By Sadie Wilson-Voss
Self-made tattoo artists Yoyo and Brooklyn are proving that anywhere you can fit a bench, you can tattoo. This idea foreshadows the success of their independent business model, which is radical, accessible, and portable. And it works.
It’s Yoyo and Brooklyn’s flexibility that established their popularity at Oberlin, a campus with a vibrant tattoo culture. Instead of going to the local shop Trustworthy Tattoo, Oberlin students are increasingly opting for tattoos from these independent artists. I interviewed Yoyo and Brooklyn to learn how they’re overshadowing regular parlors in popularity.
Yoyo, a college student, invited me to talk in a dorm room. It’s one of many places he uses to tattoo customers. Sitting next to them is Brooklyn, a Cincinnati-based artist, who’s crashing at Yoyo’s for the collaboration they planned together. Sharing their spaces with one another allows them to travel with ease for customers in different cities and is an essential part of their DIY business.
“I feel like the community aspect of our DIY community is so much more than any other artist group because everyone's so willing to share all the resources they have,” said Yoyo, explaining how they often pool resources with mutual DIY artists they’ve met online.
Brooklyn and Yoyo originally met virtually too, and are building a network of shared spaces to work from and sleep in when they travel to tattoo. This process often involves meeting customers halfway in cities around the Midwest, which is not normal. Most tattoo artists have residencies in tattoo shops and infrequently travel to reach customers.
But in the Midwest, where artists and shops are separated by great distances, Yoyo’s self-taught practice relies on an unconventional setup. He’s transformed a dorm room into a well-decorated stop for traveling DIY tattoo artists and customers. Yoyo adds that Brooklyn has influenced their approach to sharing space for tattooing and that “Brooklyn cares a lot about location accessibility.” According to Yoyo, that’s really important for customers. “They've tattooed people from Indiana that come to Columbus to tattoo, and then work it out so I can come to Columbus and meet in the middle.”
Brooklyn and Yoyo’s awareness of space stretches past travel barriers. Yoyo contacts their customers beforehand to ask what kind of lighting should be in the room, whether they want to converse during the session, and invites them to describe any other needs they might have.
One anonymous customer said that “I never saw anything like what Yoyo offered, and [Yoyo’s space] made me feel so much better about the tattoo I got. They considered everything I might have needed.”
It’s no wonder that Yoyo and Brooklyn’s selling point is so strong. Many people getting tattooed don’t feel welcome to speak up about their needs. Yoyo recalls his frustration about that environment; not knowing it’s ok to need a break, that you’re supposed to eat beforehand, that the music playing is stressful or too loud. All of these things can ruin an experience for someone, and can contribute to people feeling that they’re just not cut out for the culture.
According to Yoyo, people feel more comfortable in DIY shops because of their attention to comfort, which is a crucial aspect of their business’ success. “It’s such a stark difference between a traditional walk-in shop vs a DIY shop, and it’s super inspiring to be in that space,” he said. According to him, artists working in DIY shops are more attuned to issues of autonomy and comfort. This is because they’ve been subject to overstepped boundaries or uncomfortable assumptions that ruined their experience in traditional shops.
“My first machine tattoo was at a random shop in Springfield, Massachusetts, run by these older white punk guys,” Yoyo said. “He tattooed me so hard that I fainted seven minutes into the tattoo. It was my first machine tattoo, so I had no idea what the experience should've been like. Thankfully I had a friend with me, but he told my friend that ‘If I were a man, he would've just slapped me awake.’” Yoyo added, “Asking for breaks while getting tattooed is such a normal thing, but traditional tattoo guys won't let you know that's an option or make time for that.”
Brooklyn talked about how feeling uncomfortable in regular shops is normal because of toxic masculinity, especially related to bodily autonomy and personal comfort. They summarized the cultural issue with an experience they had with a traditional artist: “He told me once you get a tattoo by him, that means to him he has full consent to do whatever he needs to do to your body, like force it and move it in any way he needs.”
And the unorthodox space they’ve created directly combats the objectification of customers that so often sours the experience. By viewing “I have this sort of script that I follow when someone first steps into my room before they come to get their tattoo,” Yoyo says. They bring up a lot, such as making sure customers are well-rested, know to dress comfortably and bring food if they want. “I'll ask if there's anything they need beforehand. I'll ask about skin allergies and pain tolerance, and always offer numbing cream and numbing sprays free of charge. If it's their first tattoo. I ask if there's anything they want to know beforehand. While I'm placing a stencil, I take time to make sure they love where it's at. We go through aftercare carefully, asking consent if it's okay for me to photograph them. I'm always fine with nudity when I tattoo, but I’ve made people pasties from paper towels if they want that. I just try to check in and make sure they have everything they need.”
You can book with Yoyo and Brooklyn through their Instagram handles, @__doomscroll and @endless__adornments, respectively.