Shanzey Afzal started her mobile feminist tattoo studio, Ink Minx, out of necessity. After surviving an apprenticeship rife with sexism and familial stigma for her career choice, Afzal was inspired to create a safer space for women and non-binary folks to get tattooed. The Long Island-bred, Brooklyn-based artist always wanted to live small, and fortuitously came upon a 1963 Shasta trailer which she gut-renovated and transformed into her work space. Combining machine tattooing and manual tattooing along with vegan inks and a dedication to transparency and empathy, Ink Minx was born in the summer of 2017.
Afzal is currently fundraising to make Ink Minx a roving roadshow, outfitted to travel from music festival to music festival, offering both permanent and temporary tattoos. We caught up with her in Bushwick to talk about her influences, upbringing, and most meaningful work so far.
When did you start tattooing?
I grew up in an Indian-Pakistani family and we did a lot of Henna and Mehndi tattoos. So that was my first introduction. Then I worked in the music industry and was always getting tattooed, and when I lost my job I was like you know what? This is what I wanna do now. I was always into the arts, my main art source was designing my tattoos, and designing my friends’ tattoos. I’m very into collaging, that’s my main method. I like to collage different things into a tattoo.
What was your apprenticeship experience like?
My apprenticeship was pretty archaic and abusive. I worked at a big chain of shops so there were three other female apprentices, and we all ended up posing nude for one of our mentors.
Well it wasn’t really by choice, it was very expected. Apprenticeships are supposed to be hard. You’re supposed to scrub toilets and do a lot of bitch work. In this situation it was shady, it was underground, nobody knew about it. All three girls didn’t know about it until we talked about it together later on. You know there are talks about how in the past women wouldn’t be able to tattoo unless they sucked the right dicks. Ink Minx’s main ambition is to create a safe space for female artists and female customers, and later on, female apprentices.
Tattoo culture really breeds this kind of behavior. I read a study from 2013 that tattooed women are perceived as way more sexual. It’s funny cuz I am constantly told I’m not like a normal tattoo artist because I’m not intimidating and I’m super friendly. Why is there a normal type of tattoo artist? But mostly, why is it so hard for a woman to trust anyone to tattoo them? It’s a lot of just having to suck it up and settle for an artist. There’s another all-female shop called Beaver Tattoo, and then there’s another tattoo shop that works with me sometimes call Nice Tattoos where everyone is nice to you.
In other interviews you’ve discussed the cultural issues that have come into play for you because of the path you’ve chosen…
I have definitely been disowned by like half of my family. It’s one thing to break away to become a musician or something, but it’s a whole other thing to break away and become a tattoo artist. Because there’s all these perceptions of drug use and violence and desecration of bodies. Jewish people can’t be buried with their families. I’m by far not an expert in many things at this point, but I almost feel like my expertise is doing Muslim people and Jewish people’s first tattoos, and talking with them as someone who went through it.
What do you usually tell them?
It depends, each person is different. A lot of them have already decided what they’re going to do. A lot of it is like, “your family is not going to stop loving you, it’s 2017,” and a lot of the time they’re not jumping into getting whole body tattoos, they’re getting something small that means so much to them. Tattoos can be so meaningful in so many ways. Another thing that’s super important is to find someone that’s licensed, and who has gone through an apprenticeship. I think one of the most important things I got from my apprenticeship was like the sanitary aspects, because a lot of tattoo artist don’t want to teach people, it’s very “I’ve learned what I’ve learned and I don’t want to share the knowledge,” but tattoo artists do want to share how to protect and prevent Hepatitis.
One thing my family disowned me for is saying that now that I’m tattooed I can’t go to Pakistan with them. There are going to be people who are going to be adamantly against that.
So you’d have to cover them?
No, I’d need security. It’s a radical act still. It’s really interesting.
So are there many tattoo studios in Pakistan?
There’s one tattoo studio that I know of in Pakistan. I joke about it because it looks very dirty, so I joke that if I went to Pakistan I’d be the best artist in the country. It’s like you’re getting a small tribal piece, a butterfly, very old staples.
How did you end up tattooing in a trailer?
I always wanted to live small. I wanted to get an Airstream to build a live-work studio. I had saved some money but I couldn’t afford an Airstream so I found a Shasta for $2000 on Craigslist, and I’m actually crowdfunding to renovate it with IFundWomen. This is definitely a huge resource for me. I’m going to take the trailer cross country to Lollapalooza, Coachella, Bamboozle, Bonnaroo. I get a lot of pushback, why women? Why do women need their own studio?
Who usually says that?
(Laughs) Men. And I say that women do need their own studio to feel like the artist understands them, that they’re comfortable, that they have privacy, that they don’t have to worry about sexual assault and harassment. They’re being touched! I know as a trauma survivor I don’t want to be touched by anybody. I mean even as a tattoo artist that’s something I had to get used to, to be really up close and personal with people, not only causing them pain, but sometimes I’m gonna really lean on ya for like a long time. It’s been good for me, honestly. As an artist I wanna work with women more. I like doing more feminine designs. I hate when someone comes up to me and says “I wanted this more delicate but the tattoo artist did this.”
Does Ink Minx involve any other artists?
It’s a pretty one woman operation but Ink Minx definitely strives to become a collective of female artists. My apprentice was definitely the first person that I felt aligned in our values. And in Philadelphia there’s two artists there that do vey holistic tattooing, like let’s analyze your chakras and analyze what you need. It’s very witchy.
I am learning so much about it because I wanna introduce different types of tattoo experiences. For me, tattooing is a very therapeutic experience, but bringing in a medicinal experience would be very cool.
That makes sense because tattooing has been part of sacred rituals forever. We just suddenly decided it’s something separate…
Exactly. The end goal for Ink Minx is after traveling for a while, I want to settle down and create a tattoo spa retreat.
Where do you draw aesthetic inspiration from?
New school, very illustrative styles. My favorite artist is Charmaine Olivia. She is amazing, she has done really dark beautiful pieces and really like rainbow, neon pieces. I love tattooing quotes and words. Anything that’s political, unapologetically feminist. I love tattoos that are in your face.
What is one of your favorite tattoos that you’ve done since you launched Ink Minx?
I did a bird’s nest with a broken egg in it for someone who had just gone through an abortion. She knew right away she wanted an abortion, but it was a pretty heavy decision for her at the same time. So that was a beautiful tattoo and we’re doing a second session this week.
Wow that’s intense and really beautiful.
A lot of people come to me with small tattoo ideas and I love doing them, but it’s amazing when you a get a piece like that. It really fulfills me.
Photo Credits: Ink Minx