This Ancient Tattoo Style Is Filling Up Our Instagram Feeds
We’re already dreaming of where to put Tea Leigh's designs.
Many things come to mind when one imagines a tattoo studio—machines humming, walls covered in flash art, male artists with full sleeves, loud music. For much of American tattoo culture, that scene is the norm. But for anyone who has ever felt intimidated by a tattoo shop’s hectic atmosphere, there’s one artist in Brooklyn who’s offering a more therapeutic experience.
I meet Tea Leigh, one of the co-founders of Welcome Home, at her sun-drenched studio tucked away in one of north Greenpoint’s most industrial sectors, and am immediately struck by the 9-foot tree blossoming in the corner. “It came with the space!” she exclaims while showing me around the shop. The chic waiting area complete with vintage velvet couches feels more like a familiar living room than a business, and offers clients a complete view of the minimalist room. Everything is calm, transparent, and aesthetically pleasing. “Part of the reason we named it ‘Welcome Home’ is because we wanted you to walk in and [think], ‘I am totally safe here. Anything I say doesn’t leave these walls.’”
It’s no accident that the most striking part of the space is the veritable lack of noise, rare in the world of tattooing (remember those buzzing machines?). Tea and her fellow artists all tattoo in the hand-poke style, meaning their tools are limited, simply, to needles and ink. “It’s the oldest form of tattooing known to man. It [existed] before electricity was even invented. They are constantly finding mummy sarcophagi that have tattoos on them.” Although many tattooers pursue an apprenticeship in a traditional shop, Tea was determined to create her own path. “I think what drew me into it was that it’s a really intimate experience. I was tattooing my friends, and I just started pursuing it because it was gentler and more approachable than going to get an apprenticeship.”
The crew at Welcome Home is notable not only for their talent and popularity on social media, but for the fact that they are all female-identifying. “As far as I know, we’re the only all-women, all-hand-poke studio in America. Really, until the last five years, tattooing has been an extremely male-dominated field, and God bless the women who have pushed their way through and fought to be tattooers. I’m eternally grateful for them.” Now as co-head of the shop with Kelli Kikcio, Tea is striving to create an inclusive, supportive environment for their clients. “You don’t have the male gaze in here, and I think that enables women to feel more comfortable. I cannot stress enough how important the connection is between my clients and me. Every single person that walks in my door has changed my life in some capacity. That is the power of having a female-run studio.”
Many people, self-included, view tattooing as an alternative form of therapy, and Tea agrees. “I help a lot of people reclaim their bodies from whatever they’ve been through, trauma or body dysmorphia. I have so many women that come in and they’re like, ‘I hate my legs.’ And I [say], ‘Let’s tattoo your legs.’ And then they’ll come in the next time, like, ‘I love my legs since you tattooed them!’ You know, I’m just here to make you feel good about yourself. That’s all I care about. It’s a very intimate experience.” Her clients are drawn to her signature renderings of hands and flowers, but the artist does admit to having a favorite design. “I love anything creepy or witchy or dead. I love tattooing bugs or skulls. That’s my favorite stuff to draw—anything dark and kind of twisty.”
With the debut of the new shop, Tea has plenty of things to keep her busy (seriously—she’s been booked solid for months), but that doesn’t mean she’s limiting her ideas to just tattooing. “I’m toying around with doing a podcast of interviews [with] people while I tattoo them. I hear incredible stories, where we’re both in tears at the end of the conversation. [When you’re getting tattooed] you’re already very vulnerable, and you’re also in pain, so you’re just saying anything to get away from that pain. Sometimes that means moving towards a more painful conversation to have it kind of intersect. That’s really beautiful to me. It’s magic.”