Sunshine spills into the chambers of Oak Cliff’s Sunset Art Studios. Traces of creativity trickle throughout every winding corner of the artist collective work space. From a feminist theater company to a found object installation, no medium is off limits. The studio’s Artist Sustainability Program is grounded in its commitment to provide equitable access to affordable studio space for working artists.
Among the assembly of artists is Oak Cliff native and tattoo artist Stephanie Adelina. The 31-year-old found her creative spark when she was just a few years old. While attending a Montessori school as a child, she always gravitated toward the artsier elements on the curriculum, and her natural talent for drawing and painting was cultivated, eventually landing her a coveted spot at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
“My time at Booker T. really set a high standard for me,” Adelina says. But upon entering her college path in Vancouver, she felt a disconnect. She continually heard advice echoing in her head, offered to her by one of her favorite high school teachers, reminding her that college is a business, which ultimately just wants your money.
After less than a year away from her home state, she lost touch with her creative side and decided to pack up and move back to Dallas and pursue a different path.
“I fell into the ‘work, sleep, repeat’ cycle, and I became perhaps the closest I think I’ve experienced to depression,” Adelina remembers. “It was right around the time that Miami Ink premiered and everyone was watching it, and my boyfriend at the time was always teasing me and encouraging me to do it.”
Adelina didn’t take his prodding seriously but eventually decided to talk to his tattoo artist to get a better understanding of the industry.
“I hadn’t really seen any tattoo artists doing what I envisioned, basically just tattooing the way that I paint,” she says.
As the idea of becoming a tattoo artist became more attractive, Adelina began tattooing her friends and family for practice and was hired for an apprenticeship at a tattoo shop in Deep Ellum. Although she fell in love with the art of tattooing itself, she was disenchanted with the industry's culture.
“I apprenticed for about eight months in a Deep Ellum tattoo shop about 10 years ago, before its wildness tipped it over into decline because of the (area's) crime,” she says. She says it was her art portfolio from Booker T. that landed her the gig, not the "crappy" tattoos she was attempting at home without training.
Although Adelina’s craft became more polished, her thirst for an inspiring and intimate space was yet to be quenched. She wasn't satisfied with sitting around waiting for someone to come in and request a tattoo and wanted to create a collective effort between herself and the person inking her artwork onto his or her body.
“I feel acutely aware of how environment can affect experience,” she says. “And more importantly, I’m very aware of the gravity because of the permanence of the pieces.” Adelina acknowledges that the process of getting tattooed is a highly vulnerable role to be in, and she believes that as a woman she's more aware of this feeling than other tattoo artists.
“Not to say that men aren’t able to empathize,” she says. “But in the way that a woman is forced to move through the world, we naturally become much more familiar with this feeling of vulnerability.”
That intimate relationship with vulnerability dictates many of the choices she makes in constructing the experience she wants clients to have in her studio. She doesn’t allow walk-ins or curious bystanders peeking in to gawk at the needling. She has an appointment-only policy, and the space is intimate and private.
“I attribute the environment I try to create to my time at Booker T.,” she says. Feeling nourished and inspired by her artistic community, Adelina is returning to her roots by establishing an internship via Booker T. Washington, where students can learn the art of tattooing under her mentorship. She hasn’t heard of any other schools attempting this and believes it’s something that was bound to happen with time through the natural evolution of the tattooing industry, now a mainstream and fashionable practice in all sectors of society.
“I’ve been wanting to teach the students in an official capacity for years," Adelina says, "and it was only through the internship program that allows the seniors to go off campus and earn credits that I’m able to start this program."
With an internship class under the visual arts curriculum in their school's schedule, students will be given the time to visit the studio and participate in a program lasting two semesters.
This new pilot program is raising funds under the Sunset Art Studios nonprofit, and Adelina is hoping that it will be an incentive for donors. Any donations to the organization will be awarded as an art grant for the program. Adelina is volunteering every minute of her teaching to the internship program, and is hoping a scholarship fund can be set up for future students. For its inaugural year, 10 Booker T. Washington students applied for the program and three applicants were selected.
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The internship, which will begin this fall, is designed to prepare the teens for all aspects of being a professional tattoo artist: client relations and communication, health and sanitation, record keeping, business management and, of course, the application of their artistic abilities onto the human body. All Booker T. seniors have the ability to earn class credits via an internship. The students who choose to continue after the internship will be invited to stay on as member artists of the studio at a flat monthly fee for another year in a safe, sanitized environment, with supplies and access to mentor tattoo artists to continue their education progress.
Adelina is planning to spend her summer raising funds for the program, hosting workshops and taking part in a variety of fundraising efforts to offset costs. The 2019 Visual Speedbump Tour is an Oak Cliff-wide event that she hopes will contribute to the fundraising efforts. Taking place on Saturday, May 18, the students signed up for the workshop will practice the art of tattooing on (non-human) leather items all day, which will then be converted to items to sell at the Bishop Arts lifestyle and clothing store Harkensback.
The greatest takeaway Adelina hopes to convey to her mentees, along with the business skills component, is how truly collaborative and involved the relationship between a client and a tattoo artist should be.
“This unique piece that we are working on together will be strongest and most meaningful if we can make sure the other is as comfortable as possible,” she says. “I try to always stress that this isn’t about money, or about ‘my’ art or my ego. It’s about them.”