Kirsty York eschewed industry norms to open her tattoo studio—now she’s dominating with her unique style

By Madison Lauterbach

//Owner of Blackbird Ink Kirsty York, right, consults with client Hannah Fortune about her first tattoo at the Lafayette tattoo shop on Sept. 11. Photo by Ali Mai | ali.mai.journo@gmail.com

After Kirsty York was fired from the tattoo shop she worked at three years ago, she decided to take her career into her own hands. Two days later, she saw an ad for the space where Blackbird Ink currently resides. 

For York to open her own shop after only three years under her belt was a little unusual, she admits. Most artists don’t go down that track until they’ve been tattooing for about 10 years, if at all. 

“I just thought, why wait? Why work under somebody else [who] I may not agree with how they’re running things? Why waste time? Just go for it,” York said.

She’s now been tattooing for six years. In high school, she took every art class she could and later worked toward an illustration degree in college. While in the degree program, she wanted to follow a more traditional artist route through children’s book illustration. But then she fell into a tattoo apprenticeship. It was something she thought would just be a side gig while she finished her degree. She eventually dropped out, turning to tattooing full time. 

“It was like, this is a way to make money doing art now or even finish my degree,” York said. “And then that took off faster than I thought it would, honestly. Next thing I know I was making a good amount of money. It’s hard to spend thousands and thousands of dollars on college when you’re already making money.” 

Through Blackbird Ink, York has now created a safe haven for women who want to get tattooed. However, York had to work for her happy ending. 

“Almost any tattoo artists can give you [a few] horror stories from when they first started,” York said. “It’s kind of a notorious industry for starting off with the apprenticeship process and that being a mess with hazing and stuff.”

York said she didn’t get the hazing too bad where she apprenticed, but the shop didn’t have space for her to tattoo when she had finished the course. She said her mentor told her he would “take her money and teach her how to tattoo,” but then sent her on her way when she was done. He suggested tattooing her friends out of her house until she built a portfolio and a shop would be willing to take her. 

That is a practice that should not be done by anyone who hasn’t received the appropriate licensing and training, according to experts

For the first few months after opening the Blackbird Ink shop in Lafayette, York was the only artist. Because of her unique, illustrative style, York said she had enough demand for her work to manage paying the rent on her own. That’s one of the reasons she now charges her two other artists so little for booth rental at the shop. The other reason is she wanted to be the type of boss that she never had. 

“I was working at other shops, under more traditional male artists, and I was really butting heads with them,” York said. “I was like, ‘I’m not going to take crap from you guys.’ I don’t think they liked it.”

The traditionally male-dominated industry of tattooing can be intimidating for women, clients and tattooers alike. This is why it’s notable that Blackbird Ink is not just only woman-owned; all three artists who share the space are also women. 

“I think [having all women] is a little bit more welcoming and relaxed than a lot of tattoo shops,” York said. “The ones I’ve worked in, it’s like a lot of intimidating looking guys working there. And they’re playing heavy, loud music and it’s a little scary for females to come into.” 

Sometimes women also look for tattoo styles different from those like American Traditional, which focuses on bold lines and limited shading and color. Although she didn’t finish her degree, York tapped into her formal art background for her unique storybook style of tattooing. 

“I try to pull elements that I learned from [my art school background] into every tattoo I do, you know, really focus on making each piece a really good piece,” York said. “For the most part, it’s what I would illustrate on paper, just on skin.”

As tattooing becomes a more recognized art form and tattooers attract tens of thousands of followers on social media, more public avenues of displaying her art have become accessible to York. Many galleries are now showing exhibitions of tattooer’s work. Businesses seek out the distinctive art style for indoor and outdoor murals. In January, the ladies from Blackbird Ink completed a mural outside The Champa Store in Denver.

“It’s kind of crazy because tattooing has opened doors for me in the more traditional art world,” York said. “Recently, we did that mural downtown, and I would have never been asked to do that if I didn’t have a following [as] a tattoo artist.”

Outside of tattooing and other art mediums, York is an avid traveler. Spending time with her boyfriend and their two dogs, Kaylee and Beau Jo, is a priority for her. The family loves hiking and backpacking in the mountains together or going on week-long trips to other citiespre-pandemic, of course. York also played on a recreational roller derby team, the Wreckin’ Roller Rebels, prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. 

York attributes her ability to travel and spend time with her family to the fact that she is her own boss. She makes her own schedule with clients and can take days or weeks off here and there without answering a higher authority. Being a small business owner comes with its own stressors, York said, but she wouldn’t trade it for going back to working for someone else. 

“You have a little bit more responsibility than you would working under someone,” York said. “But in my mind, it’s worth it, especially [after] working at places where I butted heads with the owners. Being able to do what you want is worth all the extra other stress. It’s the freedom that comes with it. That’s what really makes it worth it, I think.”

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