The Rise of the ‘Do It Yourself’ Tattooing Community

Local DIY artist, Vianna Kogel, sits in front of her supplies as she sets up in preparation to tattoo. Photo Courtesy of Nechama Anolik

It’s around 8 p.m. on a rainy Thursday, and local tattoo artist Vianna Koegel sits in their living room prepping a tattoo station on the coffee table. Koegel has brought out their little box of tattoo supplies: green soap, black ink, petroleum jelly, needles, numbing cream, gloves and a few other bottles and boxes that I don’t recognize but she knows what to do with. She’s working on a string of roses that gently circle her wrist. Even though she is tattooing herself, she practices the same professional standard of cleanliness and sterilization to prevent an infection. Thick blue paper towels are laid out, the skin is cleaned and gloves are changed often. 

Koegel is one of many DIY tattoo artists in New Paltz. The world of tattooing is changing. The majority of my tatted friends have forgone the traditional tattoo parlors for a more … DIY route. The rise in popularity of stick-and-poke tattoo art over a traditional gun tattoo can be attributed to a few factors, but overall, I think that the switch represents a change in values from one generation to the next. 

To get to a point where you are considered a “professional” artist in the traditional tattoo world requires an intense commitment and a lot of time spent doing low or unpaid work. One must undergo an apprenticeship under a tattooer in which time they learn the technical route of machine tattooing. These apprenticeships are like any internship — they are time consuming and poorly paid. In the traditional tattoo field, you do not get the luxury of being respected as an artist or a tattooer until you have paid your debt to the tattoo industry. Today’s up and coming tattooers just simply aren’t down with that program. And if people start making their own rules in an industry, that industry’s ability to have a chokehold on how things are done dissipates.  

Traditional tattoo shops want to have you believing that there is simply just the right way that things are done — bold lines, well-defined, etc. — and incorrect ways to tattoo. They want you to believe that because they are scared at what they are facing: a new emergence of a different kind of tattooing community. One that puts the creativity, respect and comfort of everyone involved at the core of their community’s values. 

Having folks who are considered upstanding tattoo artists who have come about in an utterly new way is a shock to the traditional tattoo world. To them, the apprenticeship and hierarchy is just the way it’s done, the way you learn the trade. I was curious to know how Koegel felt about her own process of becoming a tattoo artist in the face of that stigma. She had started tattooing about three years ago, by herself, when she lived in Corning, NY. Corning didn’t have a DIY tattoo scene, so it was really a personal process for her. Koegel explained why she had gone that route and braved teaching herself how to tattoo instead of pursuing the traditional apprenticeship when she realized that she was interested in tattooing. 

“It’s a linear process, you apprentice till your time is up and then finally you can go on to do your own thing. But I have always wanted a lot of freedom with my work,” Koegel said. “I don’t have a problem committing to things, but it just wasn’t right. Because it’s not even about commitment. It’s about them wanting something hyper specific from you and I’m able to really just do what I want. My own terms.”

Aside from the flexibility (time-wise and creativity-wise), Koegel says that a lot of people choose to start off with DIY handpoke tattoos for health and safety reasons. “Handpoke is a lot more accessible and easy to learn. It’s a lot less dangerous than machine tattooing. If people want to learn machine, learning from a professional would be a good route to take. But handpoke, it’s just relatively safer. There’s much lower risk of infection, much lower risk of damaging the skin.” Also, a tattoo gun costs hundreds to thousands of dollars. All one needs to start handpoking is the tattoo needles, which comparatively cost tens of dollars.

The truth is that there are a lot of different, awesome ways to tattoo. Traditional tattoo shops have been more or less doing the same thing for generations. A big part of that is how rigidly the trade is taught from one generation to the next. The room for creative experimentation and growth is squashed out of the industry. 

“I don’t really know that much about the apprentice thing, but I’m assuming your work is kind of up for critique,” Koegel said. “I think that it’s better to be able to experiment with whatever style you want to from the beginning, rather than having the foundations of whatever artists you’re apprenticing under influence the beginning of your career and then branching off from that. I feel like I’ve seen a lot more different styles come from the DIY community than the traditional sect.” 

Lastly, Koegel shares how she felt about the movement being referred to as “DIY”. A lot of the artists who make up the community are incredibly credentialled professionals, so is “DIY” an insulting way for the community to be referred as?

“I wonder if it’ll get kind of like phased out as time goes on,” said Koegel, “Because I feel like I’m seeing the lines be blurred more.” She has a point — a lot of people who came from the DIY community are just regular ol’ professional tattoo artists now. But DIY is still their roots, still their community. 

“But I think that it’s cool that it has that name, because that’s just what it is — a community that is self-originated. It’s just cool to be like you guys grew yourself. I don’t think that it’s insulting. I think that it makes sense,” Koegel nods.

Koegels’s tattoo work can be found on Instagram, at @twin__motion.