Updated: Feb 26, 2021
In light of recent events, where a number of women have come forward to report cases of sexual assault carried out by local tattooists, this blog will focus on personal safety tips for anyone getting tattooed. We’d like to show our support for and solidarity with the brave women who came forward. We hope this will be the start of the tattoo industry’s own Me Too movement, bringing permanent changes. We’d also like to provide information for tattoo customers (regardless of which studio they choose to get tattooed), so that they are well informed before their appointment.
It shouldn’t be the responsibility of the customer to have to look out for or check up on the behaviour of a tattooist. But recent events have unfortunately highlighted the need for blogs like this in support of customers.
Before we go on to talk about the tattooing process, we just want to cover some more general concepts to start with.
What actually are the definitions of sexual harassment, sexual assault and rape?
"Harassment is a very broad term that includes many different types of behaviour — from touching someone’s knee to pressuring them into a date".
Sexual assault is a form of harassment, which generally involves physical contact with someone who does not want it. That could mean groping, kissing, pinching — anything that could be seen as sexual.
Rape is a form of assault. In the UK, it means forced penetration of someone’s mouth, anus or vagina with a penis. There is a corresponding offence called “causing sexual activity without consent”, which includes a woman forcing a man into intercourse".(1)
"Not all cases of sexual assault involve violence, cause physical injury or leave visible marks. Sexual assault can cause severe distress, emotional harm and injuries which can't be seen – all of which can take a long time to recover from". (2)
Is Harassment Illegal?
“Rape and sexual assault are against the law. But other forms of harassment are a grey area. It is not illegal to wolf whistle or catcall someone. However, some types of harassment are illegal under other laws”. (3)
This diagram acts as a reminder that sexual assault does not happen suddenly, down a dark alley, at the hands of strangers. It’s much more likely to happen in a situation where you think you are safe, at the hands of someone you know. It’s easy to tell yourself that some of the smaller acts that happen along the way, like crude jokes or sexual comments are not intended to be offensive or harmful.
Regardless, it's important to understand that they can be part of a harmful culture.
What separates sex, or a gesture of affection, from sexual assault is consent. That is, both people agreeing to what's happening by choice, and having the freedom and ability to make that choice. "Consent should be Clear; Coherent; Willing; and Ongoing". (4,5)
Personal Safety While Getting Tattooed
Disrespect in an uneven power relationship is bullying (at best) - and at worst, as we’ve seen it can lead to serious sexual assault and other criminal behaviour. Getting tattooed means handing over a certain amount of power and trust to the tattooist, and this can lead to you being vulnerable in terms of your personal safety.
Each tattoo studio comes with its own process and work ethic. The industry is full of creative, colourful, and sometimes unpredictable artistic energy. Customers might be drawn to a tattooist’s online image and persona, or eccentric reputation. But this does not mean a tattooist has the excuse to be anything other than professional.
Successful tattooists enjoy a level of fame and recognition that places them in a position of power, and influence. They often have large followings and strong platforms which can make it seem impossible if you’re the one voice speaking out against them. They have the power to discredit, shame, and impact careers and reputations. Sadly, those that are practised at being predatory will be good at blurring the lines - making sure that they make victims feel complicit or partly responsible for their behaviour.
If you’re new to the process of getting a tattoo, it can be hard to question what’s going, and you may feel intimidated by the environment, your lack of knowledge of the industry, or you may just not be comfortable with confrontation. Often, you’ll be spending a long time, close to the tattooist, and there may not be anyone else there. A lot of artists do have the freedom to work out of hours, and independently, which in itself is not a bad thing. When used correctly it can mean that you can enjoy a more private environment while being tattooed. When used incorrectly, it can leave the customer very vulnerable.
The truth is that a ‘perfect’ experience from the tattooist’s perspective looks a bit like this:
The customer sends pictures of and measurements for where they want the tattoo, along with references, and trusts you to come up with something artistically unique. The customer trusts you to know how to work with style, shape and colour, to best suit their anatomy. The customer arrives calm, well-rested and alone, focused on allowing you the tattooist to carry out the process. Artistic control or creative control where you give the artist the authority to decide how the final product will appear always leads to the best tattoos.
But let’s not get it twisted - artistic control does not equal unchallenged physical control over your body.The majority of tattooists see this transaction as a very precious gift. For trust on this level to be handed over is extremely unusual in today’s world. For most tattooists, it represents a spiritual, and rewarding, part of the process. At the risk of sounding too over the top, we would say that the trust given to your tattooist should be seen by them as an honour, and your body and safety should be respected and protected at all times.
1. Let someone know where you are and keep in contact with them
Recent changes to the way studios operate due to COVID19 could well mean that you’re specially asked to come to your appointment alone. Even in pre-COVID times, it was often the case that bringing someone with you could be distracting for the artist and the customer.
