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Hillsborough's newly-opened Critter Swamp Tattoo seeks to model inclusivity for the industry

Amid the mass closures and shutdowns that characterized the past year, a tiny tattoo shop in downtown Hillsborough opened its doors, hoping to make the local tattoo community more capacious than ever before. 

Local artists Ayden Love, Terin J.D. and J. Avery co-own and collectively operate Critter Swamp Tattoo, a Black, trans and queer owned studio with the intention of making the owners’ communities feel welcome and safe in an industry that is predominantly white male dominated. 

“I feel really drawn to create mirrors for people that haven’t always had them,” Love wrote in an email. “Representation is really important and queering the art I make feels like a natural way for me to work with that value. In a lot of my personal work on canvas, rather than skin, I combine elements of queer bodies and nature because I want to see a world where queer bodies feel held, valued, like they belong.”

All three artists recalled feeling disquieted —unsafe, even— in what J. Avery called “cishet white dude shops.” 

Love, a self-taught tattooer who found themselves turned off by said “cishet white dude” tattoo shops as a client, had never seen a space for themself as a tattoo artist until they encountered the world of “alternative” tattoo culture filled with queer people, POC, women and other self-taught artists. This community showed them that there was a possibility —and a need— for change in the industry. 

“I would guess maybe 30 to 40 percent of my clients disclose stories of some kind of inappropriate behavior from tattooers they’ve worked with, and I’m certain lots of additional people never disclose that. It’s a whole thing, everyone in the industry knows it, not many work hard to change it,” Love wrote. “Getting a tattoo should be a process where the client is in charge and is giving enthusiastic consent every step of the way because it’s their body. People don’t spend enough time thinking about the inherent power dynamic involved in getting a tattoo, the inherent vulnerability of the client. I wanted a tattoo shop that I felt not only safe in, but welcomed and understood in, and as far as the Triangle (and let’s be honest, most of the South) goes it just felt like we had to make it to have it.” 

Terin has owned a tattoo shop in his native Bloomington, Ind. for the past three years that was intentionally created as a Black space in “a town where the nearest culture is an hour drive,” which showed him the power and importance of having an inclusive, safe tattoo shop. 

“It’s important to me to create unity and community while also having my tattoos be empowering to those choosing to get tattooed by me. When I created my own lane, I felt like tattooing was good to me. I don’t really think about tattoo culture when I make decisions; I’m really just thinking about Black culture,” Terin wrote in an email. “Tattooers should post tattoos on Black and Brown skin. When they don’t, there’s no way for us to see their skill set on our bodies. I hope in the future artists realize the importance of educating themselves and working on their craft in a way that is inclusive to all bodies.”

When the three decided to open the shop, the circumstances did not seem conventionally favorable — they had not all known each other very well beforehand, and the August grand opening happened to come right in the middle of a global pandemic. 

“None of us knew what to expect when we were planning this,” Terin wrote. “We were all coming from a place of hope that our health would maintain to even see the opening of Critter Swamp.” 

But their shared vision of an inclusive tattoo space, and their steadfast belief that such a space was a need for the community, pushed them to take what Love referred to as their “leap of faith.” It worked out for them — ever since its inception, the shop has remained “wildly busy,” according to J. Avery. 

“I am honestly floored by the response. Everyone has been so supportive, and all of us have been very steadily booking out,” Love wrote.

The artists all share a love for their clients and community that has already developed out of Critter Swamp, and they hope to use the shop to benefit the community even beyond the scope of providing their art. Almost every flash tattoo event the shop has hosted has benefitted a cause or organization that the artists care about, such as their Valentine’s Day “Love Fest” event. During the three-day event, a portion of all proceeds went to The LGBTQ Center of Durham. 

“The goal has always been for Critter Swamp to be able to do big benefits for causes we care about. It feels awesome to have a really concrete resource to utilize in fundraising,” Love wrote. “And so far, the benefit days have been really successful.” 

In the future, the artists hope that Critter Swamp continues to be a benefit to the community and a safe space for marginalized folks to feel comfortable getting tattoos and expressing themselves. They also hope that their shop serves as a model for artists with similar backgrounds to follow and continue expanding the industry. 

“I want the conversation to become global,” Terin wrote. “[I want] white people to stop claiming tattooing as their invention. I want to hear people’s voices that don’t reflect the echoes of the redundant past of tattooing. The narrative in the industry is already shifting and I want to see that continue.” 

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