USC

How a USC student’s apartment turned into a tattoo shop

Three USC students share their journeys to become tattoo artists by watching youtube tutorials and tattooing friends.

Zhang tattoos Christina Võ inside their Shrine complex apartment. Võ’s friend, Lisa Dang, tags along and lies next to her for emotional support. (Photo by Alex Lam)

Ayliana Bryant wrapped up a day of taking lecture notes and got ready for a night of inking tattoos at Pink Wall Gym, a local tattoo shop on Flower Street and West 31st street. After clocking in, prepping her ink, and sanitizing her workspace, it was time to greet and get her next client a new tattoo.

Bryant is a junior majoring in creative writing and is just one of the few USC students who have picked up tattooing as a hobby.

Despite the nearly irreversible nature of tattooing, these students find a sense of play and tranquility in it. Often, they give themselves a tattoo the same day they come up with the idea. While tattoos often have been stigmatized, these artists represent a generation that defines tattoos as a dignified form of self-expression and hopes to build an inclusive and accessible tattoo culture.

From art class to professional tattoos

Bryant at her studio, Pink Wall Gym. She’s been apprenticing here for the last two and a half years. (Photo by Alex Lam)

Her first year of college, Bryant started her apprenticeship not knowing much about tattooing. She became interested in it after learning that it was a way to make good money when done professionally.

“I messaged my now boss through email like [asking], are you looking for any apprentices? I don’t have any tattoo experience but I’m an artist,” she said. “I met up with him and he liked my art, my attitude.”

And she got hired. After two years, Bryant has earned her license which meant hours of shadowing other tattoo artists and doing over 100 tattoos. She also had to get through her bloodborne pathogens training, a course meant specifically for those at high risk of exposure to blood and spreading infections.

Bryant prepares to tattoo her client by sanitizing her workplace and setting up her tattoo gun. (Photo by Alex Lam)

“Learning how to tattoo has probably been one of the most difficult mediums I’ve ever learned,” she said. “But [it’s] also the most rewarding.”

For one, unlike any other art, her canvas is a live medium, people on whom she draws their imaginations. “You are using like a vibrating needle on skin — in that way your canvas talks back to you,’’ she said.

Additionally, her job has high stakes as mistakes are rarely tolerated. She cannot undo, erase or mess anything up. However, with practice and positive responses, tattooing has become a way for her to unwind. She finds it relaxing now, giving her the same joy as drawing in her notebook.

Yuwan Ye lies down as Bryant tattoos a snake on her. (Photo by Alex Lam)

Through tattooing, she’s also been able to curate a safe and welcoming space in South L.A. “I love to flex it. My client base is almost entirely queer women of color,” she said.

While her art is not intentionally an act of resistance, she does recognize that it challenges established norms of what is considered sophisticated and what is not.

“Sometimes I’ve gotten comments from family telling me that it’s disturbing and godless, which I think it’s actually kind of a compliment,” she said.

Bryant wraps Ye’s tattoo with a layer of petroleum jelly and bandage. (Photo by Alex Lam)

Political statements with body art

Grace Zhang is a sophomore majoring in American critical studies. Since the fall of their freshman year, Zhang has given and received dozens of tattoos. Their first tattoo is a small poke and stick flower they did on their own ankle as an experiment. Now they have dozens of tattoos all over their body — some they’ve done themselves and others by professionals or friends.

These tattoos are a time capsule of Zhang’s experiences and perspectives at a given point in time. They range from lighthearted doodles to political statements — from tigers and cherries to ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) and Anarchist Care Bears.

Zhang shows off their sleeve of tattoos — a tiger, wired heart, scorpion, “good trouble” and cherry among others. (Photo by Alex Lam)

For Zhang, tattoos serve as a creative outlet. It’s a reminder to prioritize play amidst the stress of school and work.

“You’re not really taught to do and enjoy drawing in a capitalistic world because it’s thought that it won’t make you money,” they said.

Zhang’s journey with tattoos is also heavily influenced by their experience participating in Seattle grassroots movements — from Black Live Matters protests to protecting homeless encampments from police sweeps. In these potentially violent and dangerous situations, they naturally formed a tight-knit community.

Tattooing became a way of showing their love and appreciation to this family. In fact, they were gifted their tattoo gun by a fellow protestor, who joked about asking for free tattoos in return.

Võ takes a selfie to document Zhang tattooing her. Set inside of their college apartment, Zhang’s tattoo sessions are both intimate and memorable. (Photo by Alex Lam)

Many of Zhang’s tattoos have political meanings. They say, their political identity is just as personal as their body. Grace says these tattoos hold them accountable.

“I am dedicated to these resistance movements for my entire life. It’s not something that most people can separate from because it’s their lived experiences,” they said

Zhang’s tattoos also allow them to connect to people outside this community. Their tattoos often garner attention and questions — from their political meaning to how to get started in tattooing. More often than not, this curiosity opens the door to educational and interesting conversations. Through these talks, Zhang said they spread awareness about local grassroots movements and share the joy of giving and getting tattoos.

A musician’s side hustle

Elisabeth Easton is a sophomore majoring in jazz studies. When Easton was 15, a friend gave her a stick and poke with a sewing needle punctured in the eraser of a pencil in the middle of a park in San Francisco.

Easton keeps her tattooing equipment in her apartment and sees clients at home. (Photo by Alex Lam)

Easton was immediately fascinated and ordered a stick and poke kit on Amazon. In high school, she started to give her peers small discreet tattoos of little stars and moons that their parents wouldn’t see. These are sentimental memories to Easton.

“I ran into a girl that went to my high school for the first time in years and she was like, I still have the moon you gave me when we were like 15,” she said.

Around USC, people reach out to her through mutual friends or Instagram for tattoos.

“You learn so much about people while you’re tattooing them because you’re forced to spend time together. And it can be awkward, but it can also be an opportunity to make a new friend,” Easton said.

Easton shows her first tattoo she received from a friend — a small star. (Photo by Alex Lam)

Some of her tattoos have personal meaning while others are purely based on her aesthetic preference, ranging from song lyrics to random art.

To Easton, both art and music serve as grounding and healing practices. Her tattoo of Amy Winehouse’s signature is just one example, her favorite musician “in the world.” Looking up to Winehouse, Easton hopes to create therapeutic art for herself and others.

“I think the reason why I want to make music and why I want to write music is to help people feel less alone. I love being able to put emotions into words and art to do my own healing,” she said. If it’s good enough, she says, it will reach others as well.

Easton shows one of her tattoos with personal meaning: her parents' birth years. (Photo by Alex Lam)

Currently, Easton doesn’t intend to pursue tattooing professionally but isn’t willing to part ways with her passion either.

“My hopes for a future career are to go into music,” Easton said. “I love performing, I love writing. I love being around other musicians. But if I was on a tour bus, I would totally bring a tattoo gun.”