If you ask Calli Loskill about how she landed her job, one of the first things she'll tell you is she's wicked lucky — it almost didn't happen.
"You get to a point where you're like, 'I need to switch gears. Maybe this isn't really going to happen for me,'" Loskill said. "Because it's very hard, and you can't sacrifice integrity."
It's just past 2 p.m. the day after Christmas, and Loskill buzzed around The Ink Sling Studio. She flitted to the side room, down the hall and back into the lobby to check on the woman patiently waiting on the couch. She brought tools to her station. Rushed a bottle of fluid to the sink. Grabbed the thin sheet of transfer paper and stencil adorned with a single, thorned rose before she called in her client, her smile widening as she greeted her before she carefully smoothed the rose over the clean skin of the knuckle and onto the thumb.
Then, it was time to wait.
Despite the looming pressure of the task on hand, the gleam never left her eyes.
"At the end of the day, tattooing is my speed," Loskill said.
Loskill has been a licensed tattoo artist in Jefferson City for a little more than two years. She's one of just four women listed as a tattooist under the Missouri Division of Professional Registration, and of those four, she is currently the only female to work outside of cosmetic tattooing like microblading and permanent makeup.
And out of 13 licensed, non-cosmetic tattoo artists in Cole County, Loskill stands out among her male peers as the only female with a tattoo gun in her hands.
The 29-year-old had previously pursued a master's in art education and worked as a makeup artist in St. Louis before she traded her brushes for ink. With her familiarity in both, she likens the work of a tattoo artist to that of a hairdresser or salon professional — it's a service where personality matters.
"It needs to feel really good — cause it doesn't," Loskill said with a laugh.
She turned toward Siiri Parks, whose delicate rose stencil had dried, been approved and gushed over in the full-length mirror on the wall — one of the only spots not covered in intricate tattoo designs.
"OK, ready honey?"
'Because I'm a woman?'
Ready — it's a word Loskill is too familiar with.
She was ready the first time she sought out an apprenticeship and ready when the second didn't work out. Then the third. And the fourth.
"My experiences trying to find an apprenticeship? I was not said no to in the traditional sense that you would expect," Loskill said. "It was always something less direct."
One artist told Loskill he'd teach her, but she couldn't continue working at his shop — "You can't take my business," Loskill vividly remembered.
Another asked for an unusual amount of money.
"And when I asked him why his standard was different, he was very direct in the sense that he was like, 'Well you're a woman,'" Loskill said.
"OK?" Loskill had responded.
"'So, more people are going to want to get tattooed by you, and I'm going to lose business,'" Loskill remembered him saying. "And I'm like, 'Because I'm a woman?'"
It's a common theme that female, non-binary and LGBT artists in the tattoo industry get the short end of the stick. Before the prevalence of shows like "Ink Master: Angels," women in the industry were often overlooked or dismissed. And even as women over the years embraced body art more than their male counterparts (a 2012 poll found more women than men have tattoos, and Statistica in 2015 found 31 percent of American women were inked compared to 27 percent of men), tattoos on women held, and still to an extent hold, negative stigma.
For Jefferson City, which voted to legalize tattoo establishments just a decade ago Jan. 19, 2010, warming up to female tattoo artists didn't happen quickly. It took seven years for the first female tattoo artist — Loskill — to make her way into the industry.
But it wasn't just a patchwork of passive rejections.
Loskill said rushing into an apprenticeship under whatever conditions and standards she was given would not have been smart. Previous conversations with other tattoo artists helped her understand what was standard and appropriate.
"When I hear things like (you can't take my business), those are just excuses to me. And in my head, they sound like weak answers," Loskill said. "I don't want to learn from someone who doesn't have enough confidence in their own abilities."
She finally found a promising mentor in Shawn Pope at Old Town Tattoo, dipping into his well of knowledge and gathering her own. Finding and working under Pope checked all her boxes, and their conversations felt good — "better than anything else had." He treated her fairly and kept the whole process transparent, Loskill said.
After a year and 10 months, she was licensed and out the door. Typically, apprenticeships can take anywhere from one to five years.
