While most of the "celebrity" tattoo artists you've seen inking up stars all over Instagram are based firmly on the East and West coasts, the Midwestern tattoo scene is also continuing to explode — and one artist to watch is Carrie Metz-Caporusso (@carrie_metz_caporusso). She's an Ann Arbor, MI-based tattooer who has gained attention for her whimsical, black and gray designs, as well as her regular flash tattoo events that have generated thousands of dollars in donations for charitable organizations like the Trans Law Center and the Joyful Heart Foundation.
Ahead, Metz-Caporusso talks about her practice, including how she developed her unique tattoo style, what sparked her to set a goal of raising $1 million for charity, and why she hates it when clients tell her she can do "whatever she wants" for their design.
How did you start tattooing?
My best friend was just like, "Hey, you should be a tattoo artist." I was in a really bad job and wasn't making a lot of money and I was like, yeah, this could be a good way to get me out of poverty. I went to a lot of shops in the Tampa area, and no one would really even talk to me or look at my portfolio. Then I met my now-partner at a party and was immediately smitten. He said, "Oh, I'll teach you how to tattoo." So, we dated, and I got an apprenticeship, all rolled into one. It worked out really well for me, I'm not gonna lie. Tattooing is hard to get into.
Did you feel there were specific reasons why people didn't want to look at your work or give you a chance?
A lot of the time, tattooing is firstly a boys' club... a white boys' club. People want to keep who they're comfortable with around. People would tell me strange things, like "Oh, your art isn't tattoo-y enough," whatever that means. One man specifically was like, "None of this is tattoo subject matter. You're drawing things that people don't want as tattoos." Which is funny now, because I don't do anything now that's "typical" tattoo subject matter. My other female friends who are tattoo artists have also said it's tough. People don't want to let them in.
What were your tattoos like back then, and how did you develop the unique style you have now?
I started drawing in black and white, but my partner is an American traditional tattooer. I started tattooing that way because it is a good way to start: You learn the line work, you learn shading, you learn saturation. You cover all your bases being a traditional tattooer. But, it wasn't making me happy and it wasn't how I naturally was drawing. So, I decided to go back to being me and how I like to draw and my art form. Plus, the traditional tattooing space is just saturated, especially where I live. There are three traditional tattooers in my shop, and no one was doing, like, whimsical illustrations. That also helped me decide to just go back to my roots and do what I love.
What's the tattoo scene like in Ann Arbor? How is the shop you work at different from other shops you've been to?
Right now in Michigan, American traditional tattooing still rules. I lived in New York for a while and black illustration [like what I do] was much more popular there. So, I also saw an opening in that market, and I think that's what helped me get more popular. [That style] seems to be rising a lot in popularity; I'm getting busier and busier by the year.
Our shop [Lucky Monkey] is different from others because of how diverse everyone's portfolio is. Most shops are all traditional shops, but we have black and gray, watercolor, traditional, illustration. We can really cater to everyone, and I think that's what makes my shop so special. And Ann Arbor is a great town to tattoo in because it's such a big college town. There are so many people coming in, year in and year out, that it just never ends. The work is always there.
Your FAQ page says that you are "committed to creating original designs that are only tattooed on a single person." Do you have a flash sheet, or are you only doing custom designs?
Most of my flash I usually just dole out on Instagram, and it gets snatched up pretty quickly. I don't have a lot of flash sitting around. When I have time, I do flash, but I'm pretty busy with people's custom work that it's hard to get flash done on the side.
How do you collaborate with your clients on these original designs?
For the most part, people have what they have in mind and I try to create it. It's very tough when people ask you to do whatever you want. "Whatever I want" is not usually what they like, unless I really have a good relationship with you as a client. That's definitely bitten me in the butt sometimes, when I go for something, and they're like, "Wow, that's weird."
If someone was to come to you today and say "Do whatever you want," what would you draw?
Lately, I've just been into very whimsical children's illustrations and spacey, sweet things. I drew a dog in space, and he was going after his bone and he had a little space outfit on. I just like cute, sweet, whimsical things. And florals. Anything with flowers makes me happy.
Since you're in such high demand for custom tattoos, how do you pick which projects to take on? What can somebody do to stand out on the request form?
Allowing me to have creative freedom is definitely the biggest thing. When people want to control the small things, it gives me a lot of anxiety. Like when that flower has to be at a 90-degree angle. That stresses me out. When people just say, "Hey, this is the subject matter, this is how big I want it, do whatever you think," that's probably the best way to get me to choose you.
You do a lot of work for charity — mostly through flash day events where the price a customer pays for a tattoo is all donated — and have a lifetime goal to raise at least a million dollars. When did that number become an official mission?
After the #MeToo movement started, because it was the most personal one for me. Hearing people telling me their stories was just heartbreaking, but it was an honor. I just knew I could do more. [At our first flash event], we raised $11,000 [for the Joyful Heart Foundation] in one day. I was like, holy crap, we can really do something here with this.
That event worked out really well because we had a bunch of shops in the area participate. And they were packed all day, like lines out the door. We had, like, 200 people just at our shop. It was just wild. We tattooed from noon till midnight. It was a long day, but it was great.
How many fundraisers have you done since that first one?
I've done one for Flint, The Joyful Heart, and the Trans Law Center. Most recently, I designed a T-shirt [that is sold at Lucky Monkey Tattoo], and all the proceeds will go to the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. The design says, "I can think for myself," and it shows a lightbulb with a cord forming the shape of a uterus.
