A Three-in-One Deal
We get a birth chart reading, therapy, and a tattoo from Astrid Elisabeth.
The final stress dream in a string of stress dreams the night before my appointment—I arrive at Modern Electric Studio to meet guest artist Astrid Elisabeth, eager for her to unveil the design for my tattoo. It is my first visible piece and my stomach is doing loopdeeloops.
Then, somehow, without me seeing it, the stencil is on my skin. I look down past my right shoulder and gasp. My entire upper arm is now straddled by a very sassy line drawing of Rihanna.
This isn’t exactly what I asked for … I say, trying to keep a tone of accusation out of my voice. The person I’m speaking to has a needle in her hand after all. She smiles, quick to assure me. She says, I thought about designing what you’d requested, but decided this would be better. I look down at it again. Rihanna looks up at me. I mean, I do really love Rihanna. Like, I wouldn’t mind having Riri tattooed on my body, eventually. I guess I just hadn’t really meant for it to be here, now? But Astrid is convincing. Sure, why not, I say. Let’s do it.
I woke up gasping. I got a tattoo of Rihanna?! I wondered, frantic—until I realized, of course, I didn’t. I couldn’t tell if I was more relieved or disappointed, to be honest.
When I actually arrive at the not-dream Modern Electric Studio and tell the not-dream Astrid Elisabeth about this, she bursts out laughing. She loves it. She tells me she hasn’t tattooed a Rihanna portrait yet, but she is designing a Solange piece for someone. (A few days after our appointment, she tattooed the portrait on her client and Solange shared it on her Instagram story.)
We sit on a black leather couch at the front of the shop; the owners’ dog, Pirate Jenny, is wandering around looking sort of lost and adorable. Her humans are on vacation. I feel Jenny’s nerves vibrating outward into the room. Or maybe they are my nerves.
I’m not here for a Rihanna tattoo, but rather a piece inspired by one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite authors. In my initial email to Astrid, I sent her this line, as well as a line from a poem by a different writer, and asked her to synthesize them into a piece. Even before I hit send, I knew this was kind of obnoxious. I sent it anyway. Astrid tells me this is actually incredibly common, which I find both relieving and a little embarrassing.
“I get a lot of poems in my inbox. Or song lyrics,” she says. “Most of which don’t actually have any imagery in them at all. I appreciate that people think I’m that inventive, but at the same time, sometimes I’m like … do you like florals?”
It’s time for the big reveal of the design which will soon be permanently inscribed on my skin. It was surprising to me that I wouldn’t get to see it until the day of the appointment, but for Astrid, this is standard practice. People tend to overthink the design if they get to see it sooner.
She brings it up on her iPad, and … I exhale. It’s perfect. Doubt melts away, feverish infatuation rises in its place. My chest flutters with anticipation. Let’s get this on my body!
Astrid works primarily with fine lines in black ink. On her Instagram, you’ll mostly find refracting, surreal portraits with mask-like faces and disembodied hands. The pieces are beautiful, delicate—with a disturbing edge lurking beneath, which is what drew me to her.
“I already had the art and I had the demand,” she says. “It was not the right way—”
“Oh yeah, ‘the right way,” I interject. But she stops me, her face dead serious. “There are reasons that you need to get certain licensing, like your blood-born pathogen test. Hepatitis C is real, you can actually harm people. While I’m super down for stick and poke culture, I know too many people who do it wasted at a bar in the back room and that needs to not be happening.” Point taken.
“I just didn’t have the time to be hazed in some ‘bro ritual’ kinda shop.” She explains that especially in New York, where she got her start around two years ago, it is common for apprentices, especially women, to work for a year or more without ever even getting to hold a machine. “There is, like, this weird pride in the abuse of apprenticeships.” She describes a guy who once followed her around at a party, harassing her, asking intense, probing questions, as though trying to delegitimize her. “It was like I had gotten away with something because people liked what I was doing.”
She found a less traditional path into the industry. “I had a lot of reckless friends who really just wanted the tattoos from me because they liked the art and they didn’t care how shitty it might come out.” Her friend Ricky, who is heavily tattooed all over his body, helped her get the hang of things by letting her practice on him and guiding her through the process, letting her know when she needed to improve certain aspects of her technique.
“I would never recommend buying a machine and doing it the way I did it, I think I just had an overconfidence in myself that I could do it.”
All of the artists at Modern Electric are women, and most of them are queer. “No one here is gonna go along with that weird hazing kinda shit.”
She carefully presses the stencil onto my arm and we both consider the placement, looking at it in the full length mirror on the wall. Ravi, the shop’s assisstant manager, keeps offering me a cheese and fruit plate. I accept a few bites. I was so nervous beforehand, I’d forgotten to eat, which I imagine isn’t ideal. I hope I don’t turn out to be the sort of wimp who gets woozy.
I lie down on the reclined chair, my arm extended. The walls are covered in oil paintings, figurative portraits, most partially-nude, of queer people, which I find comforting, like being surrounded by friends who are as stoked as I am to see how the tattoo turns out. Astrid gets started and I take deep breath and—
It doesn’t hurt. I can hardly feel the needle at all; mostly, it’s just like my arm is vibrating, like a colony of bees are busy building a happy home in my bicep. I relax.
Like me, many of her clients find her on Instagram. People from all over the world slide into her DMs, she tells me, not even about tattoo stuff, just to talk. “I’ve developed very strange friendships,” she tells me. “I’ve helped people, saved their marriages, I talk to teenagers who feel like, Oh you’re so famous and you’re living this dream life, and I’m like, Yeah, well, I also work part time at a coffee shop and I’m a lot older than you are—kind of helping them realize that the Internet is mostly lies.”
While Instagram has mostly had a positive effect on her career, it has also proven to be the source of one of her greatest frustrations in the industry: people stealing her work and getting it tattooed by someone else. “I do a lot of memorial pieces and some of them have been put on other people’s bodies and it’s such a violation,” she says. “Every tattoo is super personal and just because you like something and you can get away with doing that doesn’t mean you should. You might have someone’s young grandma’s face on you. And that’s pretty weird.”
She’s even had people DM her to show her they have done this, thinking of it as a compliment. “It really sucks for my clients who paid for it, whose idea it was, who it’s so personal to, you have really hurt that person, even if they never find out. I don’t find it flattering.”
Over the steady whirring of the machine, she asks me the queer question: what’s my sign? I tell her I’m a Libra Sun, Pisces Moon, Scorpio Rising. She’s impressed. “If you come to my tattoo session unprepared with your full chart, I will judge you slightly—if you’re queer.” Astrid, for the record, is a Capricorn. We joke about the prevalence of astrology in the community. “As a Bay Area queer, you should probably just have that on your license or something.”
It’s a subject that comes up a lot during tattoo appointments. “That is one of my favorite things is to do my client’s natal chart during the tattoo, and then I give them a full reading, and then we have a therapy session. I’m a three-in-one deal.”–Tara Marsden