Debra Yarian has been part of the tattoo industry for 40 years. There is no question that she is held in high consideration in the trade, and not just in the US.
She started tattooing in the days when you could really count female tattooers on one hand… tattooing wasn’t really a trade for women, and it was, without a doubt, a man’s world. Back in the days a tattoo studio was no place for a lady. The few women that showed any interest were a real exception, they had to be either really passionate about the craft, when they’d usually go out on on their own, or else they had to be introduced to the industry by some other men.
That was the unwritten law. So when I think or hear of women like Debra, or Vyvyn Lazonga, Kate Hellenbrandt, Miss Roxy, Pat Sinatra, Julie Moon, Debi Kienel, Bev Robinson, Jacci Gresham, Jamie Summers, Cynthia Witkin or Kandi Everett, just to name a few veterans of contemporary tattooing, my mind goes to a place and time where these women were real innovators in what was not easy, not popular, uncharted territory and for that reason they deserve all our respect. These women are the trailblazers that opened up the doors for us to the world of tattooing and inspired so many of us!
Nowadays it is so common to see women in tattooing, they are everywhere, they have literally taken over the trade literally! Today women are the norm, but it wasn’t quite like that a mere 25 years ago!
Debra Yarian is considered by all female tattooers as a virtual icon, point of reference, and role model, because of all the stories she can tell, the experiences she can recall, the advice she has to offer, because she is so open and willing to share, and because of her story in real life as a real woman who is not afraid to tell it all: a story of tattooing, overcoming abuse, real friendship, family and true love. A story with a happy ending for a change!
Debra is so well respected in the trade, certainly because of her work, but also because of how real she is and because she goes back to the days.
Her friendship with Paul Rogers is notorious and she has a really touching love story with Don Yarian (with whom she opened Eagle River Tattoo in Alaska) a true gentleman who restored her hope and trust. In the past Debra found herself tattooing while trying not to get killed by her abusive husband at the time, and she speaks about it openly in her Instagram posts. Violence and abuse towards women is a very common topic nowadays, and unfortunately it also touches the tattoo industry.
Family has always been the most important thing for Debra, her kids are on the top priority in her world, and today they have chosen to follow in her and Don’s footsteps in tattooing, establishing a family tradition with deep roots and strong values.
There is so much more to know and learn from her experience that it wouldn’t be a bad idea at all to write a book about her life story (her kids approve!)
This is a lovely interview I had with Debra and I hope you’ll enjoy it!
What’s your background, where you were born, and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in 1959 in Brooklyn. My family lived on a busy avenue, a short drive from the ocean, in an apartment building, with hundreds of people living on our block. My parents were white middle class New Yorkers, and both worked in Manhattan, so I spent my childhood pretty independently. Later in life I also found out that I was adopted by my dad – he raised me as his own and was not my biological father. My biological father, who died before I knew of him, was of Polynesian and Asian descent. And I’ve also discovered and met 6 half siblings! Life sometimes can be a surprise! As a kid I liked exploring my neighborhood with my friends.
When I wasn’t playing with other kids, drawing or painting at home, I spent a great deal of time at the library.
I was a voracious reader and fortunately my parents didn’t censor what I read. An illness when I was 10 years old interrupted my social life. I was relegated to a summer of bed rest and isolation. By the time I was 12-13 I was totally rebelling against the norm and left school in the 8th grade with the hope of attending The Arts Student League in the city. Unfortunately, my parents thought I would get better use out of a secretarial training – which I attended, but have never used since. I loved music and I loved NYC and spent much of my summertimes going to every concert I could in Central Park, for their outdoor concert series, and to any bar I could get into, using my fake ID.
I also remember I started hanging out with a group of young bikers and I remember going to get togethers with biker groups in the city, with names like South Side Shifters and Ching-a- Ling Nomads. It was so many years ago so I might be wrong about the names… Well, since I wasn’t going to school any more I had to work, so I got a series of odd jobs. I was a sandwich maker, a coffee wagon lady. I sold jewellery door to door. At 17 I joined a friend working as a cocktail waitress in the city and then became a go go dancer. I had an agent in Manhattan and he would book me in different clubs, mainly in NJ.
When and how did you take your first steps into tattooing?
I had a very informal apprenticeship under the tattooer I had met in 1978. Soon after meeting him I was working pretty much on my own, for a short time In upstate NY in a small college town. Then we opened a shop in NJ and I worked there and underground for the next few years. I also had my first son in 1980. I met the man (whose name she prefers not to mention) who offered to teach me to tattoo, in a club in New Jersey. We were together till I was 31 and he is also the father of my oldest son Matt, who is also a tattooer. He was an opportunist and saw my artistic ability and my aspirations of making a living using my art, as a way to make money. When I met him he had just come back from California and presumably had worked for such notable tattooers as Bob Shaw, Colonel Todd and Al Orsini.