Tattoo studios can often be in slightly secluded or unusual locations or may operate as ‘private studios’ where it’s not possible to just walk in. We recommend going to the tattoo studio you are interested in getting tattooed at, ahead of your appointment. You can ask for a consultation, or call ahead and see if you can pop in. There should be no issue whatsoever, with a customer asking to just come and look around. Whether that’s for anxiety, personal safety, to check the hygiene and atmosphere, or just to meet the tattooist. When it comes to your appointment, find a friend who lives nearby and who you trust, and keep in contact with them on the day. Let them know where you are, and check in with them every couple of hours if you want to. You may not be able to have your phone with you while getting tattooed. (Phones tend to be germ magnets, so it’s best to avoid having them come into contact with the tattooing area. They can also be distracting for the artist and cause you to move etc). However, there should be no problem using your phone quickly on loo/snack breaks.
2. It’s your body
It’s true that for some tattoos, you’ll need to remove clothing and be exposed. It’s also true that items of clothing that restrict or distort the skin make it difficult to apply a stencil or carry out a tattoo. For larger work especially, or work on or near intimate areas, you could be partly naked, and there’s no way around the fact that you have to rely on the tattooist to carry out the process in a professional way.
However, you should always be offered or should feel free to request:
Privacy while you are removing clothing
Privacy while getting dressed again
Cover-ups such as nipple covers, or blankets
The option of being screened from other customers.
The option of being in view of, or being screened from those you have brought with you.
The option of not having other tattooists watch you being tattooed. (In a lot of cases tattooists learn from watching each other work, but they should be checking with you, and the artist carrying out your tattoo if that’s ok).
If you’re not offered any of these things, just ask - the response should always be helpful and accommodating. A good tip if you’re having a back tattoo, is to take a shirt that can be worn back to front - so that you can remove clothing that would affect the tattoo such as a bra, but remain covered.
During the tattoo, the practice of using hands to stretch the skin surrounding the tattoo is a necessary part of the process. Depending on where your tattoo is, the tattooist may need to do this by placing their hands on or near to intimate areas. They may also have to stretch skin some distance from the tattoo - for example, it’s sometimes easier to get a good stretch on an upper arm or thigh tattoo by reaching around the opposite side and stretching from there.
It’s also possible that to get the correct angle to tattoo you, the artist will need to lean over you, and or be close to your face. (Sorry to all those who’ve spent an afternoon with the view of my hovering upside down pea head as I tattoo their neck).
Behaviours to look out for to be reassured by:
The tattooist explaining the process and what’s going on, especially if they are about to touch/stretch an area so that you know what to expect.
The tattooist uses a facemask - especially if they need to be very close to your face.
The tattooist double-checking with you that it’s ok to share photos of you on social media
3. Red Flags
Behaviours to look out for and be wary of:
Any suggestion of or jokes about trading sexual favours for tattoos
Any unnecessary, or uninvited comments on your body (positive or negative).
Tattooists that turn up to your appointment hungover
Tattooists drinking or taking drugs during work hours
Tattooists contacting you privately and being overly friendly, or initiating online conversations about anything other than your tattoo, or the booking process.
Any requests for unnecessary nude pictures.
Sexually suggestive conversation.
Stories about sleeping with customers
The tattooist should never put their full weight on you, or climb onto the bed with you or on top of you.
Be wary of any attempt to shame a customer for their choice of tattoo, or any comments that generally make you feel uncomfortable. A practised and habitual predator will often use subtle ways to throw you off balance emotionally and leave you feeling low self-esteem or uncomfortable.
Unsolicited non-consensual sexual images.
"According to research by yougov.co.uk, 41 percent of women aged 18 to 36 have reportedly received non-consensual sexual images. Or to put it plainly, ‘The Dick Pick’.
Taking sexually intrusive photos under people’s clothing without their consent, spycam porn, deepfakes, and revenge porn are all now crimes under UK Law with offenders facing up to two years in prison and being placed on the Sex Offenders Register. But unfortunately, sending non-consensual sexual images is not currently illegal". (6)
If you become uncomfortable at any point, even if you think an action was unintentional, try to make it known to the artist if you can. If there’s something that can be altered to make you feel more comfortable, you should see the artist fall over themselves to put this right for you. Or you can ask to take a break, and give yourself time to get your head together and think how best to approach things.
4. Reviews, Reputation, and Rumour
Always check the reviews on Facebook, and Google for the artist and studio. Ask around about their reputation from people who experienced being tattooed there. Ask specifically if people felt comfortable during the process. Rumours can of course, be malicious and be untrue, but since many people are scared to go public with a bad review for fear of being identified and further impacted, discreet word of mouth can sometimes be a good indication.
5. Photos are not compulsory
You can ask not to have pictures taken of you or your tattoo if you don’t want to.
Photos certainly make the tattooist's job much easier. For larger work, such as a thigh/back/chest piece we often ask the customer for a picture of that area of their body and use that as a reference for shape and placement while drawing their design. Everyone’s body is different, and fitting a design to your particular shape is part of the skill involved in a good tattoo. Photos can also be useful when a customer has some scarring they would like to cover, and of course, every tattooist likes you to send them pictures of your healed tattoos.
