The tattoo industry has long been a male-dominated, street shop atmosphere that may not be comfortable for everyone who wants to get a tattoo. Alice Guerin, who owns Knot Eye Studio, is catering to individuals who want a different tattoo experience. Her studio is a quiet, cozy, and colorful space. Here in Indy we have many tattoo artists that are breaking the mold and creating safe spaces for anyone who wants to get a tattoo. We discussed the benefits of more solo shops opening up, what the design process is for her work, and why it’s important that sexual harassment in the industry is being called out.
Tell me about yourself & Knot Eye Studio.
I started [tattooing] in 2012. I was taught by Amory Abbott, who was my professor at Herron in Illustration. He took me on and I worked with him for about six months in Fishers, it’s called Treehouse Tattoo. I ended up working there for about two years. I worked with him for that amount of time and then he left the state, and I couldn’t really find a job anywhere else. No one wanted to hire me. I did work at a street shop for like, a day. It was a sexist community, and it was enough that I didn’t go back after a day. I decided to open my own space. I had applied everywhere I could think of in town and nobody was interested. When I started Knot Eye, which would have been in 2014, it was initially in the Murphy building in Fountain Square. It’s now a hallway, they’ve ripped out my room. I was up there for two years, and came into this space I’m at now.
Are you the only one working there?
Howl and Hide used to be in the front room and I was in the back. Howl and Hide is across the street now. Cory, who runs Whoops Tattoo, tattoos out of the back space doing hand-poke tattoos. He’s been there with me for about two years now. We don’t work at the same time, and we technically don’t work together. We’re legally separate spaces, but it’s nice to have him around.
Do you exclusively design all the tattoos yourself? What does the process look like for you and the client?
There’s three different paths that I take. The most simple one is if someone sends me an idea or design that’s already done. I will do that if there is either permission from the person who designed it, or if it’s an old piece of art like an Aubrey Beardsley piece or a Picasso or something like that. If I feel like I can accomplish it well and it’s similar to my style and I find it interesting, I’ll do those. That’s my smallest category. The middle category would be the pieces that I design. Then the main category, the most work that I get, is people sending me an idea. They’ll send me picture references, descriptions of what they want, and I’ll have a consultation with them over the phone or in person. Usually it’s in person for a half an hour. We’ll discuss what style they like, if they want thick lines or thin lines, what pieces will go best on what body parts, how we can bring in movement and space, and discuss composition and all that. I get an okay from them. Usually people will say, “I trust you, do what you want with this idea.” So I have a certain parameter that I work within. It’s ultimately my design that they’re getting that they’ll see the day before they get the tattoo.
How would you describe your art in one sentence?
Simple, fine line, illustrative designs.
Where do you get influences for your art?
I feel like it’s kind of… everything. I’m a big nature person and I go on a lot of walks, especially during the pandemic since there’s not much else to do. Flowers around the neighborhood are really inspiring to me, patterns and clothing are exciting, and things I see online. I really love Japanese art. I don’t take a ton of direct influence from that, but I find it really inspiring and I’m sure it plays into my work more than I think. Probably the body is the biggest inspiration, because everything I design has to be based around musculature. I don’t want it to look like a sticker, there’s a place for that and it looks great, but for bigger pieces I really want it to work with how your body moves. Regardless of what the person’s idea is, the first thing I look at is that shape and that’s the inspiration.
What kind of old art do you like?
I love Aubrey Beardsley. Kandinsky is amazing. Dürer is good for line work inspiration, and any old etchings. Matisse, I love Matisse. He’s wonderful. I have a lot, but I would say that those are some of the ones at least for tattooing inspiration.
When did you get your first tattoo?
I think I had already done a few tattoos before I got one. I was 21 when I got my first tattoo, and it was a bee, which now I put a window around it. It’s the window from the Murphy, my first shop, but the bee itself is separate and that was my first one.
Do you think being a woman brings unique challenges or advantages to your job?
Yes. I feel there’s a very large power shift in tattooing. It’s been male dominated for a long time. When I first started tattooing I felt like I wasn’t taken as seriously. In an interview I had, I felt like everyone was just looking down their nose at me and didn’t think I would know my stuff. That was really frustrating and challenging. Now being a woman in it, I feel like it has an advantage because more and more people realize that they can be in a space that is safe. I feel like I have an advantage with that, being a woman. That’s also more about me being in my own space versus being in a shop. There’s not people looking over you, there’s not loud music and tons of people, but also there’s no men. So whether you’re a woman or a man, it’s a quieter space and it’s easier to feel comfortable. Cory’s space is in the back, and he’s a guy. Women feel just as safe with him, and I think that’s more of a personality thing and how you respect the job, and how you respect the power that you have. In tattooing you have a huge amount of power. I am with somebody who’s vulnerable, letting me permanently mark their body, trusting my art, and trusting me touching them. Now in the pandemic they’re trusting me to be healthy and safe. I think about half of that has to do with being a woman, but it has definitely given me challenges in the past and I think there are a lot of new doors open in the future because of it.
As sexual harassment has been being called out in a male dominated art industry, how do you feel women can continue to strengthen a sense of safety and comfortability for clients?
It had been happening, in Indiana specifically, for the past few years with some people being called out in Fort Wayne. I’m glad that now people are learning not only can they get a good tattoo by seeking out somebody they actually want to do their work, but they can also seek out specific spaces. I don’t know if you heard these stories growing up, but I used to hear, “Oh you can go to that shop down the street. He told me he’d give me $50 off if I showed him my tits.” I used to see and hear things like that all the time, and I think it’s getting better and better because of “cancel culture” if you will, or “call out culture” because now they’re not in hiding. It’s not a secret anymore. More people are going to feel comfortable bringing it out and saying this person is racist, this person is a rapist, or even just this person made me uncomfortable. Hopefully people can realize if they were doing things unintentionally, they can learn from that. And if they’re doing it intentionally they can get nixed, and nobody will have to deal with their bullshit ever again. I guess that’s kind of where it is. I think it’s getting really popular for people to open their own spaces, smaller spaces that are more open to queer tattooers or people of color, and women owned spaces. None of that really existed before. Now there’s so many more options. If you want to go to a traditional street shop that’s awesome, but if you wanted to find a small community of people that are like you, you’ve got that option too.
What is the most rewarding part of your job?
The people are wonderful. I’ve met a lot of friends through it. I have really intimate, long conversations, because I’m in that position where you’re vulnerable. It’s really easy to get to know each other in that time. I also feel vulnerable because I’m like, “Oh my god. I’m doing my own personal thing on you, and you’re gonna have it forever, and it better be good.” I feel like when we’re both feeling that way it’s really easy to get to know people. It’s really cool to see my tattoos in the wild and receiving positive feedback from that. It all feels really special and I feel really lucky. It’s the coolest job.
What advice would you give to aspiring tattoo artists?
I think the biggest thing would be to draw a ton. Don’t just copy and draw flash tattoos, come up with your own stuff and your own designs. It’s so easy to get sucked into one style. It’s possible that you have something really special of your own to share. Just do a lot of it. Draw a lot. I know it’s a really hard world to break into. I got really lucky with my experience of starting, but I know it’s really competitive and it’s really difficult. Don’t give up if it’s something you really want to do. Push yourself past all the obstacles, because it can be very exclusionary especially as a woman. Trying to get a job at a shop full of men might be a little more challenging than if you can find some women to work with, at least to start. I think just draw a ton and don’t let people tell you no. It’s deceivingly easy to do on your own. I’ve tattooed on my own since I was like 23, and it’s a really easy way to start a business as a young person. Instagram is a great tool. It’s way more fun than having a boss.