How Michelle Santana became one of NYC’s top tattoo artists

The light bulb went off in my head over a year ago, when I was reading in Daily Mail that Kendall Jenner got a small white dot tattooed on the inside of her finger. That was it — tattoos became mainstream.

Now, we know the famous girls who have been adorned, but what about the badass female artists behind the designs on their skin?

Meet Michelle Santana, one of the most prominent female tattoo artists in New York, which means anywhere, basically. I had the pleasure of sitting down with her to talk about the ways in which it hasn’t always been easy to climb to the top of the tattoo game. It turns out the world of tattooing isn’t so different in presenting obstacles than the rest of the many male-dominated industries of today.

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Michelle Santana knows first hand what it feels like to experience sexism in the tattoo industry. While badass artists like Kat Von D have def brought female tattooers to the forefront, girls like Michelle have for sure had their fair share of battles to get to where they want to be.

It all started when the owner of a shop that hired Michelle told her he hired her for personal reasons.

“He basically told me that he had only hired me because he wanted to be with me,” Michelle said. She quit the next day.

This was in Amsterdam, where Michelle moved after growing up in the country of Colombia (despite being born in America). Contrary to her powerful philosophy that having the same arms and hands as any male tattoo artist should never hold her back just because those appendages belonged to a woman, she slowly realized that even though she knew she was as skilled as any man, the dudes coming in to get tribal tats would probably still look at her funny.

Being raised by a powerful woman, her grandmother, she grew up knowing she could succeed as a woman, not even thinking twice about rising to the top even though she knew the industry she wanted to be in had a scarcity of female icons. Other than Kat Von D, how many female tattoo artists can YOU name?

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This even includes rising to the top floor of her former tattoo shop, West 4th Tattoo. Before Michelle, there were no female tattoo artists on the top floor of the studio, or even female artists for that matter. Right before they left for a new, exciting location in Soho, Michelle’s station was next to that of her mentor, Jon Boy. You may have heard of him because he’s tattooed, well, basically every celebrity you follow on Snapchat or Instagram.

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Michelle’s drive has taken her from Colombia, to Spain, to Amsterdam and then New York. Speaking of which, New York is still a city that Michelle admits doesn’t have a plethora of female tattoo artists like her. But after interviewing Michelle, I think it’s safe to say this is definitely not the reason she shines so brightly. That glow comes from her willpower, passion, talent, and her insanely chic hoop earrings.

Photos by Kayla Gardner

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