Ladies in red: Turning tattoo industry convention on its heels

In a man’s world, the needlework ought to be left to the women—or so the groundbreaking force behind the all-female owned and operated Red Tattoo Parlor contend.

While female tattoo artists make up only 2 percent of those licensed in the U. S., Red Tattoo Parlor, connected at the hip to an old convenient store on North Mt. Juliet Road, has transformed into the flesh-and-bone proof that statistics aren’t the be-all and end-all of success.

“They all told me that I couldn’t do it and build a studio that would survive any length of time if I tried to keep it all women, so I was like ‘Watch me,’” said co-owner and founder Lita Edwards with a grin and chuckle.

Although exclusively female-run, Red Tattoo Parlor has been providing a comfortable, empowering experience to men and women alike since April 2010. The atmosphere is made up of equal parts edginess and femininity to keep the girls feeling secure and the boys coming back.

“I like everybody to leave inspired,” said Edwards. “We’re very big into pursuing and following your dreams. That’s kind of what we’re about.”

Edwards and co-owner Sophie Burns, a dynamic duo with personalities as colorful as the artwork on their bodies, had known each other for more than 10 years prior to the shop’s opening. Although extensively accomplished in design work and cosmetology, the two women had no experience with tattoos.

“I didn’t even like tattoos,” admitted Burns.

She was quick to change her mind.

“Once you get one—it’s like potato chips.”

“We sought a different avenue for tattoos to go. For me, it is such a beautiful art form and to watch the people enjoy their tattoos…I came from not caring anything about them to just loving them,” said Burns.

After selling everything they owned and moving to the Dominican Republic with big dreams of opening a coffee shop, the women experienced a different calling—one they attributed to the voice of God himself.

Four months later and no sooner to settling down, the pair packed their bags and wound up back where they began.

“I laugh about it now,” said Edwards. “I say, ‘You know, He had to move us halfway across the ocean to get us to move 30 miles up the street.’”

The inspiration for the parlor was fueled by several tattoo apprenticeships under a conglomerate of testosterone, condescension and ego.

“We’d worked with too many guys in our life,” said Burns. “It’s almost like an ego trip with them. They’re very resentful at a woman being in the industry. It’s very hard for women to break into the business—to actually go through an apprenticeship and get their license. You withstand a lot of B.S. from being with the guys.”

“I think the inspiration for this business was to have a job that is fun,” said Burns.

To Edwards, having control of a secure, self-assuring atmosphere was a reward in itself.

“I came from a studio that was all guys—I was the only female, and it was very, very difficult,” said Edwards. “They did not like me being there at all. It was a huge part of the inspiration for the shop.”

However, proving themselves, though gratifying, was not the only motive behind the venture.

“It’s also a sales niche—no one else is doing it,” said Edwards. “One of the things that I saw in the industry was that women were very uncomfortable getting some testosterone-fueled, burly guy working on them.”

“Some of their mottos were ‘If I’m going to tattoo you, I’m going to tattoo your soul,’ and they just want to hammer it in and drill it in and make it hurt for them, and then make fun of people, and I just didn’t like that. That’s not business to me,” said Edwards.

Edwards and Burns have made it their business to ensure a pleasurable, non-discriminatory experience to each customer.

“The guys had much rather have a pretty lady sitting there with her hands on them than some burly guy with his beard and holey T-shirt,” said Burns jokingly. “The women are much more comfortable in here. It just works. It’s a niche that everybody likes. And the women are just not as hard-handed.”

“In my view of people, I see women as being more detail-oriented. Us being a custom studio, we feel like what you’re putting on your skin is your personality, it’s your soul that you’re exposing. The guys just don’t seem to get that,” said Burns.

The comfort, connection and professionalism aren’t the only reasons for the studio’s return clientele, and even the male customers have taken notice of and appreciate the difference in the female-operated shop.

“I’ve been to male tattoo artists before, and I like getting tattooed by Lita way more than any of the males I’ve been tattooed by,” said long-time customer Cody Campanali. “It’s a lot nicer.”

“I’ve gotten three of my biggest ones done by Lita. I had a guy who did most of mine, and he was really good—he was in a lot of magazines—but it was just a way different experience. The environment and how they carry themselves. He wasn’t really caring with the work, he was all about getting it done quickly. Lita takes her time. I’ve spent many full days in here,” said Campanali.

Being “the all female tattoo parlor of the South” is not Red’s only one-of-a-kind niche. The studio is Christian-based, offers piercing services and deals only with custom designs.

Despite the continuously growing design list, the artists make it a point to schedule consultations with each of their customers to discuss their desires and get a feel for who they are.

“I think that what comes out of us for the person and what goes into their skin kind of dictates itself—who is supposed to get that piece,” said Edwards. “We are an all-custom studio, and we do our own ideas. We don’t pick anything off of the wall—we really feel there’s a major spiritual connection between you and that customer, and that’s going to portray in the outcome of what’s done.”

Campanali, who has had his three largest and most detailed tattoos done by Edwards, left the third to her visual and interpretive discretion.

“I called her and told her what I wanted and since pretty much I picked out the first two, I told her just to literally do whatever she wanted just to tie it all together. I told her that a week ago. I had no idea what the drawing was going to look like, and I came in here and got it,” said Campanali of the religious-themed elephant head on his chest.

The careful, detailed and realistic work performed by Edwards has come from years of hard work and education. She hand draws all of the designs for her clients and has even been known to put months into perfecting a single tattoo.

“I get a lot of people that come to me very specifically for my style, because no one else in town will do it,” said Edwards. “Realistic, lineless work is a big name for what I do. I use very minimal black, and no black outlining at all. People just are really, really looking for more of that artsy side of tattooing today, and unfortunately Nashville doesn’t have many artists that will do that.”

When it comes to marking people permanently, she pulls out all the stops to get the job done right.

“I go every year to this training seminar—it’s called Paradise Tattoo Gallery—and it’s the best artists in the world, and that’s who I learn under every year,” said Edwards. “I spend an incredible amount of money on my education, and I only learn from the best.”

While Edwards knows no limits in bringing ink to life, her religious roots, as well as those of the studio, often leave her talking customers out of regrettable decisions.

“We do nothing Satanic or demonic, and we will not tattoo names of boyfriends, girlfriends, wives…things of that nature,” said Edwards. “I don’t want to be responsible for marking you with the devil or breaking up your relationship.”

“We advise clients to do something artistic that reminds them of that person—something that’s a favorite to them. Nobody’s going to look at a name tattoo and go ‘Wow! That’s an awesome name.’”

With hopes of branding the shop’s name on a global level, working instructional conventions and even publishing an art-focused tattoo magazine, Edwards and Burns dream big, follow inspiration and march to the beat of their own drum.

Until everything falls into place, the women are content bringing a feminine sense of empowerment and inspiration into an otherwise male-dominant field and making intrinsic, one-of-a-kind art with nothing more than a patch of skin and a story.

“Everyone has a story,” said Burns. “They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t. That’s why they come—to tell their stories.”