Balm Tattooing: Bodyart can be more than skin-deep

The definition of the word balm, “a preparation used to heal or soothe the skin,” and common synonyms for the word, “comfort, support, relief, cheer,” in a sense, describe the vision of a west-side Grand Rapids business, Balm Tattooing, which opened in July. Partners and tattoo artists, Emily Kukawka, Sarah Sun and Tiffany Elmergreen each bring their own distinct style and philosophies to the space, but all are committed to creating a safe and welcoming environment for each client that comes through the door.

“It’s not just women who face uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous experiences in [tattoo] shops,” Sun explains. “We have a lot of folks who are non-gender binary, non-gender conforming, and trans who come to see us. We have people who self-describe as fat who say they feel welcome here, not shamed. Black clients who say we give options for using colors of ink and don’t bury the needle into their skin or suddenly raise our rates.”

All three partners bring years of experience to the business. Kukawka, who has been tattooing since 2015, finds inspiration in the organic shapes and whimsical elements of nature. Her tattooing space is surrounded by antique treasure and pebbles. With 10 years of experience, Elmergreen employs an American traditional style, with bold lines and vibrant color. She considers tattooing as sacred work, wants the experience to be fun and memorable, and encourages her clients to speak up and ask questions.

"We are tattooers and our job is to create and translate art to skin but Balm’s specific vision is to do that process with care," Elmergreen says. "Even though we are a women-owned and operated tattoo shop, we are not here only to tattoo women. We are here for guys, gals, and our non-binary pals. 

Sun also has a background in social services — her resume includes work with people who were experiencing homelessness and teens in alternative education. So, she offers tattooing as a means for some clients to process past trauma.

“I don’t think everyone should get a tattoo and it’s going to be some magic cure,” Sun says. “But it gives people ways to reconnect and reclaim their body and affirms the individual for who they are and ... celebrates the individual.”

Sun works on a sliding scale with these trauma victims, many of whom are reentering their lives after incarceration. She doesn’t ask them to prove their income or talk about their circumstances but notes that many “disclose a lot of intense stuff.”

“We have people covering up marks from trafficking, pimps’ or other names — removing or covering this constant reminder of something in the past or that was out of their control,” Sun says. “Tattooing can be a tool that aids people in some of their reclamation.”

One client, working in retail, was tired of the negative reactions her customers expressed when they saw scars from past self-harm on her arms. While the flowering tattoos Sun used to mask the scars didn’t hide them completely, the client now gets positive comments and feels more accepted.

“I personally have tattooed a majority of women, a fair amount of self-identifying trans men but also cis-men,” Sun says. “None of us is anti-man. I wasn’t looking to have a woman-owned shop, but we three aligned with each other. We’re just looking to create a space where people feel supported, listened to and celebrated.”

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