When thinking of badass women in the world of tattooing, many names come to my mind but one in particular stands out. That is Jen Carmean, New Jersey tattooer, biker, artist, mother and all around bad ass chick! First time I met her it was at a Philadelphia convention, few years back and I loved her and respected her work right away.
Jen Carmean has been unstoppable since the day she started tattooing, 23 years ago!
She is that kind of girl who is very determined when she sets her mind into something, and that wouldn’t take no for an answer. Her attitude towards work and life is what strikes me. She is also putting out there an impressive amount of quality work, mostly japanese inspired. She can also hang out and be quite hilarious, knowing when is the time to joke and when to be serious and work! And that’s exactly why we all like her!
She has built a name for herself in the tattoo industry on her own, by working hard, growing and fighting stereotypes, one tattoo at the time! It’s not a chance that she was elected tattooer of the year by the National Tattoo Association in 2018… A big accomplishment if you ask me! I take a little trip out of NY to New Jersey to go visit Jen in her brand new location and I’m glad I did!
Where did you grow up, what was your background?
I grew up in a small town in Northern New Jersey called Pompton Plains. My Dad was an insurance adjuster and my Mom was a social worker. My parents worked hard to support my brother and me. The town itself was very blue collar working class, but a nice place to grow up. Very typical american suburbia.
Do you remember when you first discover tattooing?
I have a very vivid memory of watching the Gregory Peck version of Moby Dick with my Dad. When Queequeg first came on screen, I was instantly transfixed. (Even though in the film the markings on his face are made to look more like scarification than tattoos) I turned to my dad instantly and said I was going to do that to my face. He was not pleased and told me that only criminals did that. I remember his reaction as pretty funny. I was only about 6 at the time, and I wasn’t even sure he meant what he was saying. It was shortly after that that I started drawing all over myself in earnest. I would curiously ask to look at any tattoo that I saw from that point on. It was the 70’s and I’m pretty sure that that was the first time that I was really made aware of them. It was a rarity to see them then, and it was not nearly as out there then. Undeterred by every warning I started getting tattooed as soon as I was old enough.
What made you decide to start tattooing? How did it happen for you?
I graduated college in 1991 with a fine arts degree. I was going to go into textile design. Unfortunately, the timing was such that I was the last class to be taught to generate pattern by hand. My education was obsolete at that point. I moved out west to Las Vegas and started working for Harley Davidson. From there I picked up painting jackets and bikes for the customers that came in. In 1994, I went to Sturgis with some friends and a couple bikes I painted. While up there I saw Jaime Olivas walking down the street. She had a gorgeous black and grey dragon over half her body, that I had seen in magazines. That tattoo helped make Tony Olivas famous.
That’s how I met Tony. He tattooed me and took a look at one of the bikes I had painted and offered to help me learn to tattoo. I couldn’t move to Atlanta at the time, but he put the name of a shop in my hand back in Vegas where I went and spoke to a woman who was running the place at the time. She had been left on her own by the owners to run the place and clearly needed help. Her name was Anne Morando, and she is still tattooing in Oregon. She was only in it about 6 months at the time, but neither of us really understood how crazy that was at the time. The owners eventually sent a piercer from Chicago named Anna Howell to work that end of the shop and she immediately saw we were in trouble. She was good friends with a guy named Creeper and convinced him to come help us.
He made sure that we learned proper tattooing, skill set and ethics, and it’s him I credit as my teacher.
Describe your beginnings… What was the main challenge for you?
It was crazy. It was a busy street shop in Vegas in 94. There were three shops in the whole city. We were upstairs from a bail bondsman and a methadone clinic. It was not unusual to have naked people running around the shop. There were a good number of Bikers, drug addicts, criminals, hookers and dancers. It really was like that then. Fringe business that served mostly outsiders. I guess the main challenge was just holding your ground in a place like that, and try to learn, make a living and not get the shit beaten out of you.
Did you ever encounter any double standard being a female in a (once) mostly male world?
I was told early on to neither call attention to or exploit the fact that I was female if I was ever going to be taken seriously by anyone. I know I’m not the only one in my generation of women tattooers who owned nothing but jeans and t shirts. I am glad of it too. I wouldn’t want to be treated any differently. In the beginning, it wasn’t so much a double standard as it was just open sexism, and mostly from the clients. I was told several times that I shouldn’t be tattooing. That I looked like a slut with tattoos. I had a guy tell me that while I tattooed him. I had a woman refuse to get work from me, and refused to let her son be tattooed by me. He was tattooed by the apprentice instead, and later tried to complain about the job. Years later, the mother asked to be tattooed by me, and I had the satisfaction of turning her down. If anything, I run into the double standard more now than I ever did when I was first learning. For the most part the guys that I worked with at the shops, were all great with me, with a few rare exceptions, and Creeper was always very good to me.
