We're celebrating Women's History Month with a new blog series, Revolutionary Women in the tattoo industry where we'll be featuring interviews with female tattoo artists while highlighting the history behind it all. This is our second interview in the series, you can check out the first post here! This week we interviewed Christy Lillian Opal. She started out as a local piercer, then tattoo artist and her incredible determination led to her owning & operating multiple tattoo studios while becoming a passionate advocate for tattoo laws and ethics.
So can you tell me about your background in tattooing: when did you start? How did you get into it?
Yeah, I'd be happy to! I've worked in the tattoo industry under three different names, one was my maiden name which is Booker and then I got married so I was Lillard, and just recently I chose my own middle and last name so I'm Christy Lilian Opal. I started out in 1998 in a tattoo studio literally across the street from my high school. While in school I knew I wanted a career in art, my teachers all wanted me to be an art teacher and I did not want to be an art teacher. So while I was in high school, seeing this tattoo studio across the street, and there was another pretty close (there were only two in my town) I started wanting to get a tattoo so I started drawing little tattoos and as I was drawing tattoos that I wanted it occurred to me this was a career in art that was super cool that I could totally do.
I started out at the tattoo studio across from my high school. I did a piercing apprenticeship originally. I saw that as my way in. I drew all the time, I was incredibly shy so I didn't have the courage to ask the tattooer if he would apprentice me. I drew constantly hoping he'd notice and he did, thankfully! Thank God for learning assertiveness and how to ask for what I want.
(His name is Gabe Anderson he owns Altered Skin in Montana). He taught me how to tattoo, I tattooed for 17 years. I opened my first studio in 2009, which was Damask Tattoo then in 2015 I was able to buy Laughing Buddha which had been around for 20 years in Seattle. (This is when I retired from tattooing to focus on running the businesses). In 2018 I was able to buy Sea City Tattoo up in Everette. I had 3 studios, 29 employees, and then COVID hit and we had to close all the studios down temporarily. In that time multiple factors came into play, including me getting a divorce where my ex was forcing me to buy him out of my tattoo studios. So along with being shut down and having no income I also had this divorce happening at the same time. I had to make the decision to hand over Sea City to the body piercer there, he'd been there for ten years it was pretty much his studio anyway. It was a great arrangement. I was able to close Damask and bring everyone over to The Laughing Buddha.
What made you want to transition more into the business side of tattooing?
I think a lot of tattoo artists struggle with this and I think that there's a lot of shame involved in why I quit tattooing and I think that it's important to talk about it more so people can release the shame behind it. I tattooed for 17 years and through the last five years I would go up and down in my love for tattooing, not always feeling that into it. Most of the time my love for tattooing prevailed, and my love for tattooing is still absolutely 100 percent there, but while I was still tattooing I started to not enjoy my job. I started refining" I'll only do this type of tattoo.." because I like these the most, by the last year I was tattooing I started doing only black and grey portraits, exactly how they were in the portrait. I was like I'm only doing what I love and that's it, because that's the only way I can keep coming to work. Then at one point I was doing a tattoo of a celebrity that I loved, it was a beautiful image, it was everything I loved about doing portraits...and I realized halfway through the session I was bored out of my mind. I thought to myself, if this was another tattoo artist telling me this is what they felt doing their favorite kind of tattoo, I would say you need to quit today because it's not serving the client. If your engaged and enjoying what you're doing then you're putting out your best work. you're putting your magic into it. I had no magic left to give. I decided it wasn't right for me to continue if that was the approach that was going on in my mind. I struggled with it so many times. I knew that was it. That all of me saying "I'm going to tattoo until I shake so much I can't tattoo anymore" was not practical. We can't make decisions for ourselves that effect us 20 years down the road. It's okay to stop tattooing. There's not many careers that people expect you to do for your entire life.
How different is the tattoo industry now compared to when you first started tattooing? What has your experience been like in the west coast?
It feels odd to me that it's been over 20 years, it definitely doesn't feel like it but then again sometimes when I look back it feels like it's been a really long time as well. It's one of those things where when you're younger and you hear older people say "time flies" and you just don't realize it until you're older. Some big differences are that there's a really sincere effort with people in the body art industry to legitimize the industry and make it a legitimate business with ethical business practices and beautiful studios. It used to be that you found an open room and got some free furniture and started tattooing (which is literally what I did when I opened my first studio).
I think it's easier to get into tattooing now, there's more studios. There was a lot of sexism and bigotry and racism, there still is but we're learning and getting a little bit better. It was much more blatant back then, it was much more something people laughed at instead of took seriously.
Now we recognize that actually does damage to people, that can hurt people, and it can even go so far as to kill people to have those kinds of attitudes. Having the information at our fingertips and being able to see how these things are hurting people really has opened our eyes to the fact that we really need to call out that kind of stuff when it happens around us. It's not an act of shaming someone, it's an act of protecting other humans.
