Women-owned tattoo parlor aims for safe, inclusive environment

Balm Tattooing specializes in working with survivors of physical and emotional trauma.
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From left, Sarah Sun, Emily Kukawka and Tiffany Elmergreen opened Balm Tattooing to offer a welcoming environment, especially to those who have had negative experiences at other tattoo parlors. Courtesy Balm Tattooing

Three women tattoo artists are branching out from the exclusionary nature of tattoo parlors to create a more welcoming environment for people wanting to decorate their bodies with meaningful work.

Balm Tattooing opened earlier this month at a 1,100-square-foot former barbershop at 1054 W. Fulton St. Grand Rapids. Co-owners Sarah Sun, Tiffany Elmergreen and Emily Kukawka are experienced tattoo artists who met working at a separate shop in town but wanted to branch out and achieve more privacy for themselves and their clients.

“We wanted a place that vibed more with who we are and what our clients are looking for,” Sun said. “We wanted a place that was women-owned … we wanted the vibe of a shop that didn’t feel all super aggressive. We’re not anti-man, but it feels a lot of tattoo shops are very white male-dominated.”

Sun is a former social services worker of almost 20 years — she has been tattooing for five — who has experience working with survivors of physical and emotional trauma. For this reason, she gives priority to customers who have experienced trauma and want a tattoo to commemorate their survival or cover up scarring, although she said she is happy to work with anyone.

“For me, it’s helping folks reconnect with or reclaim parts of their body that were taken from them at some point,” Sun said. “I‘d been getting tattoos since I was 17. I had parents with tattoos, so it wasn’t a big deal. The first time I got a tattoo it felt like, oh man — I had my own problems with trauma — this is my body, so I only get a say in how it’s treated, but I didn’t love my experiences in shops.”

Sun said she is deliberate in creating a welcoming environment, particularly for those who have had negative experiences with tattooists. The company website features photos of the artists and the studio, so customers know where they’re going and who will be working on them. Consent is key, and clients are asked if they have any sensitivity to touch, if there’s a type of music they prefer and other questions before beginning a session.

“I had a client who wanted a burn covered up, and she went into a tattoo shop and the guy said, ‘That is so gross! What did you do?’” Sun said. “She came to me, and I said, ‘No problem, we can’t mask that, but we can change the look.’ She said, ‘I want to feel like I’m a growing garden,’ so I decided to give her flowers. After that, she said, ‘I’m with co-workers, and I feel like I don’t have to cover that part of myself anymore.’”

Each artist has her own unique style, as well. Sun works only in black ink and tattoos in bold, loose lines.

Elmergreen has 10 years of experience tattooing and specializes in American traditional style. Kukawka has been tattooing for six years and utilizes her own unique style with plant and animal motifs.

“Emily has her own cool imaginative style,” Sun said. “She builds up these beautiful lines after lines. She’s just a beast. She creates these entire environments around people’s bodies.”

Balm Tattooing is open by appointment only. At press time, the books are currently closed, but Sun encouraged those wanting to book an appointment to stay connected via the company website, balmtattooing.com, or to follow the company on Instagram @balmtattooing.

“We stay busy, but we post on our Instagram. We open our books and tell people to keep an eye on that,” Sun said. “We don’t want to be mean but we’re all individuals, and we all know what it’s like to work ourselves to death, and nobody wants to do that.”

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