When I walked into High Hopes Tattoo on Himrod Street in Bushwick, wife and wife tattoo duo Alexandra Abril and Monikka Pagkalinawan were preparing for the Villain Arts Tattoo Convention in New Orleans. They were excitedly taping up boxes and prepping materials before leaving town to take part in the three-day event.
High Hopes Tattoo, owned by the couple’s close friend Ashley Ketner, was slated to open in April 2020 but had to delay opening due to COVID-19. Until opening day arrived, Abril said she was scared. “We didn’t know if it was gonna be okay,” added Abril, explaining that the nature of tattooing, which involves open wounds and blood, initially brought the industry into particularly close scrutiny.
Once New York State allowed tattoo parlors to reopen in July 2020, High Hopes finally opened its doors. “Turns out people were dying to get tattooed,” Abril said, laughing.
As a June 2020 GQ article confirmed, interest in tattoos surged during the height of lockdown, when people had a ton of time on their hands. High Hopes reaped the rewards of that bent up tattoo demand, booking clients and gaining popularity as a queer woman-owned shop.
Though the shop’s success has its artists traveling to tattoo, Abril has deep roots right here in Bushwick. “I love this neighborhood. It’s home,” Abril said as she gestured around her.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
TS: You grew up in Bushwick. What’s it like to work here?
AA: I was born and raised here. I love it here. I know everything around here, so I feel like I can go down the block and know who’s going to be there. You know what I mean? Like I have a great connection with somebody that works at a pharmacy across the street from us, which makes it feel like home. I don’t think I would be able to experience that anywhere else.
TS: What kinds of tattoos do you do?
AA: I do a black work style. I love using dark, bold lines. I love making a statement. I love doing floral work, horror pieces and witchy stuff. Anything magical.
TS: Who are your typical clients?
AA: I get a lot of millennials with the same interests, people who like witchy tattoos and are interested in the same things. I’ve also definitely gotten a lot of Hispanic clients. I love my people. I love when I can instantly have a bond, a connection, even by just speaking in Spanish. I think it helps some clients feel instantly welcomed.
TS: What do you love about tattooing?
AA: I’m passionate about art. I love making art, and I love body modification. For me, body modification is a way you can express yourself and change the way you look to make yourself feel comfortable. We are obviously born in our bodies the way we are, but we can make little changes to make ourselves more true to who we are. Why not? Expressing yourself is what it’s all about.
TS: How did you get into tattooing?
AA: I got into tattooing by becoming a laser technician. I was trained in doing the opposite of what I do now. I did laser tattoo removal. l I did it because I wanted to get into the industry. To become a laser technician in New York City, you basically have to become a nurse. So it was a lot of training. The transition from laser to tattooing was a major change, but it wasn’t as different as I expected. Going into tattooing, it was a big bonus that I had already seen it all, like scarring, healing poorly, tattoos that are poorly done and everything else that you think about when it comes to tattoo care. So now I know what to do and what not to do as a tattoo artist.
TS: What are some challenges you’ve faced in the industry?
AA: It’s hard starting as a woman in this industry. A lot of people will play you and doubt you and tell you that you can’t do it. It’s a very male-owned industry. But it’s getting better every year, it’s getting better every day. You see a lot of new styles and new people getting into the industry. But it’s a challenge at first and you just have to fight through it.
TS: What is it like to be a tattoo artist?
AA: It’s pretty much like I’m a therapist as well. If you’re going through so much pain for hours, what else are you going to do? Talk, right? To get your mind distracted.
Tattooing is sacred. If I’m literally doing something on your body forever. That creates a bond. And if you’re talking to me and you feel welcome and open enough to talk to me about a problem that you’re going through, I love that. I definitely will give you my best advice, advice that I could have taken myself.
Some clients, feeling that they were in a safe space, have really opened up to me. They’ve wondered how everything seems to be so easy for me — with my wife, my job, my kid. I’m happy. For some Hispanic clients, coming out might be really hard, especially if they feel like it’s not okay in their countries. But some have told me things like, ‘It’s just been great talking to you. I’m not scared of telling my mother that I’m queer, I’m not scared of telling anyone that I’m queer.’ That’s been amazing.
Abril’s books are currently closed. She plans to start taking appointments again by early January.
High Hopes Tattoo is located at 446 Himrod St.
Tasha Sandoval is a journalist studying in the Bilingual Journalism Program at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY.
Images: Tasha Sandoval
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