As a queer person of color, tattoo artist Jasmine Morrell started working in the world of ink at a young age and soon found that racism, homophobia and misogyny were the order of the day in many tattoo shops. Often the target of unwarranted comments and attacks, Morrell set out to create a respectful space that would make all of its patrons feel positive, supported and free — a safe space for people to express themselves however they felt comfortable. Thus, Spirited Tattooing Coalition was born.
“We want marginalized voices, artists and identities to have sanctuary while making those connections and baring down to their deepest layer,” said Morrell, a person with a sly and dry sense of humor that we quickly bonded over.
PGN: I understand you grew up in Long Island. How come you don’t pronounce it “LawngEyeland?”
JM: Ha! I don’t know! My mom and my sister have really strong Long Island accents. My mom sounds like Fran Drescher minus the laugh but I somehow managed to escape picking it up.
PGN: Tell me a little about the house in which you grew up.
JM: Well, I’m the oldest of seven kids. My mom had a few after I moved out so I didn’t grow up with all those siblings in the house, but there were a bunch of us. As the oldest, I often played a second-parent role and, as I got older, I kind of had to parent myself a lot as my mom dealt with the younger kids and babies. She had to hustle a lot to make ends meet at times but I appreciate not coming from a pampered, sheltered background. It prepared me for adulthood in a way that I didn’t always see in my peers. I really had to get my shit together early and it both humbled me and equipped me for a lot in life.
PGN: What was your first job?
JM: Ever? I think I was 15 and I was a telemarketer for a chimney-cleaning service. It was horrible but I actually made a decent amount of money. Probably because no one else wanted that job.
PGN: Who’s the funniest sibling?
JM: I think it’s a tie between my sister and me. Between the two of us, we crack my mom up for sure. It’s pretty cool that we have the same sense of humor.
PGN: What brought you to Philadelphia?
JM: After high school I needed to not jump right into college. My best friend at the time was going to the Art Institute here and needed a roommate. She wanted someone she knew so she called and said, “You’re not doing anything, let’s get you off Long Island.” I’m really glad it happened because I came here and found an apprenticeship and realized that I wanted to do tattooing.
PGN: Did you have tattoos before that?
JM: I had one that I got with my mom in Florida when I was 17. I begged her to sign the parental-consent form and she got one with me.
PGN: What did you get and what did your mom get?
JM: I got … it’s like a stencil style of a panda balancing on a ball. It was one of those cases where I just pointed at a picture on the wall and said, “That one.” My mom got some viney design on her lower back and the entire time she wailed and hooted and hollered.
PGN: That was my next question! Do you have a high tolerance for pain?
JM: I’ve been told that I do, yeah.
PGN: What’s the scariest thing when you’re a tattoo apprentice?
JM: Being fearful that any moment it could be taken away from you. At least for me, I was always on my toes because I was afraid they’d decide not to put the time and energy into teaching me. Frankly, the person I was working for treated me pretty poorly and liked to instill fear into the people around her so it was not the best environment. And of course the other fear is of screwing up the design.
PGN: I would think the first time actually inking someone would be terrifying. There’s a commercial running now, for Snickers or something, where the tattoo artist misspells the word in the design.
JM: Luckily the first one is always on your teacher or on yourself. I had plenty of practice on friends that wanted free tattoos and on fruit. We practice on grapefruit and watermelon and cantaloupe, it’s great for practice and it smells really good.
PGN: Would you ever refuse to do a tattoo? [Laughs] Like if someone wanted a Donald Trump tattoo?
JM: Oh, absolutely. It’s tricky because things can be subjective, like the Trump tattoo could be poking fun at him, but yeah, I’ve had to turn people away before. There was a guy in Texas who wanted me to do a design with an eagle and a flag and an iron cross and I was like, “Hmmm, this looks awfully close to some Nazi emblems I’ve seen,” and sure enough he was trying to get as close to it as he could without actually doing a Nazi symbol, so I had to show him the door, let him know he had the wrong shop and wrong person for sure.
JM: Yes, I took off two years to live there, in Austin. I still go back for two weeks each year.
PGN: Did you always live in this section of town?
JM: When I first came to Philly I was at 41st and Baltimore. Dahlak was the first bar I ever went to. But I spent most of my time here living in South Philly; little did I know I’d return to Baltimore Avenue to live and work.
PGN: How did this come about?
JM: I quit my last job and was looking for another shop to work in and couldn’t find any place that made sense for me. It got to the point where I was running out of steam for that kind of environment. Then one day I was walking my dog and saw the For Rent sign in the window here. It was like a shining beacon of light. I realized that I just needed to take the plunge. It’s like having a baby: You’re never going to be really ready; as scary as it is you have to just do it. So I just said fuck it, now is the time.
PGN: I understand that you are the first queer person of color to own a business on Baltimore Avenue. What’s your background?
JM: My mom is Puerto Rican and my dad is South Asian/Indian. My mom was born in Brooklyn and they met in Long Island.
PGN: Tell me your coming-out story.
