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June 28, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Roxane Jeffries is an anomaly. Born in Penang, Malaysia, to an Australian mother and American father, she didn’t have a traditional American upbringing. Thanks to extended stays in Thailand, Nepal, India and Australia, she was an experienced world traveler by the age of 6. But it’s not where she’s been that makes her stand out. It’s what she does.
Roxane, like few other women, has chosen a career as a tattoo artist. She currently works at Living Canvas in downtown Columbia.
Roxane’s infatuation with tattoos began at an early age. She became fascinated with Hindu art as a youth in Nepal, and she discovered Erté, her favorite painter, while visiting her grandfather’s Soho art gallery. Roxane, 35, created her own artwork beginning with pencil drawings and progressing to other mediums. She remembers an uncle framing one of her fourth-grade art projects, a mixed-media piece about California mission churches. To her knowledge, it was the first time her artwork was praised on that level. “That was kind of a big moment,” she says.
But it was a piece of artwork her father brought back from Hong Kong — not with him, but on him — that changed her life. “He got this dragon and phoenix with Tibetan-style clouds and flowers,” she says. “It was a half sleeve that went through his armpit and capped his shoulder. I was in love.” Roxane knew then that she was going to get a tattoo as soon as she turned 18.
But Roxane didn’t stop at just one. Her body has become a gallery of indelible art to such an extent that her father, the man whose tattoo inspired her, began to worry. It started with her first large piece, flowers down the side of her leg. When she moved on to getting her arms done, he suggested she might want to think about slowing down. But that was the last thing on her mind.
After getting her second tattoo, Roxane started hanging out in a San Diego studio. The relationships she developed there eventually led her into professional body modification. She started as a piercer and, about eight years ago, she became a tattooist.
As a female tattoo artist, Roxane is in the minority. “This is an industry based on a lot of tradition,” she says. “When it started in this country, only men did it.” She cites the story of Kari Barba, a Long Beach-based artist, as an example of the difficulties women once faced. When Kari sought employment as a tattoo artist in the late ’70s, she was unable to find a job; no one would hire a woman. Kari’s solution? Open her own shop, and hire an all-female staff. Kari’s since been recognized multiple times as one of the best artists in the country.
“Our society’s different now,” Roxane says. “I don’t think women feel hindered about getting into any different industry at this point, whether it’s the military or bricklaying or any other male-dominated industry.”
Like welding, for example. Lex Blackthorn, 29, tattoos at Blackthorn Tattoo Studio, a shop she owns with her husband, Rich, but her first career was as a pipe welder.
“As far as welding goes, I walk on site, and one of the first questions to me is ‘Are you lost?’” Lex says. “No, I’m not lost. They always kind of look at you cross-eyed the first couple months to see if you’ve got the stuff to prove it. Same thing in tattooing.”
According to recent studies by the Pew Research Center, women are just as likely to get tattoos as men. This trend has yet to manifest itself inside the industry, though, and the acceptance of female artists is still a work in progress. Women no longer need to open their own shops just to find work, as Kari did more than 30 years ago, but female tattooists are still rare. In Missouri, there are approximately 1,000 licensed tattoo artists, and roughly one quarter of them are female. Among Columbia’s more than two dozen working tattooists, only six, Roxane and Lex included, are women.
Gender has rarely been an issue in Roxane’s tattooing experience, and she says she’s grown more confident as an artist. Early on, though, there were some difficult moments. She recalls standing at the counter with a male co-worker while a customer directed questions at him rather than her. “It felt very awkward to be in the room but be treated as if I wasn’t there,” she says.
Roxane says her attitude has changed since those days. “One of the main things about being a tattoo artist or doing any body modification is your reputation. I just kind of let my work speak for me.”
In Lex’s two years as an artist, her gender has at times come up in conversation with customers but not always in a negative way. She notes that some women can feel more comfortable with a female artist if they’re getting a tattoo in a private location. She calls these moments the “Oh, thank God, there’s a girl here” scenarios. “Everybody’s got their comfort realm,” she says.
Lex is relatively new to tattooing, but her husband has been doing it since 1978. Based on her experiences and the knowledge she’s absorbed from her husband’s nearly four decades of work, she’s noticed changes. Fewer people come in looking for quick-flash tattoos, the generic designs that line the walls of most tattoo studios and serve as stencils for stereotypical tattoos. Instead, people are looking for custom artwork.
“I’m tickled to see individuals get really thought-out pieces instead of that spur-of-the-moment, ‘I’m going to get some cherries on me somewhere,’” she says, noting that “tramp stamps” have evolved into elaborate lower-back pieces and other typical designs are becoming less common. “They’re more specific about what their expectations are, about their artists, everything. They’re really looking to see that you’re pushing the edge.”
This anticipation of high-quality, innovative art has helped push the tattoo industry beyond tradition, both for the art and the artist. “When tattooing first came to this country, they had four colors,” Roxane says. “They had not yet explored changing the speed and weight of certain components of the machines to create a different feel. Through the art getting better and several people recognizing that it is an art form, it’s opened up that door for society.”
Roxane’s work as a tattoo artist has allowed her to expand into other areas, as well. In addition to tattooing, she curates the Living Canvas Art Gallery and works to integrate the studio into the broader culture of artists around Columbia by participating in events such as Artrageous Fridays. On April 20, body piercer Eric Mezzanotte conducted a live double-corset piercing — a series of 30 piercings down the back and laced together with a ribbon to give the illusion of a corset — in the Living Canvas lobby as part of the event. The studio has also hosted art shows for multiple artists.
“I like the fact that Living Canvas offers a different environment, a different venue for some of the more off-the-cuff artists,” she says. “As a lover of art, I wanted to support that.”
Although she’s an art curator, Roxane is first and foremost an artist. When time allows, she still paints. Just like the name of her studio, she appreciates working on a living, breathing canvas.
“When you get to take something and wrap it around bone structure and muscle structure, you can give it a lot more life,” she says. “Your layout is different. It’s more challenging in the fact that you’re not working on a nice, steady canvas. You’re hurting somebody and feel bad about that sometimes. The application is similar to a couple of different forms, but there’s nothing exactly like it.”
Differences aside, tattooing at its core is an art form, and that’s where Roxane prefers to keep the focus: on the art. She’s worked hard to develop her reputation in the industry, not as a woman but as an artist.
“I think we’re doing ourselves a favor by not acknowledging our gender,” she says. “I don’t think we should get excuses because we’re women, and I don’t think men should feel they’re expected to do certain things because there’s a woman in the shop. Usually anyone who gets into this industry is pretty good at holding their own.”