More recently I had a male tattooer that I really loved and respected chastise me in front of a bunch of other tattooers for drinking a beer at 6pm on a Sunday night after a big show… A girlfriend and I were with a big group of people in Richmond when a newly famous guy asked to get a photo with all the tattooers. He put his hand on my chest and pushed me back when my girlfriend and I got up and told us “No girlfriends”. That did not go well for him at the time. Mostly I try not to dwell on anything like that, because it really doesn’t serve me to do so. In the end only the work you do should be doing the talking anyway, right? One thing I don’t do is play into the idea that women need to somehow put themselves out there as sexually desirable in order to get attention for their tattooing. I’ve come to think of that kind of behavior as exploitive on the part of the women that do it, and it just becomes a way for the men to discredit you, and keep them from taking you seriously. I’ve also actually had to hear male tattooers complain that women are getting everything that way without putting the work or time in, (invites to shows, articles, etc) which is downright surreal to hear.
I think your tattooing has a very fierce, vibrant and strong component that definitely defines you, as an artist and a person, Do you think that being female can be a point of strength in art?
Thank you! It’s funny I have been told pretty frequently I tattoo like a man! I guess from the time I was a little girl. I never accepted the idea that girls and women couldn’t do anything that men could do. I felt it was fundamentally unfair, and I just set about doing what I wanted to do regardless. I was constantly underestimated, and I still am to this day.
That’s always useful, but I really just try and be out there as ME.
Of course, when you do finally bust out the dress and the makeup around people used to seeing you in jeans and a t shirt, that’s fun too. But that doesnt make me a tattooer, my work does.
How has your style developed in time and why did you chose to focus mostly on japanese art?
In college I largely concentrated on textile design, and minored in painting. I tried to bring a lot of that into my tattooing. textile design was really useful when designing for women, and I still really enjoy doing pieces that are based in that. Trying to bring the painting stuff in was far less successful. I did a lot of work without outlines, or black. I did a couple oil painting reproductions that I got a ton of attention for. I had to go back and redo so much of it. So much time going into that stuff to have it age so poorly, and I had been warned. As a result, I went back to all the fundamentals and my style changed completely. Strong outlines, more black (when in doubt, the answer is always more black).
I don’t know that I made a conscience choice to focus on Japanese, but I have been attracted to that style of tattooing since I was a kid. When I started getting more heavily tattooed, it’s what I sought for myself, and I guess my enthusiasm for it transferred to a few of my regulars and it just grew from there. Also, there aren’t very many tattooers in suburban NJ making that kind of work, so I think I got a lot of it by default, which is fine with me. It’s challenging, so it keeps me fully engaged while I’m working on it. I still struggle with backgrounds and other aspects of designing it. It requires a lot of study, and I like that. It helps me to feel more invested in what I’m doing, and it keeps you humble.
Which are your favorite contemporary female tattooers?
There are quite a few actually. Pat Sinatra will always be at the top of my list. I came up seeing her work all the time as we worked in the same area. Her work has always been so beautiful, just gorgeous. Judy Parker, Junii Salmon, Darcy Nutt, Cindy Maxwell, Claudia DeSabe , Wendy Pham, Emma Griffiths, Kelly Violet Lynn Akura, Christina Ramos… There are SO MANY now that are soo good, I couldn’t even name all of them.
Who mostly inspire you on a daily base?
Well, that’s a laundry list too. Filip Leu, Mike Dorsey, Henning Jorgensen, Shige, Alex Rusty, Johan Svahn, Joao Bosco as well as the women listed above… So many great tattooers working now. I’ll think of a hundred more once this is sent, but these are the names that come to mind right off the bat.
You are constantly traveling, doing conventions and guest spots… do you consider this the soul of tattooing or is it enough just to lock yourself in a studio with internet nowadays?
It is definitely not enough to sit in your studio. For me, traveling has been the key to everything. There is no replacement for meeting and working with others outside your comfort zone. It is always good to see what’s happening out there. It’s very easy to trick yourself into thinking you are great when you are busy at home, but traveling always puts you back in your place. For me, it’s a reminder that tattooing is a greased pole, and you will only be able to maintain your spot on it if you keep working, stretching and growing. Part of that is going out into the world where you can see for yourself that you aren’t the cat’s ass you think you are at home, if you know what I mean.
You recently decided to let go of the street shop that you had for many years, to open up a new private studio… what led you to this decision?
I had my street shop for 13 years, and had worked out of that location for almost 22 years. I never liked being the boss, I have only ever been interested in tattooing itself and not running a large shop. I also came to understand that I only had so much time left to really accomplish something. I lucked into an appropriate space, and I decided positive change was definitely preferable to what felt like slow suicide. Time to get really good, or die trying I guess. There are no distractions, no ringing phone. Just the work, and that suits me fine. Tattooing has always been my best friend, so it’s great. You love it, it loves you back. I do host guest artists frequently though, and that is lots of fun.
Tell me what else you love doing in your spare time, apart from tattooing…
Most of my spare time is spent with my husband and son. My boy loves to draw so I love doing that with him. I have a Softail Harley that I ride when there is half a minute. I’m a total gym rat too. I work out mornings to keep my inner squirrel at bay. I really love to box. I may eventually see where that goes. Watch out!