And when she learned she was the first female tattoo artist in the area, a mix of emotions washed over her.
"I felt super proud," Loskill said. "But I also felt super weird, like that's 2017. That's the part that's like 'Woah.'"
A work of representation
Loskill doesn't take her role lightly.
In a business Loskill referred to as "feast or famine," making connections, providing a good experience and keeping the atmosphere light are just as important as the final product. Tattoos are a "deeper type of therapy," she said, and what makes a good tattoo artist is someone who sees that connection and taps into it.
Women have a "pretty good record of being trustworthy in general," Loskill said, but bad experiences can happen anywhere from male to female artists.
And as a woman, that pressure is heightened.
"If I'm going to have more notoriety because of this, I'm going to take this responsibility super seriously," Loskill said. "I understand that I'm not just representing myself. I'm not just how good is Calli — it's how good is she and her and that girl. That's the language, for real. I'm representing women."
Her notoriety, skill set and character have helped her build up a network of clients, many of whom, once they realized there was a woman in the studio, asked to be tattooed by her.
"As much as everyone would love to live in a world where things like, these external things, don't matter, we're so freshly on that wave that the majority of people still do (care)," Loskill said. "(My coworkers) are just as good and they're trained and kind, but mine is on my sleeve."
As she sat in the black-leather tattoo chair, Parks counted the tattoos spiraling down her arm.
"Seven," she concluded.
"Oh, that's No. 7?" Loskill looked pleased, a smile forming on her face.
Parks herself was a walk-in six months ago. She fell for the stipple effect Loskill is known for and decided no one else would complete her tattoos but Loskill. She's only been seeing Loskill for half a year.
"I'm letting her do my ocean tattoos for my sleeve. I like her style, and I don't want anyone else to do them, you know?" Parks said. "I like the way she does it."
Others will specifically seek out a female artist to tattoo sensitive areas.
But being sought after because of her gender can be a double-edged sword, too. For every person who thinks it's "super cool" that she's a female tattoo artist, there's someone else thinking she's probably not as good, Loskill said.
But outward appearances are far from the full story — after all, she certainly doesn't "look the part" with few, if any, visible tattoos. That, coupled with being a female, is a stereotype she's come to enjoy debunking.
Still, she said she believes being a woman in the contemporary tattoo industry is "100 percent" a benefit. And as much as her experience might mirror other womens', she also said she feels lucky to have found a supportive, organic learning environment at The Ink Sling. Fellow tattoo artist Darin Blank and owner and artist Eric Waldrop are like family; Loskill said Waldrop's children call her "aunt Calli."
Everything just lined up, "at the right moment," Loskill said.
Not looking to quit
When Jefferson City voted to legalize tattoo establishments a decade ago, it was merely catching up to the cities and states around it. In Columbia, numerous female tattoo artists are thriving. Just two hours away, Springfield's Ink Ink Tattoo & Piercing Studio is exclusively staffed by female artists.
Although she's just one within the decade, Loskill's outlook remains bright.
"We're the No. 1 tattooed clients. More women get tattoos than men. So why the heck wouldn't there be a whole bunch of female tattoo artists?" Loskill said enthusiastically. "It's something we're going to see a lot more of. In cities like Jefferson City, where the population isn't huge, in five years, there might be three of us instead of one — even that, in my book, is progress."
"It's not going to go down; I know that. I'm not quitting," she added.
Someday, Loskill said, she'd like to take on an apprentice. Teaching another female artist would be nice, but it's not a requirement in her eyes. Loskill said she doesn't want discrimination to be a part of any line of her work. But if other women are looking to learn, she would be more than happy to teach them because it's a "different experience than what men get."
"The more that we can get more women in this kind of field, the better it is for every other woman. Period," Loskill said. "You want to be looked at for your artwork and your style and the experience you give person-to-person. You don't want to be looked at as a statistic. But, while you are looked at as a statistic, you have to use it to your advantage."
One thing she's learned over the years: "This is not the profession to shy away from. You shouldn't be intimidated."