A Life or Death Situation: The Transformation of a Tattoo Artist
“You don’t see a lot of gay people in tattoo shops, especially transgender people, so it was a big deal to me,” said Abel Killian, leaning on a stool in Lucky 13 Tattoo’s back office space. He stands out in a shop filled with burly dudes with massive beards – he’s short and his midnight-black mop top is stuffed under a red Phillies baseball cap. He couldn’t be over 130 lbs. He’s got chin stubble brought on by testosterone therapy.
The internal struggle with gender identity is hard to describe for a lot of people, but for Killian, it was a life or death situation. “It was either come out or kill yourself,” he said with a surprisingly positive look in his eyes. Killian knew he had made the right moves to become what he always knew he was.
By the age of 16, Killian figured he was a lesbian. He didn’t seek support in high school, but rather buried himself in music and art. He dated girls, but never felt comfortable in the skin he was in. Walking the fine lines of labels also bothered Killian – “I hate that term, ‘lesbian,’” he said. ”It sounds like a raunchy party name.”
When pressed, he referred to his former self as gay, though he says he’s not gay now – he’s a man who’s into women – though labels still bother him. “You don’t want to go into a bar and be ‘that transgender guy,’ you want to walk in and be ‘Hey, it’s Abel!’”
His family reacted in a way familiar to many members of the LGBT community. “When you tell them you’re gay, they think its a phase, but when you’re physically changing your body it’s a little more scary.” But Killian said he recognized his parents’ efforts to a point. “They try and they try, and from their point of view, they probably think they are trying the best they can. It’s more patience than I have.”
Shortly after turning 18, Killian started pursuing tattooing as a career. His girlfriend at the time pushed him toward the gig citing his artistic skills, and before long he was working 7 days a week, night and day, for free. “You’re getting hazed, it was terrible…” he said of his early days at the tattoo parlor. After completing his apprenticeship, he became a full-fledged tattoo artist with a chair at Lucky 13 Tattoo. ”I don’t know if I’d do it again, but for the sake of tattooing, I would.”
He started transitioning 3 years ago, and stayed at work through the process. He bound his chest for the first year, and in August of 2011, he got mastectomy. It wasn’t a hot topic of conversation at work – he didn’t brace his co workers with conversations about the effects of testosterone therapy, nor did it ever pose an issue. He does think it has had an effect on his clientele, though. “A lot of people sent me messages saying, ‘I heard what you’re doing and I think its awesome. Give me a tattoo.’ And it’s awesome, but then there is silence from others.” Said Killian, “I’ve gotten hate mail once or twice, but people don’t usually say negative things because people tend to be cowards when it comes to things they don’t understand.”
Luckily, Killian had a support structure from the people he works with. Bob Knox, or Reverend Bob as he is known in certain circles, mans the chair next to Killian at Lucky 13. He knew Killian before he began the transition, but wasn’t fazed by the process. “If I want everybody in the world to let me live the way I want to live, I’ve got to give them the same courtesy,” said Knox.
While Killian thinks the transition has affected his business, Knox disagrees, saying that Killian brings a much needed identity to a culture that has a mixed history with LGBT acceptance. “Every tattoo artists has their own niche, and it’s defined by your artwork and your personality – tattoos are pretty intimate in a lot of ways. You want to go to somebody who understands your situation. If you’re a 20-year-old gay guy and you see me and you see Abel,” Knox said, pointing to himself – over 6 ft, 200+ lbs, shaved head, and covered in tattoos. “Not that I’m prejudiced, but if you go solely off of looks, which is the only option you have… which one you think is gonna be more understanding?” said Knox with a laugh.
The matter-of-fact tone Knox uses is commendable for a man who has seen some things. He’s been tattooing around the country for 20+ years. He remembers when VCU’s office space’s were biker bars and halfway houses. He also remembers when tattooing was a much more conservative art form. “It’s been a good ol’ boy system – bikers and clubs – for a long long time…. When I started 20 years ago, I could count the number of female tattoo artists on two hands. I’d heard of the first trans tattoo artist, Ron Ackers, and that was very very quiet and not spoken about at all… You had a couple of lesbian tattoo artists on the west coast – but other than that, you didn’t see it. It wasn’t part of tattoo culture.”
Knox also recognized the few inroads where LGBT and body modification crossed. “Early piercing, people who started body modification in the US… In the beginning, all of that was underground gay/lesbian/S&M. Now its commonplace, but originally it was leather daddies.”
But now Knox sees changes in the industry he is proud to be a part of. “The old guys who have hang ups are getting out and fading away and the younger people are less concerned… The outside culture that attracts people to tattooing – gay/lesbian/trans – is part of that outside culture… that society that lives outside of society, because they’re still fighting for rights and fighting for the privileges that everyone else has.”
There have never been any real incidents at Lucky 13 since Abel started his transition. Knox said it probably has something to do with how close the employees are. “We’re kind of a family. Crossing one of us isn’t a good idea…” a confident but friendly smirk across his face, Knox said “we back each other up, right or wrong.”
Killian has scars from his surgery, and as someone who seemed fairly open with showing and sharing his body modifications, he was still reserved about the marks on his chest. “I’ve yet to go to a beach,” said Killian with an awkward smile, “I’m a little scared to do it, not from other people, but you battle with ‘I want people to know, I don’t want people to know’ – ‘I want to be informative, I don’t want to be informative…’ you have a choice to get tattooed, but when it comes to something that was a life or death situation and you have scars from that, it’s way more personal.”
He plans to get his scars tattooed over someday, but he said “they’re something I want to keep to myself until I’m ready…”
Deslie Crumpton sat in Able’s chair getting the final touches on the start of her sleeve tattoo. She and Killian have a long professional history – Killian gave Crumpton all 6 of her tattoos. She started getting inked 4 years ago. She walked into Lucky 13 and Killian had an open chair. She became friends with Killian as the professional relationship grew, and was a part of his life through his transition. “It wasn’t really a surprise, he always talked about it.” said Crumpton, while the tiny needles marked her forearm.Crumpton’s tattoos by Killian
Crumpton appreciated not only the artistic work her friend was doing, but also the impacts he was making in an industry she is so very fond of. “I think it helps promote people’s lifestyles – It’s awesome to see this kind of diversity in tattooing.”
Killian kept saying how lucky he was to be where he was – the tattoo shop, the network of friends he has. “It’s been a good ride,” he said. His pride in himself and his work shows. “You either respect someone who’s trans, or you don’t.”
Respect plays a big role in the tattoo world, and in what was probably one of the most amazing moments of the time I spent at Lucky 13, Knox explained why he supported Killian so completely. “Coming out as gay or lesbian – thats gotta be rough. But coming out and saying ‘my gender assignment is wrong,’ that ‘I need major surgery that’s going to risk my life and my health to correct,’ that takes some brass balls.”
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