Ayliana Bryant wrapped up a day of class note-taking and geared up for a night of inking tattoos at Pink Wall Gym, a local tattoo shop on Flower Street and West 31st Street. After pointing, prepping her ink, and sanitizing her workspace, it was time to say hello and get her next client tattooed.
Bryant is a junior majoring in creative writing and is just one of the few USC students to have taken up tattooing as a hobby.
Despite the almost irreversible nature of the tattoo, these students find a sense of playfulness and tranquility in it. Often they get tattooed the same day they have the idea. While tattoos have often been stigmatized, these artists represent a generation that defines tattoos as a worthy form of self-expression and hopes to build an inclusive and accessible tattoo culture.
From art lessons to professional tattooing
His freshman year of college, Bryant began his apprenticeship not knowing much about tattooing. She became interested in it after learning that it was a way to make a lot of money when done professionally.
“I messaged my current boss via email like [asking], are you looking for apprentices? I have no tattoo experience, but I am an artist,” she said. “I met him and he liked my art, my attitude.”
And she was hired. After two years, Bryant got his license, which meant hours of shadowing other tattoo artists and getting over 100 tattoos. She also had to take her Bloodborne Pathogens training, a course designed specifically for people at high risk of exposure to blood and spreading infections.
“Learning to tattoo was probably one of the hardest mediums I’ve ever learned,” she said. “Corn [it’s] also the most rewarding.
On the one hand, unlike any other art, her canvas is a living medium, people on whom she draws her imagination. “You use like a vibrating needle on the skin – that way your web responds to you,” she said.
Additionally, his work has high stakes because mistakes are rarely tolerated. She can’t undo, erase or mess up anything. However, with practice and positive responses, tattooing became a way for her to relax. She finds it relaxing now, giving her the same joy as drawing in her notebook.
Through the tattoo, she was also able to create a safe and welcoming space in South Los Angeles. “I love flexing it. My clientele is almost entirely queer women of color,” she said.
Although her art is not intentionally an act of resistance, she acknowledges that it challenges established norms of what is considered sophisticated and what is not.
“Sometimes I’ve gotten comments from my family telling me it’s upsetting and ungodly, which I think is actually kind of a compliment,” she said.
Political statements with body art
Grace Zhang is a sophomore majoring in American Critical Studies. Since dropping their freshman year, Zhang has given and received dozens of tattoos. Their first tattoo is a small, pricked-and-stick flower they did on their own ankle as an experiment. Now they have dozens of tattoos all over their bodies – some done by themselves and others by professionals or friends.
These tattoos are a time capsule of Zhang’s experiences and perspectives at any given time. They range from light doodles to political statements – from tigers and cherries to ACAB (All Cops Are Bastards) and Anarchist Care Bears.
For Zhang, tattoos serve as a creative outlet. It’s a reminder to prioritize play amid the stresses of school and work.
“You’re not really taught how to do and love to draw in a capitalist world because you think it won’t make you money,” they said.
Zhang’s journey with tattoos is also heavily influenced by their experience participating in grassroots movements in Seattle — from Black Live Matters protests to protecting homeless encampments from police sweeps. In these potentially violent and dangerous situations, they naturally formed a tight-knit community.
The tattoo became a way to show their love and appreciation to this family. In fact, they were given their tattoo gun by another protester, who joked about asking for free tattoos in return.
Many of Zhang’s tattoos have political significance. They say their political identity is just as personal as their body. Grace says those tattoos hold them accountable.
“I have been dedicated to these resistance movements all my life. It’s not something most people can walk away from because it’s their lived experiences,” they said.
Zhang’s tattoos also allow them to connect with people outside of this community. Their tattoos often attract attention and questions – from their political significance to how to get into tattooing. More often than not, this curiosity opens the door to educational and interesting conversations. Through these talks, Zhang said they raise awareness of local grassroots movements and share the joy of giving and getting tattoos.
The side hustle of a musician
Elisabeth Easton is a sophomore majoring in Jazz Studies. When Easton was 15, a friend gave him a stick and pricked him with a sewing needle pierced through the eraser of a pencil in the middle of a park in San Francisco.
Easton was immediately fascinated and ordered a stick and poke kit from Amazon. In high school, she started giving her classmates small, inconspicuous tattoos of little stars and moons that their parents wouldn’t see. These are sentimental memories for Easton.
“I met a girl who went to my high school for the first time in years and she said to me, I still have the moon you gave me when we were 15,” he said. she stated.
Around USC, people contact her through mutual friends or Instagram for tattoos.
“You learn so much about people while you tattoo them because you’re forced to spend time together. And that can be awkward, but it can also be an opportunity to make a new friend,” Easton said.
Some of her tattoos have personal meaning while others are purely based on her aesthetic preferences, ranging from song lyrics to random art.
For Easton, art and music serve as grounding and healing practices. His Amy Winehouse signature tattoo is just one example, his favorite musician “in the world”. Admiring Winehouse, Easton hopes to create therapeutic art for herself and others.
“I think the reason I want to make music and why I want to write music is to help people feel less alone. I love being able to put emotion into words and art to make my own healing,” she said. If it’s good enough, she says, it will reach others as well.
Currently, Easton has no plans to pursue tattooing professionally, but is also unwilling to part with her passion.
“My hopes for a future career are to get into music,” Easton said. “I love performing, I love writing. I love being around other musicians. But if I was on a tour bus, I would totally bring a tattoo gun.