//Sandra Lin, the owner of Disruptive Ink Tattoo Studio, tattooing a client on Jan. 28. Photo by Polina Saran | firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: This story comes with a content warning, as it includes a story about sexual assault.
Within the walls of Sandra Lin’s Lakewood tattoo shop, Disruptive Ink, clients are enveloped in the freedom to self-express, the freedom to feel secure in their own skin, and most of all, the freedom to heal from the outside in.
Last year was marked by traumatic pain for many Americans. From racial injustice to political chaos and the record death tolls due to COVID-19, people are hurting and unsure of where to turn for healing.
“I could see a lot of people struggling mentally, emotionally and spiritually when it comes to COVID,” she said. “And getting a tattoo is a way of doing something that’s in your control.”
In April 2020, safer-at-home orders went into effect, stalling line-work tattooing. Temporarily unable to work, Lin took pen to paper to draw up a business plan for a tattoo shop that would help others process the trauma unfolding around her.
When the doors of Disruptive Ink swung open for the first time last September, some of Lin’s first clients were those most impacted fighting the pandemic’s invisible enemy.
“I’ve had healthcare workers that have been on the frontlines come in to get tattoos,” Lin said. “I had another person who got COVID and beat it, but her Grandmother did not, so she got a memorial piece done. I’ve done a lot of memorial pieces lately.”
Today, three in 10 Americans have at least one tattoo. There are many reasons people choose to get them. But, one of the main reasons according to one study, is to help the body heal and move beyond trauma.
Despite her many tattoos, Pia Paulone found Disruptive Ink to be a novel experience. As a deaf woman who moves through an often unaccommodating world, places that provide on-site interpretive services like Disruptive Ink can offer a welcome reprieve.
“This wasn’t my first tattoo,” Paulone said. “I’ve gone to several places. But this may be only the second time in 15 years that I felt welcomed by the artists and valued. They understood me, and they weren’t judging me because I’m a deaf person.”
Making her shop welcoming to the deaf community is just one way Lin is working to break down the tattoo world’s barriers.
“I want to disrupt the industry completely,” Lin said. “I want to disrupt everything. I want to be able to offer so many things that you would not expect from a tattoo shop.”
As a female LGBTQ+ business owner, Lin is turning the industry on its head and putting an end to what she feels is the tattoo world’s intimidating reputation. To do that, she declared her shop a haven open to everyone regardless of gender, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or ability.
And the central tenet of her shop is free from hate, discrimination and bias.
“You still have a lot of people that have bad experiences at tattoo shops, especially people that have accessibility issues or are part of the LGBTQ+ community,” Lin said. “And I’ve had that experience of going in and being judged because you’re gay or because you’re transgender. But here [at Disruptive Ink], I’ve literally had people cry in my chair because the experience is so different.”
Alexandra Earles was one of these grateful clients. Earles, who identifies as pansexual, felt right at home from the moment she stepped inside Disruptive Ink.
“One of the first things [Lin] talks to you about is pronouns on their paperwork,” Earles said. “I feel like that’s a really big thing. It makes somebody feel seen and feel truly heard. You’re not just assuming what pronoun to use. You’re actually having that conversation of ‘Hey, who are you?’ I love that.”
Already feeling accepted on paper, Earles felt safe enough to let go of a decades’ worth of emotions while Lin inked a lotus on her leg. To Earles, the intricately detailed flower symbolizes a dark past she’s working to dissolve.
“I attempted suicide three times,” Earles said. “There were a lot of self-harm scars that [Lin] covered up. It was very, very emotional to see something that’s been on my body for 13 years covered with something beautiful by my choice. It gives me chills. There’s an amazing amount of healing, and a good portion of that came from just working with Sandra.”
Earles’ suicide attempts were a culmination of years spent suffering from child molestation, depression and severe bullying. During the six-hour tattoo session, Lin empathized and connected with her in a way others can’t because she knows what it’s like to be preyed upon and victimized.
As a budding artist at the Rocky Mountain College of Art & Design, Lin loved designing, sculpting and creating beautiful and memorable pieces of work. But a violent attack disrupted that love affair with art and forever changed her life.
“I was gang-raped,” Lin said. “It was part of a gang initiation. I ended up dropping out. I didn’t report it. I didn’t focus on my art and instead went into the medical field.”
Lin spent nearly a decade in silence, fearful of sharing her haunting experience with family and friends. When she finally did, they encouraged her to turn her trauma into a purpose.
“My uncle [a retired tattoo artist] really pushed me to get back into art. And the second that I put ink to skin, I was hooked,” Lin said.
Lin is offering other like-minded artists an opportunity to hone their craft at Disruptive Ink, including Bri Allura. Since joining Lin’s creative collection of artists as an apprentice, Allura has come to admire her teacher’s passion and is determined to follow in her footsteps.
“Tattoo studios like these are few and far between,” Allura said. “It’s a goal of mine to open up my own shop that has the same vibe as Disruptive Ink, which is LGBTQ+ friendly, inclusive and owned by a female artist.”
However, a study by Columbia University found the business remains overwhelmingly male-dominated, with one in six tattooers being female.
With that top of mind, Lin is emotionally energized to continue her mission of making permanent impressions, one drop of ink at a time.
“I’ve completely broken down after seeing that what I’m doing is changing someone’s life,” Lin said. “That’s the most important thing to me. I want to empower people.”
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