He had been in some legal trouble from what I remember and he worked under an alias. I’ve tattooed near military bases, mainly Army posts, for over thirty years, so very many of my tattoos were single, one session pieces, picked from flash off the wall, which often reflected the trends of the times. I’ve always enjoyed tattooing images of people, animals and floral designs. And though I love the look of colour I prefer working in black and gray. When I first started tattooing the artists that I looked up to were Ed Hardy, Greg Irons and Don Nolan. Those were the ones whose work I remember seeing and being inspired by.
From a technical standpoint I appreciated tattoos which I felt would stand the test of time.
Even though that may not have been my motivation or inspiration at the time. I liked consistency in line work and solid colour. But I tried to apply that to the things that I enjoyed drawing at the time, faces or the human figure or other natural elements which I would try for results which were softer in appearance than the traditional tattoos of the period. In 1984 I moved to Florida, and after a nearly ten year absence from school, I was accepted to and attended college. I majored in graphic arts and advertising with a minor in fine arts. I raised my son, went to school and tattooed all at the same time! After 3 years I left school but much of what I learned, from design to typography, I applied also to my tattooing.
Who have you been tattooed by? And who are you favourite tattoo artists?
My right arm and my leg are done by Trevor McStay Dynamic Tattoo, in Victoria, Australia – so it goes without saying that I love his aesthetic and execution. Most of my husband Don’s bodysuit is by Henning Jorgensen, he has been a constant source of study and I’m impressed by the longevity of his work. I also love Mike Dorsey’s work! He is so prolific and I am impressed by his need for very little sleep and his great sense of humour! I have loved looking at Thomas Hooper’s work for years and remember emailing him years ago to ask what his inspiration was and his being very forthcoming.
I also love Robert Ryan’s work. It moves me and it looks very raw and honest. His paintings and prints have adorned my station since I opened my shop, Eagle River Tattoo. I’ve never met Rose Hardy but I always recognize her work and I’m a great admirer. As I’ve mentioned, there are so many people whose work I see on social media and I’m amazed at the amount of great work there is and there are too many to name. Right now though, two people I’ve been following are @onnieolearytattoo and @lord_lips. I think Onnie is fearless. Her work is blatantly sexual, erotic and unapologetic. Good for her!!! And Lord_lips , a very mysterious artist and his tattoos are beautiful and ethereal. Very inspiring!
Do you remember your feelings when you first saw a tattoo? And when did you get your own first tattoo?
Both my dad and uncle had tattoos. My dad had a skull with a snake and my uncle had a pin up. I was very fascinated by them. Tattooing was illegal, as you know, in NYC, from 1961 to 1997 so I really didn’t see a lot of tattoos around. When I was a teenager some of my friends travelled to NJ, to get tattooed by an artist named Len Weber. I remember being really enamoured with the work. It was totally different from the tattoos I was used to seeing. Finer lines and greater use of colour blending. I got my first tattoo in 1979 in a kitchen in Arizona soon after meeting the tattooer who offered to teach me how to tattoo. I hated it and had him cover it (also not to my liking) I haven’t had it worked on since 1984 – I still hate it but it’s on my lower back so I rarely see it.
When or how did you realize tattooing was something you were interested in pursuing? And as a woman, what comparisons did you have, when thinking of starting tattooing in a male dominated scene? Did you know of other women tattooing? If so, who inspired you?
I was young, only 19, and had aspirations of making a living as an artist so when this tattooer I met offered to teach me I was really excited. Up until then and really for a few years after I knew very little about the tattoo industry. The people I encountered and the names I heard of in my first few years had no relevance. There were few resources to learn from other than oral history at the time. I think the first tattoo shop I was ever in was Debi Kienel’s (Debi The Illustrator) in NJ. Perhaps in 1980. The women tattooers that I can remember first hearing about in the very early 80s were Pat Sinatra, Debi Kienel, DebbieLenz, Debbie Inksmith, Suzanne Fauser, Julie Moon, Vyvyn Lazonga, Jacci Gresham, Sissy and Cindy Stroemple.
Which contemporary female tattooers do you think are relevant nowadays and why? Who would you personally have loved to work with or get tattooed by?
I know this may sound like a cop out but there are too many women’s work that I enjoy looking at or that inspires me and for me to say one more than another would negate the great work of someone I might forget to mention. And I know I’ll forget someone I would have liked to mention and then I’ll feel bad. Oddly enough I’ve been tattooed by only a few women – souvenir tattoos, like Ms. Sofia, Ms. Judy, Jill Bonny Horiyuki, Jen Carmean, Valerie Vargas and Maryjoy. But they’re all so meaningful!
Your story is pretty much history… just like your great friendship with Paul Rogers. Would you tell us something about it?
In 1984 I moved to the Daytona Beach area of Florida. I had previously tattooed there during Bike Week – an event that draws thousands of people to the area. It was then that I was introduced to Paul Rogers. Paul had already retired from tattooing at that time and was working full time building his custom tattoo machines. He was also in the process of trying to organize years of correspondence and memorabilia that he had amassed, to donate (which eventually went to The Tattoo Archives and The Paul Rogers Research Center).
