A West Coast resident for most of her life, Anne Williams found herself one day asking a question all too familiar to many art school graduates: What's next? The answer—to open an all-woman tattoo studio—wasn't immediately obvious.
Williams first put her business skills to use in nonprofit work, pursuing art on the side. But she quickly realized that her passion for art couldn't be bridled in the nights and weekends time slots. So, she took a tattoo apprenticeship at the famous, but now closed, Erno's Tattoo Studio, and later worked for nine years at the Mission's beloved Black + Blue. Once she had learned to manage the shop and built an impressive portfolio, it was time to step out on her own.
She scoured the Excelsior, the Castro, and SoMa for the perfect spot to settle down, finally deciding on a new building in the Mission, which she endearingly calls “the cement tomb.” On November 1st, 2011, Mermaids Tattoo opened for business; five years later, the shop has gained recognition for not just its all-woman team, but also for the amazing work these ladies produce.
We sat down with Anne to discuss her personal aesthetic, where she draws inspiration, and what it’s like to be a woman in the male-dominated tattoo business.
(From left: Kim Stace Thomas, Anne Williams, and Zeph Fishlyn are the powerhouse artists of Mermaids Tattoo.)
My first tattoo was… a double women’s symbol that I had done at Lyle Tuttle Shop in my late 20s. It was like going to the Bowery, stumbling over the drunk guy at the bottom of the stairs, going up to the tattoo museum with those fabulous artifacts. The guy who tattooed me had just gotten out of jail recently. It was just so old school.
I draw inspiration from... strong, decisive, clean, and technically astute work. Those qualities are what I like in art and artists. I love traditional old school tattoos, but that’s not the style I tend to do. I love Victorian botanical illustration. I also look into nature, real florals. I definitely draw inspiration from the world of printmaking and the Art Nouveau and Art Deco periods.
My would describe my aesthetic as… Illustration based in the organic.
The perception of female tattoo artists is that… we’re much more client-centered, that we’ll be nicer and gentle. I have to say that I don’t actively dissuade that, but I don’t think it's necessarily true. But I do think that our studio actively takes the time to work with our clients and slow it down a bit. We are client-centered as opposed to artist-centered, meaning that we all do have our own style and do our own work, but we’re never too big to do a piece.
What sets Mermaids Tattoo apart is… it’s a very unique and comfortable space where people can relax. Plus, we’re an all women tattoo shop, which is pretty awesome.
My mission as a tattoo artist is… to be an aesthetic problem solver.
My favorite type of client is... someone who has a good idea of what they want and is able to communicate it, while still giving me the freedom to put a little of my own style to it and make it a tattoo that is aesthetically beautiful and that will last for years.
I chose the name Mermaids because… it’s a fabulous symbol. I wanted something traditional that’s always been there. It’s the female side of the whole nautical, traditional, sailor thing that goes with tattooing. I feel like mermaids are both dark and light; we always think of Ariel, but there’s a whole range of them.
My average day is… there is no average day. I wear two hats—some days I’m all tattoo artist, and some days I’m all business owner. Most days, I’m some of each. I guess my average day would be dropping my kid off at school, use the morning for business and finishing my drawings, tattoo in midday and afternoon, pick up my kid from school, do the home thing, and in there somewhere try to do the bookkeeping, bills, draw, run the business, all of that.
When I’m outside the studio I’m... parenting, that fills up most of your day. I’m a printmaker and crazy fiber artist. I draw, paint, do yoga, and knit constantly.
As a woman in a male dominated industry, you’re… going to deal with a lot of the same issues. I think you can be seen differently, but at the same time be ignored. When I first started, I felt that I was getting the smaller jobs, but I don’t think that’s how it is in the industry now. It’s constantly changing.
What’s changing most about the tattoo industry is… the clientele. It’s no longer the Mission hipster walking into a shop, but the middle aged suburban mom.
My go-to Mission lunch spots are… La Taqueria, Old Jerusalem, and Mission Pie.