However, there are ways around this if you don’t want your picture taken. Even if pictures are taken for the artist to use while designing the tattoo, or of the final tattoo, you can still choose not to have them shared on social media, or not to be identified in a post.
You can also suggest coming to the studio for a consultation where the artist can trace the area of skin you want to cover rather than taking a picture. And if you can allow extra time on the day of the appointment, this will mean any further tweaks to the design can be perfected in person.
Look out for the section of the tattoo consent form you fill in before your tattoo - there is usually a part of this form, which will allow you to decline consent for your pictures to be used online.
We should just mention that tattooists do reserve the right to decide not to tattoo you for any reason. So if they feel that not having pictures is too much of an inconvenience, or they won’t tattoo unless it results in a picture for their portfolio, then that’s their decision. But if that’s the case, our advice is to look for someone happy to help instead.
GDPR - Your Rights with regards to personal data held about you
General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) applies in the UK, via the Data Protection Act 2018. The Act ensures that companies cannot keep your personal data for longer than they need it. So for example, if photos of you were taken pre-tattoo, they should be deleted once they are no longer of use (i.e. once the tattoo is done).
Photos of the finished tattoos themselves are more of a grey area, since the tattoo work is part of the artist’s portfolio, and if the tattoo itself is their original artwork then, the ownership lies with them. Customer consent forms should give you the option to say no to images being taken, beforehand.
Afterwards, if you have concerns following having already given consent, you can request that the photos are erased, stating that you have removed your consent for them to be used, although unfortunately, there are no specific legal grounds that would hold the studio to doing this, that we know of.
Subject Access Requests
If you want to know exactly what information a tattooist or studio holds about you (including photos, data including personal details like your address, and correspondence between you and them, or correspondence about you) you can submit a ‘Subject Access Request’ to the company/studio. "A subject access request, or SAR, is a written request to a company or organisation asking for access to all the personal information it holds on you. This is a legal right everyone in the UK has, that you can exercise at any point for free in most circumstances. This could be useful if you’re worried information is being passed on or used against you.
To submit a SAR you can simply write to or email the organisation and ask it to provide all of the information about you it is required to disclose under the Data Protection Act and ask them to provide copies of it.
To make a subject access request (SAR), follow these steps
Find out the right department and person to send the request to, if you can
Make sure you know all the information you need, so you can ask for this in the same request
Write to the organisation, including your full name, address and contact telephone number; any information used by the organisation to identify or distinguish you from others of the same name (account numbers, unique IDs, etc); and include details of the specific information you require and any relevant dates
Include a reference to the one month deadline that applies when dealing with requests to provide personal information
Reference that you have the right to make a subject access request for free under the Data Protection Act 2018.
You can use the free template letter on the Information Commissioners Office (ICO) website to make a subject access request". (7)
Sexual Harassment Helplines & Resources
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this blog article and would like to reach out to us, then please feel free to comment or get in touch via the comments below, or a private message through our website www.ktrewtattoo.com or Instagram and Facebook (@ktrewtattoo).
Feel free to use the comments below to make any suggestions you think would improve this content and we’ll do our best to update it where possible.
We’d like to include these professional resources, and tattoo industry initiatives in case you’d like further help or support.
NHS Choices - What should I do immediately after a sexual assault or rape?
NHS Direct Helpline: 111
Supportline: 0845 30 30 900
Women Against Rape
Women's Aid Federation
National Domestic Violence Helpline (24hrs): 08457 023 047
The Survivors Trust
Helpline: 0808 801 0818
The Rape and Abuse Line (RAL)
Helpline: 0808 800 0123 answered by women
Helpline: 0808 800 0122 answered by men
Survivors UK – Male Rape and Sexual Abuse Support
National Helpline: 0845 122 1201
This is the first website dedicated to helping victims of e-crime and online incidents.
Live Life Safe
Advice on safety for women from TheSite.org, including how to stay safe in taxis and public transport, avoiding confrontation and what to do when you feel uneasy.
Tattoo Industry Sexual Assault Support
Tattooist Sexual Assault Support
Tattoo MeToo Recovery Artists
Download this guide as PDF here:
SOURCES / REFERENCES
(1) “What does sexual harassment actually mean?” The Day, January 2020.
(2) “What is rape and sexual assault?” The Metropolitan Police, 2020. https://www.met.police.uk/advice/advice-and-information/rsa
(3) “What does sexual harassment actually mean?” The Day, January 2020.
(4) “What does consent look like? New Zealand Family Planning, June 2016.
(5) “Why don’t more people understand consent?” Mental Health @Home, April 2019.
(6) “Four in ten female millennials have been sent an unsolicited penis photo” YouGov, September 2017.
(7) “How do I make a subject access request (SAR)?” Which?, 2020.