I was in a very unhappy and toxic relationship at home – so my friendship and visits with Paul were a real blessing for me.
Paul was a simple man who didn’t put on airs. He was very wise and would share his lifetime of stories, experiences and knowledge with his many friends & visitors. Unfortunately I lost my dad, my grandfather and Paul all within the same year.
Can you tell us what is the most relevant things that tattooing and Paul have taught you above all in your experience?
I think Paul tried to impart to me his love and respect for tattooing and his appreciation for a community of tattooers. And even though I don’t have the historical or mechanical knowledge that he had to share, I have tried to carry that same spirit of giving and camaraderie with me for the years that I have tattooed.
You have 40 years of tattooing under your belt…how would you say women have progressed – or not – in this industry? Is there a particular situation you can recall about discrimination or double standards before it became a popular topic?
There are so many tattooers today, working at all levels of skill and talent. In my opinion the tattoo business could be a dangerous place for a young woman to navigate before the turn of this century – so few women were involved. Now that women are an equal and in some areas greater part of the tattoo business, they are able to fail or excel at the same rate as their male counterparts. When I was a young tattooer men would often refuse to get tattooed by me because of my gender OR request that I tattoo them because of it.
Men I worked with would try to take liberties with me, physical gestures and sexist remarks were the norm. Unfortunately it was a societal thing that, at least in my world, has passed – but that‘s probably to do with my advanced age. I am always flattered and appreciative to meet young women tattooers who have come to me or written with kind words of admiration or questions or asking for advice. I have never considered myself an icon among women tattooers. I have tried to navigate honestly through what was mainly a men’s domain.
I never used my “feminine wiles” as either a means to get a job or to keep one.
At every shop I worked at I found it necessary, especially as a young woman, to never allow either coworkers or customers to mistake friendliness for flirtation. And I’ve been a bit dismayed and surprised to learn later that more than a few relationships which I thought were friendly in nature, were instead fuelled by sexual attraction on their part.
You recently declared you need to back away from tattooing because of health problems. What advice would you give to tattooers to avoid getting messed up while tattooing? What would you have done differently?
I’ve had to take a break due to some ongoing physical problems due to tattooing. Right now I’m dealing with a torn labrum and bicep on my right arm which is due to the repetitive nature of our job. I’ve written about being a survivor of physical abuse at the hands of a former partner. I think a lot of the damage incurred then has followed me both physically and emotionally. My advice to young tattooers would be just to take care of yourselves – your bodies and your minds – your well being.
Lets talk about 2020. Covid 19 and the Black Lives Matter movement have impacted us all in a major and dramatic way. How do you think this has changed the tattoo industry and community?
Looking back at when you started and nowadays where do you think tattooing is headed?
Who would have ever imagined even just a few months ago that we’d be dealing with a pandemic and worldwide protests against racial injustice – specifically the treatment of black people – all together? I really can’t speak on Covid 19. We’ve been trained in cross contamination/blood borne pathogens. Since this is an airborne virus our risk would be greater due to our close proximity to our clients and the time we spend with them. Obviously we’ve all been given new restrictions and guidelines to work under but I think it’s taking an emotional toll on us all as well. Prior to moving to Alaska I lived and worked in the southern states.
I am a person of colour and I’m Jewish. As a naive northerner I tattooed many a confederate flag – off of flash on the walls of the shops I worked at – with no greater thought than that they lost the civil war. I tattooed people who would show me photos of their Klan parades and discuss their skin head parties and people who talked about getting fed breakfasts by the Black Panther Party. I worked for a mixed race tattooer in Kentucky who, when he came to the US from Germany with his parents, had to go to a different school than his white brother because of segregation. He always said he’d do whatever racist tattoo they wanted cause he was getting paid and he was marking them with who they were. It’s funny I worked with four other brown people at one shop and white people would always ask if we were a family business. Which we weren’t. I don’t know where the tattoo business is headed. It is so segmented now. Four of my children are tattooing so wherever it goes I hope it’s for the better!!
The love story between you and Don is really inspiring. You seem like a very happy couple, tattooing and family oriented. What is the ultimate secret to a happy marriage, while living and working together?
Don and I will be married for 29 years in November, but we met about 32 years ago at a tattoo shop where we both worked. We were friends first and I like to think I was instrumental in his getting into tattooing. When we married I think we both took our vows very seriously. We had mutual desires and interests. I already had one son when we married, of whom I had sole custody. We started a family right away and had five more children. One of our sons died as an infant and I think the grief that we shared bound us closer together. Like I said, four of our children tattoo now and it’s a great honour and source of joy that our children have seen that we love what we do, and we have made a life and raised a family doing so and that now they want to do it too. And this really bound us together!
What’s in your future?
My hope is that after physical and/or surgery for my shoulder and arm that I am able to return to tattooing for at least one or two days a week – or as long as people will get tattooed by me. After that I would like to start painting or drawing more. I love the look of altered art and assemblages and that appeals to me. I also plan on spending more time with our grandkids and beloved bulldogs!