Accelerating Culture

Becca Roach: The Woman Who Tattooed Lady Gaga

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This month, HYPR Magazine’s Avneet Sangha interviewed NYC-based Becca Roach on her life and career as a tattoo artist. Becca Roach has tattooed hundreds, including pop artist, Lady Gaga.

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Cred: Zach Jacobson

What made you want to be a tattoo artist?

The urge to be tattooed came at a really early agemy mom told me I was pretty interested in being a tattooer as early as age six. I didn’t know the name for it, and called it being a “body artist” or something similar. 

I grew up on a dairy farm in a pretty conservative, rural area, and I only knew one person with any tattoos, our family friend and local mechanic. My mom must’ve made the connection, because at some point he sat me down to tell me tattoos gave you cancer. My mom hasn’t admitted it, but she must’ve put him up to it. After art school, I was pretty disappointed with the “art world” as I’d come to know it in NYC, and had really zero interest in becoming a commercial illustrator. I was happy taking bartending gigs at punk rock venues and working as an artists assistant to an exconvict.

A good friend and exboyfriend mentioned tattooing could be a good career for me, and I had my first “ah hah” moment. About a year later, Elvis Crocker took me under his wing at NYHC Tattoo. Tattooing made so much sense. I was spending all my money getting tattooed, my work was hugely influenced by vintage flash, and I thought all the terrible hooligans I met were just the sexiest things. This led to many amazing choices and many equally bad ones. Still, tattooing is the best thing to happen to me.

How do you approach your other artistic projects compared to your tattoos?

I haven’t honestly had a lot of time to dedicate to other artistic projects lately. Time spent out of the studio I dedicate to traveling for work, volunteering my time, or learning new skills, like sailing! I was recently in the line islands of Kiribati volunteering with Sea Stewardship, teaching art and crafts to islanders to encourage entrepreneurship. It’s such an honor to be asked to teach, and share knowledge about being a working artist. I try to encourage everyone to work for themselves.

That unique experience influenced me heavily to start spending more time working on personal work, as being at sea forced me to spend some time with myself. I’ve been working on a series dedicated to the mosquitoes of the world, how gnats don’t stand a chance, and the relentlessness of flies. I’ve gotten into a massive inspiration file I keep digitally. I often refer to sketches I’ve made while riding on trains, planes, or buses. I have black books that span decades at this point. My best and worst stuff are in those. My bestie and I call them “mama likey” books. It’s good to go back and rework some good ideas.

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Cred: Zach Jacobson

What advice would you give to someone who is looking to get into tattooing?

I’ll tell you what John Reardon told me when I asked him to teach me: Don’t do it! It’s a terrible career choice! Someone will make you cry, money is hard, you’ll get ridiculed, it takes a really long time to even get good. Your back will hurt forever, you’ll need therapy! Instead, just go get a lot of tattoos and get a better job with health insurance and security. If you choose to ignore that advice, I’d still recommend getting a lot of tattoos by people whose work inspires you, drawing a ton, asking questions, and being humble. I can’t stress enough how important it is to be humble, in tattooing and in life. Thanks to Rodrigo Melo for that little bit of advice, and a whole lot of good mentoring.

What is it like to have someone wear your artwork permanently?

At first it’s like shitting razor blades, so fucking nerve racking. As time went on and I developed more confidence, it was less terrifying. I’d never had an anxiety attack before I started tattooing. It’s humbling, truly, to say the least. I’m honored that people choose me to adorn their bodies. It’s amazing!

How do your experiences differ being a female tattoo artist?

I’ve been really fortunate to work in some amazing shops in NYC, where sexism wasn’t a thing, at least not really directed at me. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, because GOD KNOWS it does. A lot of my experiences have simply been that if I was standing next to another very tattooed man, people tend to assume he is the tattooer. They end up directing their questions toward my investment banker friend. Or my biker friend. Or my advertising friend. Which is fine, I usually laugh and stay quiet about it.

I get PLENTY of attention for being a heavily tattooed woman. A lot of that attention is negative, unwarranted, sometimes scary. Catcalling in the summer in NYC is terrible. The harassment just never ends. Being heavily tattooed seems to be some kind  of invitation for creeps to shout at me while I’m riding by on my bike. I hate that shit. In some countries I’ve traveled to, people can be more aggressive. I’ve been followed, touched, grabbed at. When you look like a “circus freak” there’s going to be a fair amount of fascination from people in some cultures. I forget that, living in Hawaii and NYC, everyone seems to be tattooed and it’s not so much a thing.

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Cred: Zach Jacobson

Do you think things were easier or harder for you because you are a female in the industry?

Not sure my gender has a lot to do with whether or not things were one way or the other for me in developing my career. I work hard, I stay true to the kind of work I want to do, and work hard at developing great relationships with my clients. If doors were opened or closed to me because I’m a woman, I’m actually unaware of it. There have been a few times in shops where I felt I was disregarded or maybe not quite treated fairly, that has been rare for me. I’ve sought out work environments with educated, intelligent humans, who treat their coworkers as equals. Only small minds would be intimidated by a lady tattooer and try to make “things harder” for me.

What was it like getting to tattoo Lady Gaga and how did that help you change or grow?

She is a total sweetheart, and really fun. The first time I tattooed her was right before the VMA’s where she wore the infamous Meat Dress. She blasted “Born This Way” before it was released, so loudly the neighbors called. I tattooed her sister that day too. Later, it was right after the Tony Bennett record was finished, I tattooed a trumpet on her and our homie, Brian Newman, who introduced us initially. We all went for drinks after and she made an Irish exit once the fans started showing up. She is such a force for positive change, I was stoked to be around that energy. She’s a genuine woman with an immense talent, and an incredible conscience for using her reach for positive impact. I try to take that with me in every experience, I want every client to walk out of my studio feeling that positive energy. I’m so humbled by all of my clients, and their stories.

What new projects are you working on?

Currently working on revamping my website, making some sellable vector clip art, and a huge series of postcards from a recent trip to the South Pacific. As they get finished, they get mailed out to whoever sent me their address late spring. Maybe they’ll mail me one back, or at least include it in a show down the road. I love small art, I love free art, and I particularly love sending original art to homies and strangers.

What rules do you live by?

Stay humble, give thanks, forgive. Live loud, love hard. Ho’oponopono! Buy the ticket, take the ride.

To learn more about Becca and her work you can check out her website or Instagram, @badnewsbecca

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