“You have magical skin. You have unicorn skin,” says Missy Rhysing, seating her client comfortably in the chair while carefully examining her miraculous arm.
The shop is warm with sunlight settling on terrariums, geometric jewelry, and a whole plethora of witchy memorabilia including Kewpie dolls and pinned insects. The walls of Ritual Tattoo in the Highlands are lined with art that has yet to make its final transformation from its current dwelling on transparent pieces of parchment paper to a place of ostensible permanence on human skin.
Missy got her first tattoos after the birth of her only biological son, who is now fourteen years old.
“It was truly something I did just for me, you know?” she says of the experience. “My first tattoos weren’t even that symbolic or meaningful. They were really aesthetic.”
The Asian inspired cloud tattoos on her wrists set her career in motion and, despite never having drawn anything in her life, Missy set out make a career of tattooing.
Missy was living in Maui with her husband and, after receiving a large Hawaiian warrior goddess tattoo on her leg from an artist whose work she admired, she inquired if he would consider taking on an apprentice.
“I would never teach a woman how to tattoo,” Missy says he responded. “It’s something about women. They just don’t make good tattoo artists.”
“What an asshole,” she says, scrunching up her face beneath brunette bangs, blue eyes displaying obvious distaste.
While Missy still has the giant reminder of the tattoo artist permanently visible on her leg, she clearly didn’t take his attitude to heart.
Trained in a traditional, Sailor Jerry-esque tattoo style at a shop in Minneapolis, Missy quickly branched out to create a style that is uniquely her own. One recurring element is clear in Missy’s work, and that is her fondness for depicting the female face.
“What’s more beautiful than a female face?” she says. “If I did them all day long and nothing else I’d be fine with that.”
But Missy doesn’t just draw women solely for the aesthetic value. She says a lot of women come to her because they feel more comfortable being tattooed by a woman, away from the machismo environment she says can be a factor in many tattoo shops. Many of her clients use their tattoos to empower themselves, she says, or to pay homage to an important woman in their lives.
Despite her space in a male dominated field and her proclivity for female subject matter, Missy still hesitates in some ways to identify as a feminist.
“I feel like women shouldn’t be treated any differently so it frustrates me in some ways that there is even a need for feminism,” she says. “But I think I am [a feminist] because I really value the strong community that I have with the women that I know, especially here. I tend to want to work with women. I tend to want to hire women. I tend to want to teach women.”
But whether Missy is tattooing men or women, she is most fulfilled by the transformative power of the art form in shaping identity and self-image in her clients.
As she preps for her afternoon appointment, she describes her most impactful client. Reverence and admiration color her steady voice as she lays out her ink palette and readies her machine.
She describes a client who will eventually complete a full male-to-female gender transformation. This client’s first venture into presenting outwardly as female came in the form of a colorful and floral lady face tattoo, one that Missy describes as distinctly feminine. According to Missy, the tattoo was the client’s first coming out to her coworkers and family, and was momentous in her process of identifying as transgender.
“That project really made me think a lot about what I do,” says Missy. “The energy that I’m putting into my work and what people are getting from it can be really special. It’s completely different than other healing modalities or art modalities. This guy was transforming himself in my chair. He was asking me to do it and he trusted me with it. I’m getting goose bumps right now just thinking about it.”
Missy goes back to tattooing her client, adding a deep lavender hue to a lady face with luscious locks and deep red lips. The woman depicted in the tattoo looks into the distance, embodying equal parts strength, femininity, and creativity— similar to the needle-wielding artist who brought her into being.
Photo by Ting Y. Lin