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Posted on Sep 25, 2018

One Muslim Woman's Experience as a Tattoo Apprentice

Shanzey Afzal knew that her tattoo apprenticeship wasn't going to be a walk in the park. What she didn’t know was that it would be an uphill battle, fighting to learn more as a woman and facing both verbal and sexual harassment from clientele. 

Shanzey Afzal can distinctly remember the events that took place within the red brick walls of the tattoo shop. Reflecting back on her time as an apprentice in a small town in New York, she says there’s a shock value in being a female tattoo artist. While she’s learned everything she knows from her apprenticeship, the experience was largely overclouded by the discrimination she faced as a female artist from male clientele. After all, it’s difficult to pursue your passion while being verbally harassed time and time again, getting requests from strangers to tattoo them topless and being reduced to a fetish.

An apprenticeship is when an aspiring tattoo artist learns all about tattooing from someone who works in the field. While self-taught tattooing is one way to get into the industry, apprenticeships are the most popular and respected way to learn the craft. Lasting anywhere between 1-5 years, apprentices often have to earn their stripes and essentially do the tasks the main artist doesn’t want to: clean bathrooms, keep the shop and stations tidy, administrative work, etc. Think about stereotypical “intern” tasks and you get the gist. Anything else they get to do during that time is highly dependent on the artist that has taken them under their wing, but how they learn to tattoo is by watching their artist teach techniques and skills, and taking on clients themselves.

On the one hand, Shanzey’s experience was an invaluable one because she learned everything she knows about tattooing. On the other hand, Shanzey recalls that it was definitely not a great experience. The issue didn’t lie in her mentor, who she says she had a (mostly) positive relationship with. He had no qualms or hesitation with hiring a female tattoo artist since one of his idols, Sailor Jerry, had done so in the past. The issue then, largely laid in the shop’s clientele. Given the walk-in nature of the shop, potential clients would simply enter and and see a female tattoo artist. As a result they'd seek out her work for the novelty of it instead of the talent.

“A lot of men would come in and just want to be close to me. They would use the opportunity to be tattooed as a way to hit on me,” says Shanzey. “I had a customer ask me to pose nude for them, I got emails asking if I would tattoo them topless, like I got really egregious things that it seems like a lot of female tattoo artists get.”



Her mentor, witness to the actions taking place in his shop, was disgusted by the behaviour but was unsure about how to deal with it. Rather than building a zero-tolerance policy towards harassment or indecency, her mentor tried to protect her by telling her to leave the shop early or sit in the back. While her best interest was at heart, these solutions highly impeded on Shanzey’s time to observe and learn.

“He just really for the first time saw how a woman was treated in a [tattoo] shop and really did not want that in his shop,” says Shanzey. “He definitely had my back, it was hard for him looking back at it. It was hard for everybody honestly. It was hard for me, it impeded on my ability to observe, which is a lot of my apprenticeship.”

While she knew that apprenticeships aren’t a walk in the park, she didn’t know that it would be an uphill battle, fighting to learn more as a woman. Not only was it difficult to truly observe and gain the skills needed, but her designs were also often criticized as being too feminine and she was told to make them bolder. While this isn’t all the same for all tattoo shops, she says many seem to frown upon the feminine energy of some designs.

“A lot of women have told me that they come into a tattoo shop wanting something and they get something different. They wanted a delicate rose and they got a really tough-looking rose. I wanted to make sure that my clients always got what they wanted, even if it was feminine,” says Shanzey. “Your body is so sacred, and a tattoo artist has to respect that. It’s not just a canvas, it’s a person.”



Growing up being surrounded by henna tattoos, Shanzey was interested in tattoos at a young age. Whether it was for holidays, celebrations, or weddings, she enjoyed the women-only practice of creating, drawing, and decorating each others' bodies. It was only natural after her experiences in a traditional tattoo shop that she felt the need to create a women-only tattoo service that empowers and emboldens female clients.

As so, Ink Minx was created. The mobile tattoo studio prides itself on being a safe-space that provides a positive, client-tailored experience. From her time as an apprentice she often noticed that women would come into the shop wanting to be tattooed by another woman, “I think there’s an intimidation factor in traditional tattoo shops, where women don’t feel comfortable going there.” While everyone’s tastes and preferences are different, some women may feel a comfort in having a female artist.

Ink Minx is currently located in the New York area, however it’s currently raising money to go on tour. Shanzey recently launched a Kickstarter campaign, with the hopes to raise the funds to allow her to tour across the country. Her plan is to hit up Philly, D.C., Atlanta, and end her time in Miami at the Aqua Art festival. Eventually, she’d love to take Ink Minx further and not be limited to the United States.



“I get emails from around the world, from non-traditional and non-conservative women, but also Muslim and Jewish women,” says Shanzey. Unlike most tattoo artists, Shanzey comes from a Muslim background, and engages in a forbidden practice to her culture. Offering her services to other vulnerable demographics plays a huge role in her identity as an artist, knowing the power of tattoos and their potential to heal and help individuals.

“I have tattoos that remind me of my travels, I have tattoos that remind me of my strength for coming out of domestic violence,” shares Shanzey. “I had an abortion, so I have several tattoos to honor and they’ve helped me understand that experience too. It was extremely traumatic to me and the tattoos helped me heal. They can be forms of closure, empowerment, motivation. They can really remind you of your strengths or your experiences in a positive way. It’s a way to reclaim your space or reclaim your body if your body has been violated.”

No matter their sex or gender identity, everyone should feel comfortable when getting tattooed. Whether that’s dependent on the artist, the space, or your state-of-mind, more tattoo artists should work towards the goal of making their client feel at ease. “I think it should be a very mindful process, with intention,” says Shanzey.

You can learn more about Ink Minx here, and support her Kickstarter here.