JM: Well, it’s kind of like my mom told me. Not told me, but figured it out when I went home with my girlfriend who was also my roommate. She was my roommate first and then we became involved so it wasn’t like I was trying to hide something by saying she was my roommate, she really was! Of course dating your roommate is not the ideal way to go about things but anyway we went home — we were both from Long Island — and my mom was grilling my girlfriend/roommate about why she broke up with her boyfriend — let me pause to say it wasn’t because of me, that had already happened. So my mom kept grilling her, asking if she was seeing anybody now and I don’t know how, I think she ran out of options so she asked if perhaps she was dating a woman. She could tell by the roommate’s face that she was right and my mom was so proud of her detective work until she looked at me and saw that I had shrunken into a small clamshell. She then realized that it was me and needed to take a moment as she realized, Oh, my child is queer. It was a moment but my mom is pretty progressive and soon wanted to understand and embrace everything.
PGN: And how were you identifying then?
JM: Gay? I didn’t identify as a lesbian or trans, and a few years later I stumbled across the word queer and that seemed more fitting. It was one of those, “Ahhh,” the clouds parted, moments. I do also identify as trans now.
PGN: What was the most exciting and most fulfilling part of embracing your authentic self?
JM: The most exciting was getting the prescription for hormone therapy. The most fulfilling part was the overall supportive response from everyone around me. My mom had a lot of questions, but she never asked why or questioned me specifically about it.
PGN: What’s the wackiest response you got?
JM: One person who asked why, but it was the way they did it. The question kind of dribbled off their lips, kind of like “Yasss” but it was “Whyyy?” I think as they were saying it, mid-question they kind of asked themselves why they were asking me the question. So the inflection was “Whyyy … am I asking this silly question?” It was pretty funny.
PGN: Any hobbies outside the parlor?
JM: I’ve been playing music since I was 15. I play drums and I’m learning to do vocals. I have a person I perform with in a group/duo called Distant Damage and I want to be able to do some harmony and sing as well. We’ve been together for about two years and we just finished recording. I can’t wait for it to come out. It’s a nice break from all the work at the shop, the business end of things, doing my drawing homework and answering emails, etc.
PGN: What does your name, Spirited Tattooing Coalition, mean?
JM: It signifies the kind of energy I wanted and needed to make this happen. It’s a reminder that this is an effort that can only happen with the inclusion of other people, not just our people; it’s also having artists put their work up on consignment, or displaying and selling their jewelry up front or having guest tattoo artists. It’s all about building a coalition.
PGN: I have to admit, I’m not into tattoos — I barely got my ears pierced — so what is it that draws people to it so much? Beyond the artwork, is there a spiritual aspect to it?
JM: For me, part of why I do it is that you really do form a connection with people this way. Just from being in such close quarters and touching people, I find you do transfer energies, both positively and negatively. There are times when I come in in a perfectly good mood and I sit down with someone and their energy totally is off, perhaps from something out of their control, but I can feel it in a way I never have before. I try to make the best out of each session, but the transfer is very much a part of what I like. As far as my personal desire for tattoos, I think it’s important that I feel free to do whatever I want with my own body. So each tattoo doesn’t need to have a deep meaning, some are just things I think are cool-looking. It’s not always, “This is for my dead grandma.” I mean I’ve definitely gotten some that are from an emotional need, like after a break up or something, which is probably not the best idea. [Laughs] But for me at this point, I have so many that it really doesn’t matter. And the autonomy of doing this for a living means that I could tattoo my eyeballs if I wanted and not worry about getting fired. I like the way my body looks with tattoos and it’s important to me to have that freedom. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to structure my life in a way that enables me to have it.
PGN: Give me the story behind one of your tats.
JM: Probably the tattoo of a sheep jumping over a fence. I have the count 709 on it but that just signifies any high number showing the difficulty I have with sleep. Sleep issues have been an ongoing narrative my entire life. I’m actively working on trying to change that this year. I’m going to be 30 in a few months and I’m realizing how important a role it plays in our lives.
PGN: Something you want to learn or two things on your bucket list?
JM: Actually they go together. I want to buy a house and I want to learn carpentry and construction so I can get a real fixer-upper and do the work myself. I know basic stuff, but I’d like to really learn more building skills.
PGN: People often mistake me for …
JM: Honestly? A handful of similarly complexioned brown people in the neighborhood.
PGN: Celebrity you’d like to tat?
JM: Definitely Shonda Rhimes.
PGN: If you had to imagine yourself as an animal, what would you be?
JM: I’d like to spend a day in my little dog’s shoes. He’s this weird black fox, squirrel, Chihuahua-looking mix. He’s super cute and very person-like. I’d like to know what he’s thinking.
PGN: So what’s your next tattoo going to be?
JM: I’m not sure, but I do know that I want to start working on my back. Ideally I want the entire back done as one big piece from the top of my neck to my butt. My girlfriend Khristina and I are going to Spain and we’re both getting one there, so that will actually be my next one.
PGN: Tell me about her.
JM: She created and runs a zine distro with her friend Sayuri called “No Shame,” and they specialize in giving queer people of color a platform and a voice.
PGN: I just came from the Democratic Convention and it amazed me how much things have changed so quickly for the LGBT community. That we went from never being mentioned to having our vote sought after. Sarah McBride addressing the convention as an open trans person and the president talking about married gay soldiers is huge and yet commonplace at the same time. What’s an indication of change for you?
JM: The fact that platforms like Facebook allow you to choose from a multiple selection of genders to identify yourself. Technology has made such a difference in people being able to find information and support. And yes, politicians openly courting us is pretty amazing. Even Donald Trump found it necessary to let people know that he is a friend of “The Gays.” It’s mind-blowing.
For more information on Spirited Tattooing Coalition, visit www.spiritedtattoo.com.