Photographed by Jonathan Schoonover

Hand-Poked Tattoos: An Act Of Healing And Liberation

Artists Tea Leigh and Kelli Kikcio tell us all about the art

The following feature appears in the October 2017 issue of NYLON.

Jade Taylor sat down with Brooklyn, New York-based hand-poked tattoo artists Tea Leigh and Kelli Kikcio at their studio, Welcome Home, to discuss the therapeutic side of tattooing, feeling comfortable in their own skin, and breaking the stigma of hand-poked tattoos once and for all.

Jade Taylor: How did you both get started tattooing?

Tea Leigh: I started tattooing my friends, which is definitely a no-no in our industry, but there weren’t apprenticeships available in the method that Kelli and I wanted to work in, so we were stuck between a rock and a hard place. We wanted to do hand-poked tattoos, but we didn’t have access to any fucking information. We completely figured out everything on our own. It was the most anxiety-ridden, terrifying experience, because we knew we were gonna get shit for it, but we loved it, and we knew that if we pushed past the stigma, we would eventually be taken seriously and have the potential to really help people love their bodies.

Kelli Kikcio: It’s one of those rare industries that there’s no serious school for, you can’t easily get an apprenticeship without experience, you’re not supposed to tattoo at home, and you’re not supposed to be self-taught. So what are you supposed to do?

TL: A traditional machine apprenticeship was definitely an option, but it just wasn’t what I was looking for, plain and simple. I love machine tattoos and I completely respect the practice, but it just isn’t my essence. I need the intimacy of hand-poked tattooing.

KK: I would go to my day job, come home in the evenings, and tattoo myself. Hand-poked tattooing wasn’t that popular at the time, but for me, that process was all about reclaiming a sense of autonomy. I was dealing with feelings of being really disconnected with myself, so tattooing became an outlet. Like, this is how I’m going to present myself. This is how I can reclaim who I am and feel good about who I am as a person. So many of our clients struggle with those issues as well, so I want them to leave feeling that they were listened to, that their opinions and needs were honored and that they felt comfortable and safe here. The bonus is that we get to mark them forever, and that is beyond humbling.

On Opening Welcome Home

TL: We named this studio Welcome Home because Kelli and I have never felt a traditional sense of home. You are a sense of home. Your body is that.

KK: That’s a big thing for us. No matter where you are, where you came from, where you’re going, or who’s in your life, your body is the only real home that you will have until you die.

TL: All the workshops we offer have to do with building your foundation of home, whether that’s your physical house, your body, spiritual, or mental.

JT: It’s amazing that after all that, you guys could open up this space and say, “Hey, we’re professional. We know what the fuck we’re doing, and we did it ourselves.”

TL: Yeah! Kelli and I were Instagram friends for years, and the third time we hung out, we talked about what we wanted out of our careers, and found that we were extremely aligned. We both wanted a multidisciplinary community space for making clothing, recording music, hosting workshops, just a community space. And we laughed and were like, “Yeah, we’ll probably never have that.” Funny, right?

KK: This is literally one year ago!

TL: We had a small studio for a little over six months, but I got into an argument with landlord, and I was like, “Fuck, fuck, fuck, we have to find a new place. Kelli, I’m so sorry.” And she was like, “OK, cool! I can’t believe I’m going into business with this person.” [Laughs] I fucked up by rage-quitting, so I took it upon myself to find the space for us, and made a spreadsheet. One column was like, “Regular studios we can afford,” and the other was like, “Dream Studios,” and this was at the top of the “Dream” list.

KK: You were like, “Let’s go see it so we can have closure and know it’s not going to work out for us.” And then we got here and our jaws dropped, because it was everything we could’ve imagined.

TL: Opening a business makes you a shell of a person, but it was so worth it. When we walked into the space I flashed back to that first conversation about our dreams, and was like, “This is it. This is the right thing. We’re supposed to invite people in here and make people feel safe and good, because that’s all we’ve ever wanted: to feel safe and good as a body existing in the world, which is traumatic enough—to just be a person.”

On Tattooing As Healing

KK: A huge advantage that we have as hand-pokers is that we don’t have the noise of the machine running, so we get to honor the conversations that we’re having with our clients, and the serene, calm environment. I’ve rarely had an experience where I’ve been able to walk into a tattoo shop and not feel my heart pounding in my chest. And it’s not necessarily because I’ve been nervous about getting tattooed, it’s because I feel uncomfortable, out of place, judged, rushed, or unsure about the cost because no one has been transparent with me.

JT: Especially for women. I’ve been to so many tattoo parlors where I’m not even looked in the eye when I walk in.

KK: We hear that a lot from queer folks, and also people of color who have been wrongfully turned away because tattooers have been intimidated to work with them.

TL: From what I know, we are the first all-female-identifying hand-poked tattoo studio in America. But we do have guest artists that use machines. Kelli’s and my work is similar enough, so we want to make sure we have artists with a completely different style. But they have to more or less share our political-mindedness. We go through their Instagram and chat with them just to make sure that they’re queer, a woman, or, if they’re a straight dude, they’re not gonna fuck shit up.

JT: Can you talk more about the relationship between tattooing and body ownership or reclamation?

TL: Our first and foremost thing is that we want to give people the chance to reclaim themselves, their skin, their body, from whatever they have walked in from, into our space. Kelli and I are both very open, we have both experienced a lot in our lives. You want to talk about something fucked up that happened to you? Let’s fucking talk about it. I think people are more vulnerable like that, because you’re getting this painful tattoo, and in a weird way it makes sense to talk about something painful. And for me, that is where that magic intersects, and that is where the heart of our job is. We’ve been floored by everyone’s reaction to us. We would be nowhere without our clients. Like fucking nowhere. They are the birth of Welcome Home.