Roxx: Tattoo artist of Persian, Dutch and German descent

By Margot Mifflin

Vox Populi: ‘I was a hooker — an art hooker — for most of my career,’ says Roxx, a tattooist in San Francisco. ‘I’d listen to what people wanted and I would do their things.’ When she suggested her own ideas, many declined — only to return later to confess their regret.

Today, no one tells Roxx what to do. Her clients come for a consultation in which she explores who they are and what they want their tattoo to say about them. They tell her where they want the piece and which of her other tattoos appeals to them. She takes notes and shoots photos. Unlike most tattooists, she uses no reference materials or stencils. ‘I just need to feel their energy and ask: “What would suit you? Do you want it to be warrior-like? Badass? Pretty and feminine?”’ A design takes shape, she draws it on freehand, and the work begins. ‘It’s nothing spiritual or philosophical,’ she says. When I ask her what she would create for me based on a half-hour of conversation, she exclaims: ‘I was just doing it!’ And her prescription is perfect, though I haven’t come for a tattoo.

We are in 2Spirit Tattoo, her shop on Pearl Street, where she has made her name as one of the most sophisticated and original tattooists in the world, working in a style — called ‘blackwork’ — that few women practice. Her studio is a sprawling open space with natural light, white walls, wood floors, brushed aluminium ceiling lamps, and black leather tattoo tables arranged at each of her four employees’ workstations. One wall near the glass-front entrance is covered in framed photos of her clients showing off their art: precise, geometric, all-black designs that follow the musculature of the body or fan out in lacy arcs between shoulder blades; boldly etched dharma wheels rolling across chests; honeycombed netting nicked from the Filipino Kalinga tradition and tailored like clothing on chests and arms; and in one photo, a simple trio of liquid lines pouring down a woman’s back and flowing around her waist.

Roxx’s workstation occupies a back corner of the shop that can be partitioned off with sliding doors. She sits on the edge of her chair, elbows on her knees, talking with increasing animation as the late morning coffee kicks in. Soothing electronica fills the space, softening the buzz of machines wielded by two artists, Michael Bennett and Matt Matik, who chat amiably with their prone clients. Two years ago when I interviewed her for my book Bodies of Subversion: A Secret History of Women and Tattoo, Roxx called her shop ‘San Francisco hippie’, but that merely describes the comfort level; there is nothing hippie about the refined aesthetic of this studio, or her elegant tattoos.

Whether you follow tattooing or not, you’ve probably seen a spate of recent articles announcing that it’s no longer the exclusive province of bikers and gangbangers — though it long predates both groups, and never really belonged to either. It’s true, however, that in the new millennium tattooing has landed squarely in mainstream Western culture and burrowed deep into the middle class, where it’s flourishing. Since the 1970s, when the Japanese influence opened the way to all manner of innovation, the colours have become richer, the technique is stronger, the range of styles and subjects is broader, and more people are wearing better executed, more interesting tattoos. But one thing hasn’t changed: tattooing is still generally a matter of putting pictures on skin — something Roxx will have no part of.

She is against using the body — a 3D form, a sculptural form — as if it were paper or canvas. The reason: horses. Roxx (née Roxanne) has loved horses since she was a child growing up in England who dreamed of becoming an equine veterinarian. ‘My Granny taught me to draw them when I was two,’ she says, and she has been riding for nearly as long. ‘I spent most of my childhood with horses — grooming them, touching them, running my hands down their legs and feeling their anatomy, and that’s how I learnt to draw them,’ she explains. ‘That’s all I drew as a kid, and all I cared to draw.’

Her sketches led to her interest in tattooing, first in London as a teen and a punk in the 1980s, then in Edinburgh and Amsterdam. Early on, when she tried to get a formal apprenticeship in London, she says: ‘People looked at me like I had horns growing out of my head — because I was a woman.’ (She is also a mixed-race lesbian of Persian, Dutch and German descent, which surely didn’t help in what was then a hetero-centric, white-dominated tattoo culture.) She went to Amsterdam because the tattoo consciousness was more evolved there. ‘The people in Amsterdam were educated about tattoos as an art form rather than some old historical, nasty, dirty trade,’ she says. She initially worked in a street shop doing flash designs — stock images pulled from a sheet — for people who lined up 100 deep every morning, pumped to get inked.

‘That was like tattoo university,’ she says. The non-stop work honed her technique and boosted her confidence. But the trite imagery nearly drove her to quit tattooing for good. ‘I worked for three years doing dolphins and rainbows and fuckin’ lions’ heads day in and day out, and I was like: “This isn’t being an artist; this is bollocks.”

So Roxx opened her own studio, doing custom work and employing only female artists (something she won’t try again). In 2004 she followed her then-partner to San Francisco, where she founded 2Spirit, specialising in modern, monochromatic designs, all informed by the anatomical awareness she cultivated through studying horses.

‘I learnt to look at horses for their “conformation”,’ she says. These are the characteristics by which horses are judged against an equine ideal, for breeding and competition. The head, for example, according to WashingtonState University and the Department of Agriculture, ‘should be triangular when viewed from the side; should have large powerful jaws, and taper to the muzzle. The profile should be a straight or slightly dished face as opposed to an arched or Roman nose.’ Because of her interest in equine aesthetics, says Roxx: ‘I accidentally studied anatomy really hard-core.’

Anatomy is one reason she insists on choosing designs for her clients. It’s not that Roxx doesn’t respect their wishes (‘I’m a people-pleaser’), it’s just that she knows better. ‘A lot of these people, even if they’re 2D artists, they have no idea how things work when it comes to the 3D form. We know what works on the body and what doesn’t. I think it’s changing now where people trust the artist to do their piece and they don’t want to get in the way of the artist’s process. It’s a really privileged, nice position to be in, but I’ve worked really hard to get there.’ And, she says: ‘I don’t want to spend any more of my life doing art that makes my soul disappear.’ >>>