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Fresh ink, fresh start

Tattoo transformations for the formerly-incarcerated

Shapeshifting: Towards Being Seen, explores the stories behind the evolving tattoos of five previously-incarcerated women.

Melissa Lukenbaugh

Tattoos aren’t as controversial as they used to be—even in Oklahoma, where tattooing was outlawed until 2006. Teachers, nurses and plenty of other upstanding members of our society have them. But what of those whose ink is old and faded, with the shaky line work of a stick-and-poke? For those inked individuals, the judgment remains.

The Tulsa Artist Fellows behind the Atomic Culture curatorial platform have partnered up with a New York artist to explore this, telling stories of local women who have been incarcerated—through their tattoos. 

Malinda and Mateo Galindo make up Atomic Culture. Together, the married couple works to collaborate with artists to tell local stories. “Part of our thing is just researching and understanding histories of the place we’re at,” Mateo said. “We come from different places. I come from New Mexico. She comes from New York … When we’re at a place, we have to kind of figure out hidden histories, or histories that are overlooked or erased, and use art to unearth them.”

Stories like how Oklahoma incarcerates more women than anywhere else in the world. With that sobering fact in mind, Atomic Culture reached out to New York artist Tamara Santibañez to collaborate.

“Tamara has been working within the incarceration system in New York on a lot of different projects and also is an amazing tattoo artist,” Malinda said.

The project, Shapeshifting: Towards Being Seen, explores the stories behind the evolving tattoos of five women. The team reached out to Resonance Women’s Center and Still She Rises to find women interested in participating.

“We asked them, about two months prior to Tamara coming, to choose a tattoo that they had—it didn’t have to be from being incarcerated—that they wanted to change or rework,” Malinda said. “They were in a conversation with Tamara for about a month … sort of getting to know each other. … She did about one a day while she was here, and she did them all in one sitting.”

Santibañez interviewed the participants before and after. Mateo, who recorded audio for the interviews, said the women who got their ink behind bars discussed using sharpened staples and cartridge printer ink to get the job done.

“So the stories about the things they would do and go through to get a tattoo, and then for them to carry this stigma around with them. It was really interesting to see that before and after,” Mateo said.

The result is a multimedia installation pairing before and after photos with audio from the interviews. Shapeshifting: Towards Being Seen is on display through Oct. 23 at Tulsa Artist Fellowship’s Archer Studios in the Tulsa Arts District. The studios are locked from the outside, but visitors can stop during First Friday when the exhibition’s doors will be open, or by appointment. 

“You don’t know how [these women] got there, how they got inside. So it’s like, are you highlighting a really bad person?” Mateo asked. “What does that mean to give someone a new life if they’re really bad? If you don’t deserve it, well what is that? Can there be a space for that moment of empathy regardless of what they did?”

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