Carli Chesney receives a frog tattoo from artist Brianna Ballinghoof at Eddie’s Tattoo in Philadelphia’s Chinatown

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To get into the tattooing industry, you have to know someone.

It’s a mantra Brianna Ballinghoff has heard all her life, drummed into her head with regularity by the popular male tattooers she grew up around in Palmyra, New Jersey. Ballinghoff, now 24, has known she wanted to be a tattoo artist since middle school — but always worried she wasn’t well-connected enough to land a coveted apprenticeship.

Some of the artists she knew did turn her down, and admitted it was because she was a young woman.

“I didn’t know if it was going to happen,” Ballinghoff said. “Because it’s kind of like, you have to get lucky to have the opportunity.”

Artwork by Brianna Ballinghoof, a tattoo artist at Eddie’s Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Men dominate the permanent ink industry in the U.S., where just 1 in 6 tattoo artists are women. Some of that has to do with history: tattoos became popular via Army and Navy culture, then later spread among bikers. People who got tatted were mostly white, working class men. Now, tattooing is exploding in popularity — and more women are breaking into the industry.

That’s what’s happening at Eddie’s Chinatown Tattoo. The storefront at 9th and Arch streets brands itself on Instagram as Philly’s oldest parlor, with the OG owner starting his career in 1952. Right now, other than current owner Braden Kendall, the historic shop employs exclusively women artists.

“Guys, we could be a little grumpy,” said Kendall, who’s owned the shop for the last 16 years. “I would definitely say the atmosphere in the shop has changed a little bit more in that aspect. It’s a little bit more friendlier.”

Still, Ballinghoff and her colleagues feel like they’re walking a fine line of being proud that they’re breaking into a male-dominated industry, and not being pigeon-holed as just a “woman tattooer.”

Eddie’s at 9th and Arch streets claims to be one of Philly’s oldest tattoo shops Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Ball-busting, harassment and a ‘bunch of douchebags’

Ballinghoff did manage to land an apprenticeship six years ago at a Palmyra shop, but it wasn’t easy to assimilate.

“It was one of the scariest things I did in my life,” she said. “No one really told me anything. I just had to pull from Instagram or whatever the guys were doing. I would just look. I couldn’t really ask, and they didn’t really want to help me.”

To become a licensed tattoo artist in Philly, you first have to work as an apprentice under another licensed artist for three years. That means a professional artist has to be willing to take you under their wing the entire time, training you in the craft before you can apply for an independent certification from the city’s Department of Public Health. In January 2020, there were about 400 people licensed to tattoo in Philly.

Kelly Campanile is an apprentice at Eddie’s, and she’s learned tattooing culture can be intensely macho — often full of “a bunch of douchebags.” Sometimes, she can write it off. But other times it gets to her.

“It’s ball-busting, where everybody would make fun of each other,” said 30-year-old Campanile, who lives in Point Breeze. “I felt stupid a lot. The male-dominated thing made me feel kind of ditzy.”

Kelly Campanile with her artwork at Eddie’s Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Over the years, they’ve both dealt with harassment from customers and fellow artists. Ballinghoff said she’s had male coworkers make inappropriate comments, and sometimes get physical — one insisted she sit in his lap while he tattooed her.

The hardest one to stomach? A male tattooer in the ‘burbs telling her she shouldn’t have become an artist in the first place.

“I don’t know what the border is between harassment and like, just being the new guy,” Ballinghoff said. “He might have just been saying that to push me. It hurt, but I kept doing it. And I feel like I deserve to be here now.”

Artwork by Kelly Campanile Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

Including more women for their talent — not their gender

The woman takeover of Chinatown Eddie’s began about a year ago. Among the three men who worked there, one opened his own studio, one relocated to a shop on South Street and one moved to Arizona.

Owner Kendall hired Campanile as an apprentice in July 2020, then Ballinghoff about six months ago. Another female artist rents the third workstation on and off. It didn’t happen intentionally, said the 46-year-old shop owner. But it has shifted the culture.

Now, Campanile doesn’t feel stupid anymore. She and Ballinghoff both said they feel like they can talk about whatever they want at the shop, and they’re free to have a bad day every once in a while. The douchebaggery, they say, has dissolved.

24-year-old Carli Chesney visited Eddie’s in August so Ballinghoff could color in her most recent addition: a frog buzzed into her shoulder. Chesney values Ballinghoff’s entry into a male-dominated field — especially because she works as an EMT, also a profession made up mostly of white men.

But that’s not why she likes Ballinghoff. She just thinks she’s a great artist.

“I always appreciate women that are in male-dominated fields,” Chesney said. “Brianna’s a really good person to go to. But I’m getting tattooed by a different guy in November. It’s just kind of whatever style I feel like I want to go into.”

Brianna Ballinghoff with her artwork at Eddie’s Credit: Kimberly Paynter / WHYY

That’s a perspective the Eddie’s crew appreciates.

Some customers who mean well tell Ballinghoff that they booked an appointment with her just because she’s a woman artist — which they haven’t been able to find anywhere else.

“It does bum me out when that happens, especially if it’s like a client that I really care about and I put my all into it,” she said. “And then she’ll say, like, ‘I just picked you because you’re a girl.’”

Ballinghoff thinks this whole thing is a balance. The tattooing industry needs to continue to be more inclusive of women artists — but not just for the sake of including more women superficially. She hopes tattoo shop owners are on the lookout for talented female artists who deserve a shot.

Seeing Kendall’s leadership, she’s optimistic.

“To me, it doesn’t matter, guy, girl, whatever,” Kendall said. “As long as they’re a good tattooer and they’re a nice person. That’s what matters.”

Michaela Winberg is a general assignment reporter at Billy Penn. She covers LGBTQ people and culture, public spaces, and transportation and mobility. She also sometimes produces radio and web features...