This goes for tattooers looking at other tattooers for learning purposes and for inspiration… Everything is on social media now. You can really get to see a body of work from any artist from any town that you want to and that you're interested in. The big thing that I look for is whether the work that they currently have is within the realm of what you could consider getting and that the line work is consistently clean, the images are clear, the application is solid.
O&AN: Do your own personal tattoos revolve around themes or events, or do they have any LGBT significance?
Tai: I would say all of my tattoos kind of revolve around a general concept: I would say all of them in some way or other have a theme of life, death, decay, and growth… My right side is my life, abundance, and growth side. My left side is more death, change, decay, that kind of concept… But nothing in terms of struggle as far as coming out or anything like that. That's always been something I kind of work out mentally more so than on the skin.
O&AN: Among your clients, you must have a lot of LGBT people. Do you see themes in what they’re looking for? Do they often want LGBT-themed tattoos?
Tai: Sure. Yeah you do run across that from time to time. I definitely work with a huge segment of the LGBT community, everything from … a fifty-fifty split of men and women and everything within the gender spectrum, trans community, that kind of deal. Some of them do choose to have things that are just very specifically focused on some kind of struggle or some change. But generally I find that most people, LGBT or not, will start projects and want to get a tattoo around times of change. It can be something as simple as a breakup or something that shifted in their day to day life. It's almost like a fresh start in a way.
O&AN: Do you think LGBT people are more comfortable with an LGBT artist.
Tai: Sometimes. Sometimes they are reluctant to share details of their lives when they don’t know how the tattooer will respond. When I have people from the LGBT community come in, sometimes they know that I am, and sometimes it naturally just works itself into the conversation, like "Oh, my girlfriend…" You know? And they’re like, "Oh, okay." Then you sometimes see them relax a bit.
Some people have told me of bad experiences and that they wanted to come to an LGBT artist so they could feel comfortable. It's something that I've come across from time to time. To feel comfortable you need to know what you’re walking into. You don't know how the audience is going to be. You don't know if people are going to receive you well or have something nasty to say to make you feel. I think it is getting better overall, I think that that somebody who is a tattooer … it would not behoove them to embrace that negativity.
O&AN: Do you see much pushback on tattoos or hear about it? I know most of the people you work with regularly are on board, but…
Tai: Oh yeah. It's weird for me to step outside into that, actually. Tattoos are my day-to-day life, so I forget sometimes until I walk into a grocery store and somebody pulls their kid back like I'm going to abduct them. You still see that, and you’re like, “I'm not going to take your kid because I'm a tattoo person.”
I think that definitely is going to take a lot of time to fade out, but more and more I get to see doctors, lawyers, and folks that would typically not be thought of as having tattoos, get tattoos. Sometimes they'll still be selective about placement and that will hide them: I might know about them and their significant others will, but the vast majority of people won't get to see that.
Same things with teachers and things like that. I'll feel like I'm winning a secret victory when I tattoo a teacher. You don't usually get to see them as people, like a regular person, when you're a kid…
O&AN: What do you consider your specialties? Are there kinds of tattoos that you will refer clients to other artists to get?
Tai: Portraiture would be the main thing, because I can do it and that's something that not everybody is always comfortable with. However, I really do cover a wide variety of styles. The only thing that I wouldn't advertise myself for would probably be New School. I enjoy it, and I think it looks really great, but it's not my jam …
O&AN: Do you have some tips about preparing for getting a tattoo, or some things people ought to know about getting a tattoo before they get one?
Tai: Look for somebody versatile with clean, solid, consistent work who can accommodate your style that you're wanting. In terms of preparing yourself for the day, be well rested and have limited time constraints. Be prepared to empty your mind. Be aware that after the tattoo you are going to have to avoid water, besides a shower, for a few weeks at least. Try to be able to rest for a few days after, and also remember that tattoo placement can be extra uncomfortable depending on profession: I had somebody get a hand tattoo, and he was a landscaping person, and ended up working with manure literally the next day. That's not a good idea.
O&AN: How do people make an appointment with you, since you don’t have open hours?
Tai: I've kind of set up a system where I do everything through email. And so, when somebody is interested in getting work, I just tell them to go to my website (tattoosbt.com) and fill out a contact form. It asks specific questions on what they want, what their budget is for the project. It asks them to select photos that might be references that will point me in a direction. And then from there, if it's something that I think I can do for them, I'll send them the link to my calendar, and then they select a consult time. From there we hammer out a timeline. The consultation also allows us to make sure we’re on the same wavelength.