Nana's Prayers Tattoo Studio in Austin makes space for women and people of color
When the pandemic forced people into lockdown in 2020, many picked up new hobbies to pass the time (and fend off existential dread), at least those with the privilege of time and space to do so. Instagram feeds filled up with people baking sourdough bread and selling homemade masks. Some were painting and embroidering like it was summer camp.
But while those people picked up knitting needles, Imani Tatum picked up a tattoo gun. A year and a half later, the 23-year-old now has her own tattoo parlor in North Austin — Nana’s Prayers Tattoo Studio, which opened for business in July at 715 Powell Lane.
Tatum has dreamed of becoming a tattoo artist since she was young.
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'Our definition of forever'
“I’ve always been an artist,” said Tatum, who grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “Math never really made sense to my brain, but art was my thing. … I knew that my macaroni art was far better than the rest of my classmates.”
Tatum got her first tattoo at 16 and became fascinated with the prospect of inking her art permanently onto someone else's skin.
“It was just crazy to me that these bodies that are so temporary can be decorated in our definition of forever." She found the art beautiful, and body modification culture remarkable, "because no matter what continent you go to, there is some type of permanent adornment.”
After graduating high school early, Tatum tried to land an apprenticeship — where an aspiring tattoo artist shadows a licensed artist out of their studio, a prerequisite for obtaining a tattooing license in most states.
Studio after studio turned her away. Tatum chalked it up to her young age and worked on perfecting her art for the next two years, before returning to studios once she was 18. However, she said shop owners treated her as if nothing had changed.
“I was shocked, because I went back to the shops and I was still getting the same response, you know, ‘Get out of here, kid,’ when there were other apprentices that were my age,” Tatum said. “But then I kind of put two and two together and figured out it's because I didn't really look like the demographic of people who are tattooing.”
Tatum’s experience parallels that of many women and people of color who have called out the tattoo industry for being dominated by white men. Since the Black Lives Matter movement swelled following the murder of George Floyd last summer, more people have shared accounts of sexual assault and racial discrimination in tattoo parlors.
Zippia, a career research organization, estimates that 71% of tattoo artists in the U.S. are men and 66% are white. In Tatum’s hometown of Fort Wayne, 73% of the population is white, according to the U.S. Census.
Realizing a dream in Austin
Discouraged and not able to land an apprenticeship, Tatum put her dream on hold for a few years as she moved around the country in her van and worked in the service industry, landing in Austin in 2019. When the pandemic came along in 2020 and shut down normal operations at bars and restaurants, Tatum found herself unemployed. At the time, she was spending a lot of time with a friend who was a tattoo artist.
“He said, ‘I can teach you how to tattoo, if you want to.' I had very cold feet about it, because I let being rejected from it previously convince me that this is not a demographic I fit into," Tatum said, adding, "He was like, ‘What else are you doing right now?’ And I was like, ‘Literally nothing.’”
Tatum learned how to tattoo in her friend’s studio that spring, practicing on orange peels and dried pig skins from butcher shops. By the time tattoo shops were opening back up, she was ready to apprentice.
Though able to land an apprenticeship this time around, Tatum said she encountered toxic work dynamics, and it became untenable. But the experience did solidify her tattooing skills. It also gave her a new mission — to open up her own tattoo shop where women and people of color were respected.
Tatum would not accept feeling shut out of the male-dominated industry: "I was like, well, if this is how it’s going to be, I might as well open my own shop where that’s not true.”
To do so, Tatum learned “how to talk in big-kid words” and spent months searching for spaces to lease before finding one on Craigslist that checked all her boxes. She covered the walls of the North Austin studio in eclectic art and filled the space with vintage furniture, hoping to channel the energy of her own nana’s house. Nana's Prayers Tattoo Studio opened up this past summer.
Proving people wrong
Though the last few months haven't all been smooth sailing, Tatum said that for the most part, business has been great. As word has spread, more and more Austinites have visited Nana’s for one of Tatum’s tattoos, which tend to be intricate renditions of natural objects like insects and vegetables, full of shading and small details.
“I get a lot of female clients, just because a lot of shop culture is very male-oriented,” Tatum said. “I get a lot of people of color, too, because tattooing people of color is a different process than tattooing other people’s skin. You have to understand color theory, or that we scar a little easier.”
Tatum hopes that having a shop like hers in Austin will make tattooing feel more accessible to aspiring tattoo artists who are women and people of color. After all, she was in their shoes just a few years ago.
“Tattooing has been going on for so long, and in so many cultures,” Tatum said. “I don't think it's very fair that the tattooing we know today has written out whole demographics of people. … It feels very good to have a space where we can say that's not true. And we're proving that it's not true.”
Tatum doesn’t like to play favorites with the tattoos she gives, but there’s one prospective client that she’s particularly excited about: her nana, whom the shop is named after. Tatum’s grandmother helped raise her and her brother, and she always prayed that they would turn out alright.
Now, she’s thinking about getting her first tattoo at Nana's.