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Artist Ocean Gao is making a space for Queer people of color in tattooing

Quarantine has lasted a lot longer than most people expected, and as we all know, the boredom is very real. While crowds followed the trends of making sourdough and joining TikTok, others have become obsessed with giving themselves tattoos.

If you’re Gen-Z, you probably know what stick and pokes are. If you’re older than a millennial, it’s simple: they’re tattoos done by stippling with a needle, instead of lines with a gun.

Stick and poke tattoos are also a part of alternative and DIY culture, especially spaces that tend to be more inclusive of people of color and queer people – often where these two groups converge. That’s where 23-year-old New York City artist Ocean Gao comes in.

Gao is a self-taught tattoo artist who loved drawing on friends in high school. One day a friend asked them to do their stick and poke tattoo, to which Gao apprehensively complied under the auspices of a friend with more experience.

Sanitizing a needle with vodka and sitting on a carpet, Gao poked their way into the art of tattooing. “It was super unsanitary and not recommended,” they said. “It was just very grungy and not it.”

Grungy is part of the DIY scene, (though it’s important to maintain proper sanitation when doing stick and pokes!) Turns out, tattooing wasn’t as scary as they had originally thought as they started to practice on their own body.

They proudly posted their work under the hashtags #qttr and #qpocttt. These hashtags on Instagram spotlight queer artists and queer tattoo artists of color specifically to help boost the community.

Gao, who is nonbinary and Chinese, says it’s especially important for queer people of color to have a safe and comfortable environment to get tattooed, which can be difficult to find in an industry that’s been so hypermasculine and white.

There are countless examples of people committing acts of cultural appropriation by bastardizing imagery or characters from cultures to which they have no real connection (my favorite example is Ariana Grande’s barbecue grill).

Not only is this just cringey, but it continues the commodification of the identities and cultures of people of color. It’s important to Gao that people on the receiving end of their work have a personal and meaningful connection to the image they’re permanently engraving into their bodies.

“When I first started getting tattoos, I was like, ‘I want a dragon, but I want an Asian person to do it,” as having someone who’s not a part of that shared culture of tattooing it takes the meaning away from the cultural iconography.

“I struggled to find somebody, and I find that a lot of people that I tattoo, or that tattoo me want this culturally relevant thing and want someone of that culture involved.”

– Ocean Gao

On the flip side, it can be especially challenging to try to mediate possible cases of cultural appropriation.

“Sometimes I’ll get a booking from someone who wants the Chinese-inspired flash, and I don’t know how to be like ‘just wanna make sure you’re Chinese.’ It feels so awkward.”

Part of the challenge is figuring out where the boundary lies in asking personal information or maintaining a level of professionalism. “If they have an explicitly Asian last name, I don’t ask. I just assume that they are,” Gao said. “I don’t think there’s a good way for me to go about doing it.”

Making sure that clients are genuinely a part of the community whose imagery they’re getting tattooed is a way to protect that community from further objectification. The hard part is figuring out how to verify that they are a person of color.

“People who are mixed will want something, and they’ll come in and look fully white. I’m not gonna be like ‘no, I won’t tattoo this on you because you look white,’ but it also is a little bit weird.” Gao said. “I don’t want it to be my place to determine who looks Asian enough, you know what I mean?”

Understandably, issues like race and how to treat clients while maintaining a sense of safety for both the artist and the client is part of the learning process.

It’s one of the many interpersonal skills that come with being a tattoo artist. Gao hasn’t explicitly made any posts on their Instagram or their booking form to structure those delicately nuanced racial negotiations.

“It makes me an authority in a way that I don’t want to be.”

Though identity can be murky, Gao says it’s important to find some way to maintain those boundaries.

“I feel like it’s kind of necessary. I think sometimes people look at vetting and call it gatekeeping when that’s not what’s really happening.”

Another demand of being a tattoo artist is handling the heavy subject matter and the conversation that comes along with it. Part of the importance of sharing a queer identity with clients is because trauma is common in queer people.

“There definitely is some sort of emotion management,” Gao said. When tattoos are related to trauma, it’s hard to figure out where the boundaries are while also maintaining professionalism.

“I can’t just like be absorbed in their story, like I have to maintain some sort of distance from it,” Gao said. “It’s cool that people trust me with really intimate things, but on the other hand I sometimes feel like I’m not trained to be a therapist.”

Gao’s clients aren’t always blatantly queer people of color. Though their work focuses on creating a safe space for people like them, their community of clients keeps growing. Just the other day, they tattooed a very muscular white dude.

“I don’t think that’s ever happened before, so that was really cool, but it surprised me.”

The growing community of tattooers who are queer and people of color helps to expose that every avenue of life has a specific niche for everyone.

For Gao, their values and tattooing are very ingrained in identity.

“Even if I weren’t a tattooer, identity politics would still be floating around in my head.”