Is there anything that surprises you about the people who show up for those types of events?
The most surprising part isn't the people, it's the atmosphere that goes on there. People are standing in line for three hours, so they end up making friends and it's just really uplifting. One of my really good clients said she stood in line with another of my good clients, and then they became best friends. When people are trying to do something good, that atmosphere really lights everybody up and makes everyone happy.
On your website, you talk about the importance of creating safe spaces for everybody. How might a tattoo appointment with you be different than with other artists who don't make that a priority?
Tattoo culture isn't always the most welcoming. I've heard really horrible stories, including [tattoo artists] sexually assaulting people. I've heard horrible stories from clients about artists who are inappropriate or making them uncomfortable because they have all this power over you. So, being queer and a woman and overweight, I understand that. I felt these things too, and I make a safe space for people because I know where they're coming from. I understand how nerve-wracking that is, to take your shirt off in front of people or trust someone to touch you. It's scary, so I think because of my background I can make people more comfortable.
Are there any specific things that you do during the tattoo appointment to make sure that the client is relaxed and feels comfortable?
Sometimes, I think I hound people too much. Like, I ask them all the time, "How are you doing? Are you OK?" I just always make sure they're comfortable, because when you're comfortable, the tattoo turns out so much better. Checking in is a really big part in making sure that they don't feel pressured to get anything they don't want.
You have a highlight on your Instagram page called "All Skin Tones" that shows how your work looks on different skin tones. When did you add that, and what inspired you to do so?
I had always been tattooing people of color, but because I put everything [on my Instagram page] in black and white, it's hard to tell what the skin tones were. I didn't realize that people were not understanding that I tattoo people of all skin tones, until we had a woman call the shop asking if I tattoo people of all skin tones. I was like, "Oh sh*t, yes of course I do." I just wanted to make it known that I do, and they look great. It doesn't matter if it's bold or dainty, my tattoos look good on everybody.
Are all your tattoos done by machine, or do you hand poke as well?
I only do machine. Personally, the feeling of hand poking makes me nauseous. So, it's not something for me! The needle being pulled out of your skin and that pop feeling is just the grossest feeling. I just cannot stand it. I actually have a hand poked line on my ankle that was supposed to be a dagger, but I just couldn't go any further.
It's nice to know that sometimes tattoo artists also can't sit for the full tattoo.
When people are really nervous, I'm like hey, hold on, look, I couldn't even finish a tattoo. If you can't either, no big deal. We'll do it another day. We can always figure it out.
Do you have a favorite tattoo that you've ever done?
That is a tough question. I tell people my tattoos are like children, it's hard to say. I did just do a whole family of bunnies snuggling in a pile that was definitely a bright spot in the past few weeks. But, I really love it all. You just put so much heart into it.
What has your experience been with the queer tattooing community? Were you aware of it before you started your practice?
[The "queer tattooer" label] has been helpful because it makes you more relatable. I've been out since I was 19, but I didn't know that being queer and a sexual assault victim was something that I should share to my clientele. Now people are like, I can relate to you, I feel safe with you. I didn't realize by just being out in both of those senses was helpful to people around me.
So, you find that some clients are seeking you out because of your identity?
Oh, absolutely. People email me all the time saying, I was specifically looking for a queer woman or a survivor, someone who understands. For a lot of people, tattoos are super personal. Personally, I just get things because they're pretty. But for the average human — especially if it's your first time, second time, third time — [the tattoo experience] is very deep and meaningful. It holds a lot of weight. So, they want people who understand that weight and can make them feel comfortable.
It's really important to start letting people who are minorities and queer and female apprentice. We need to start expanding the space. We need more people out there, we need women of color, we just need people who are different to be tattooing. We need to change the face of tattooing.
Are there any other misconceptions about tattooing and people who have tattoos that you wish would just go away forever?
I can't go anywhere without people saying, "You must love pain, you must be really into pain." It makes me feel sad. I don't love it, I just love my job. I love the art form. And I really think people think tattooers are all tough and rude. People come into the shop with that misconception, and they start off a little gruff and a little rude, and they realize we're all normal, nice people who go home at the end of the night. We're just humans who draw on other humans.
Are there any types of tattoos that you won't do, other than not doing color work?
We've turned down confederate flags, we've turned down Nazi symbols... anything that's harmful to another person, I won't do. We had a gentleman who came in [who wanted a racist symbol for a tattoo] and he was like, "I've been turned down at six different shops, and I don't understand what's going on." Like, how do you not understand? Read the room, maybe.
I've learned a big lesson about cultural appropriation in the past few years. In traditional tattooing, there are a lot of Native women heads — and I actually have one on me, which I'm covering up — but I won't do caricatures of whole groups of people, now that I've learned that's not great. I won't do dreamcatchers on people, or anything else that's borrowing from other cultures that isn't your own. I just don't feel comfortable putting that on people anymore.
Do you do any cover-ups of other work?
I have in the past. It's not my favorite, because everything I do is very light and dainty, so it's tougher to cover up in that style.
What other projects do you have coming up?
If all goes well, we'll just keep cranking out those Planned Parenthood T-shirts. Then, on October 19, we're doing our first local flash fundraiser for a foundation called Avalon Housing, which deals with homelessness in [the Ann Arbor] area. They actually house people and have real solutions, so I'm really excited to support them.
Follow Carrie on Instagram: @carrie_metz_caporusso
Book an appointment with her by: Following her on Instagram to find out when her books open, then emailing email@example.com.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.