We're changing gears a bit, what is a favorite part of tattoo history for you?
Of course the women that came before us are always an inspiration. Tattooing was pioneered by queer people that were out in the '40s. That's a huge deal. That is one of my favorite parts of tattooing history because it kind of points out to people that they wouldn't have the career they had if it weren't for these people, LGBTQ people and women leading the way for all of us to have this job where we can do beautiful artwork and actually make a living at it without needing a second job.
Let's talk about major events. What are some historical events that have occurred during your career in tattooing? Or major changes that effected the industry?
Anytime that there is a depression it's going to affect tattooing. We never need a tattoo but when our lives are spiraling out of control the one thing we can control is our bodies and getting a tattoo is empowering, it makes us feel good. Whenever there is a depression there is an initial slump, I'm referring specifically right now to the housing crisis that happened around 2007. There's an initial bit of oh that's not a priority so no more tattoos, then it starts to go on for a little longer, people start getting desperate and that's when they crave control in their lives, and that's when they come get tattooed. It's very similar to now, when we opened back up it was slow, now it's getting crazy.
Something really significant to me, I don't know if this is significant to the whole world...was that when I first started tattooing it was illegal in New York City. I remember when it became legal in New York that's that was a moment when I realized, wait tattooing is illegal in some places? I didn't know that. Having the realization that it's illegal in some places was significant and I think a lot of people didn't know it was illegal in some places.
Washington State got tattoo laws in 2009. I got on the advisory board immediately because I thought if there are going to be laws that affect my industry I'm going to be a part of it. I applied to be on the advisory board for the Department of Licensing as a volunteer. I helped write the rule to enforce the laws. There was a Senator that was trying to make tattooing illegal in Washington because he thought it was the number one transmitter of hepatitis c, which there's no medical evidence for whatsoever. So they went in a fought it and won, they got a minimal law passed. We wrote the rule to enforce the law then the idea was that we'd go back and redo the legislation to have education requirements. We've tried that multiple times, but it's always at the bottom of the state's priority list. We have yet to get legislation passed but we're going in again to try to get legislation passed so at least PMU artists need some kind of education to get their license here. It's important to get involved.
Can you tell me how have new products been a game changer?
My studio at this point is completely disposable. We don't reuse anything that needs to be sterilized. We're almost entirely disposable at this point even for piercing. It's really cool, I'm very proud of the piercers for working so hard to get us to that point.
And of course the quality of the pigments the tools, we supply our artists with everything they need to tattoo. We buy them the least expensive version cartridges, but we don't buy them the ones that don't have the membrane that protects the ink from going up into the machine. Just the little advances in technology like that membrane is great for cleanliness.
How do you feel that social media has effected the tattoo industry?
I think that it has advanced us by leaps and bounds. We have access to beautiful tattoos from all over the world from people that aren't just featured in tattoo magazines. We're able to share information freely and openly. We're able to help each other advance our careers and art, we can share new products and technology.
What's a misconception or stereotype you've heard about female tattoo artists?
I'm assuming that swearing is okay? Hahah. So the main stereotype I've seen throughout my career is that when a woman is a tattoo artist she's f**ked her way into the tattoo industry. There's no reason to assume that just because a woman is a woman that means they got their job by having sex, in any industry.
Who is a woman that's been inspirational in your life?
Gypsy Jill, was incredibly influential in my life and my tattoo career, I consider her one of my mentors even though she never taught me any technique. She taught me about her history in tattooing, she tattooed for about 27 years (around that amount of time) she was one of the first female tattoo artists in Seattle. Jill was an amazing tattoo artist, she taught me about the spirituality behind tattooing and the magic of tattooing, the comradery of tattooing and the importance of women in tattooing. It was her idea and I helped her for a while we did a women tattoo artist art show in the Seattle Washington area. She was really passionate about bringing women artists together so we could support each other and have friendships and love. That really taught me the importance of community. She passed away from brain cancer I think, it's been many years now I don't remember the exact year but I was lucky enough to know her. We were really close, she had a huge impact on my life. She was an amazing storyteller, at one point we all went to the national tattoo convention and we were in the hotel room, five us women literally sitting on the floor in front of her listening to one of her stories and she had us hanging on her every word. she was a powerful presence.
To you, why is it important to share the history of tattooing?
I think it's important to know where you come from, to know the history. There's such a long and rich history in tattooing. It's good to know what happened in the past so we don't repeat the same mistakes in the present of course and also just to be able to have that pride in your work. We come from a long line of women tattoo artists going back thousands of years. We need to know our oppressions and our oppressors to be able to make important changes.
What's something you want newer tattoo artists to know?
It's important for us to have mentors and to have relationships with people who are older than us and younger than us so that we have a perspective from multiple generations of people.
Tune in next week to see which revolutionary woman we'll be featuring next for Women's History Month! You can also watch the full video interview with Christy Lillian Opal on our YouTube!