Dominican tattoo artist Julissa Arlene Rodriguez, known mostly as JAR, is changing the world of tattooing by being themselves; an artist, Latinx, Queer, and a new mother. Traditionally tattooing is often a profession that is male dominated and very white. JAR is diversifying what a tattoo artist can look like, be, and practice as part of their tattooing and artistic practice and business. However, the process to get to where they are now wasn’t always clear, until they began to lean into their spirituality more and listen to the messages from the universe.
“Yeah, I didn’t want to be a tattoo artist,” JAR tells me while we sit in their tattoo studio. The walls are painted a vibrant blue, drafts of art hang on the wall, and soft music plays over their computer speaker while they arrange things for their next tattoo client. “When I thought about tattoos,” they continue, “I thought of those cliche ones; you know the ones. The prayer hands and roses, and Jesus crosses.” They laugh before adding, “And an ex told me to get into tattooing so I didn’t take the suggestion too seriously.”
JAR knew they wanted to pursue art full time as a profession but would often run into difficulty trying to establish consistent work and cashflow. “I wanted to do art and get paid and tried a few different things but they weren’t sustainable. Then tattooing came up again and I decided this was the universe and I had to listen.” A friend of theirs forwarded them a job posting for an assistant at a famous tattoo shop in New York City and told them they should apply.
The tattooing learning process is often set up like an apprenticeship where you are being taught by a seasoned professional, with no pay, and learn while on the job. JAR applied for the job as an assistant to the shop owner and got the job. However, they were direct with the shop owner about wanting to be a tattoo artist and learn how to tattoo so they worked as an assistant doing everything at the shop — even literally washing the ceiling once — and learning — while not getting paid — as an unofficial apprentice.
While at the shop JAR began learning about the health and office management aspects of the job; however, because they weren’t an “official apprentice” they weren’t able to tattoo people at the shop. Their education continued however, and as time went on they began to notice dynamics at the shop that they did not align with. Certain things would happen that would leave them not feeling welcomed, healthy, or like they were actually learning tattooing techniques that were contributing to a decline in their health. “I quit the job the way I always wanted to quit a job. I wrote a two-page letter about what they needed to fix and what was wrong with their establishment, locked the door, and left. They told me not to burn bridges in this field but I was like…” JAR laughs. “I met some great artists there who I still have relationships with.”
After this moment JAR began pursuing tattooing full time and now three years later they are a budding known New York City tattoo artist who works out of the Bronx and has clients that come from all over to get tattooed by them. Although JAR has not done tattooing internationally, their work has crossed borders and connected complete strangers through this common piece of body art; they were once messaged on Instagram by someone who was in Mexico who noticed someone else there also had a JAR tattoo.
“After I left the shop I started with $500 in my account and my next month of rent paid up and just practiced on myself and pig skin all the time.”
Since JAR started tattooing three years ago, their business has grown exponentially because of the amount of intention they put into their work, from intentionally pricing tattoos for communities who desire them to also infusing healing and spirituality into their work. “I started the flash sales because of an experience I had in a homeless shelter in Canada that really changed me. When I got back home I started thinking about ways that I could give back to my community through my work (because I’m a workaholic). Then I noticed my community really wanted tattoos and wanted to heal and work through their traumas.”
Upon looking closer at the items in the studio you’ll notice what seems like an altar; crystals, art, and a little pedestal sit atop one of the shelves along the wall. “I feel like the act and process of getting a tattoo should be a healing process. I have people who tell me getting the tattoo felt like therapy, have cried on the table, or feel like the tattoo they are getting is marking an important moment in their life.”
JAR’s flash sales often coincide with the phases of the moon, changes in the astrological seasons, and include positive affirmations. As a spiritual person, many of the business and artistic practices and processes have a spiritual element to them. The majority of their clients are people of color and increasingly they are seeing more and more trans and gender non-conforming clients of color.
In addition to flash sales of beautiful original art at affordable prices, they are intentional in other ways. “I ask everyone for their pronouns when they come in, I’m Queer so simple things like asking for pronouns can help people feel more comfortable. I also ask them if there are certain parts of their body that might trigger [a traumatic memory] if I touch them there. I’m going to be touching people, I want to make sure that I’m not causing harm while I’m tattooing.” Simple things like this are fundamental to ensuring that people feel welcomed, safe, and relaxed when they are entering a new space, especially one where they are having someone put a permanent piece of art on their body.
Being Latinx and a tattoo artist and having their family understand their process and journey has been a process and a journey of its own.
Their mother supported their desire to get into the arts so much so that she told JAR they had to go to the performing arts school that they got into, rather than into engineering programs. But when JAR began pursuing tattooing full time it was a more complicated story. “I lived with my mom at the time and she stopped talking to me for months after my first tattoo, but now she has come to accept this is just who I am. The more I got into tattooing, shaving my head, and getting piercings the more I felt like myself and liked who was looking back at me in the mirror.” Because of their appearance they are often judged by people walking down the street. “They see me and they think I’m stealing or a ‘certain’ type of person but the reality is I’m a business person and can probably pay their rent three times over. I don’t care though, I’m happy, I’m living how I want.”
Their next client walks in and the exchange shows that JAR is practicing their number one goal with their work, “I’m healing my community one tattoo at a time.” And they are.
You can follow JAR on Instagram to keep up with their work, the conventions they plan on tattooing at this year, and the different cities they will be visiting and doing pop-up sessions at.