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Inspirational Ink

The tattoo artists at Heirloom Arts go by their first names and are, from left, K8, Katie, Stephany, Mae and Lacey.
Tattoo shop helps turn unwanted scars, markings into art

The tattoo artists at Heirloom Arts may not be able to take away the emotional and psychological scars left behind by domestic abuse, but they can turn physical scars into distinctive marks of beauty and transform hate symbols and gang signs into signs of survivorship and new beginnings.

“People come to us with scars or tattoos that their abusers made them get, and we work for either a reduced fee or sometimes for free, depending on the situation, to get those covered up. That’s often a big part of the healing process: to not have to look at the thing that the abuser gave you,” says Mae Risk, a tattoo artist and owner of the tattoo shop, located at 1919 Stearns Ave., near Kleinstuck Preserve.

“It’s an important process for reclaiming your body and some of that healing. Many find us through word of mouth. Some also come through organizations such as the YWCA.

The shop also stands out as a safe haven for the LGBTQ+ community — it employs five tattoo artists, all of them female or identifying as nonbinary and each having their own tattooing rooms. The artists cover scars and unwanted markings with new tattoos, changing lives in the process.

“I learned about Heirloom from a friend,” says Ayla McLain, a tattoo recipient. “I wanted to find a shop I could trust with deeply personal tattoos but was afraid to go just anywhere because of how personal these pieces were. I’ve had a lot of work done at Heirloom.

“My favorite pieces are my half sleeve, which is a cover-up of several tattoos my abusive ex-husband forced me to get. It was a long road coming, and it isn’t finished yet, but it meant a lot — being able to close a chapter of my life.

“Another favorite is one that is above a scar I received from an IED explosion. It’s a bit from a poem that says, ‘I fell apart many times, so, what does that say about me, besides I live through wars?’ and it has an image of my staff, my keffiyeh, and medical supplies placed over a gravestone with a Palestinian flag. I’m Palestinian, and I worked as a medic out of Al Shifa for several years, and it was a deeply personal tattoo.

“This was the first tattoo I got at Heirloom. It brought me to tears and was one of the biggest reasons I kept coming back. It really helped me come to terms with the body I have now: one that isn’t as strong as my 20-year-old self, but one that overcame torture and violence and survived wars and abuse.”

Heirloom Arts was co-founded by Tempest Anderson and Eddie DeGraw in 2018. Risk took over full ownership in 2022.

Risk hadn’t always intended to become a tattoo shop owner or artist. She earned a bachelor’s degree in costume design in 2017 and a master’s degree in public history in 2019 from Western Michigan University. After spending some time working in theater and museums, she realized it was not the path for her. When she received her first tattoo, she discovered another passion.

“My first tattoo was during my undergrad years,” she says. “It is a quote from the French Revolution that I really liked — ‘Women, wake up!’— written by a feminist revolutionary named Olympe de Gouges in 1791. She was responding to a declaration of rights for the French that had not included the rights of women.”

While de Gouges earned many enemies for her feminist stance, Risk has instead encircled herself with women who are very much awake and have taken a stand of their own. The five tattoo artists — Katie, Stephany, Lacey, Mae, and K8 — each have their own style and their own portfolio of work referred to as “flash.”

“Flash is a slang term for pre-drawn art,” Risk explains. “It comes from old-school tattoo shops, when the members of the military would buy tattoos from sheets of other artists’ work. They were some of the first to get tattoos.”

Risk has lost count of how many tattoos she herself has gotten since her first one. “I know I spiraled from there,” she says, laughing. “I have, I don’t know, maybe 70 now? Maybe 80?”

To hone her artistic skills, Risk completed an apprenticeship and is now focused on neo-traditional and color work, creating tattoos in every color imaginable.

“Every state has different regulations for tattoo shops,” she says. “Michigan rules are pretty lax — pay for a license, and you’re set. Most people go through apprenticeships. They ask if a tattoo artist they like might take them on. Apprenticeships can last many years.”

Heirloom Arts was recognized in 2023 by the Kalamazoo Start-Up Center for its commitment to excellence and to the community. In addition to offering tattoo services, Heirloom Arts hosts events and painting workshops, holds fundraisers to help with AIDS research and to support survivors of domestic violence, and presents educational seminars for young people on how to be safe when getting tattoos.

“We go to Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo Valley Community College once a year — we are working on making it once a semester — and talk to some folks there,” Risk says. “If you are 18 or 19 and haven’t had a tattoo before, you may not know what to look out for when picking a shop. Make sure your artist is wearing gloves. Make sure your artist signs a waiver. Things like that.

“It really is an issue in the industry, unfortunately, where abuse and harassment can be a thing. Telling people who don’t know about that, that it’s OK to walk out of a situation, is powerful information that we feel good about passing on.”

Risk encourages tattoo recipients to speak up if they are not comfortable with the service they are receiving or the work of the tattoo artist. “There is tattoo abuse out there, but fortunately not so much in our Kalamazoo community,” she says. “We just want people to know that they have rights — and that Heirloom Arts is a safe space for everyone.

Customer McLain adds, “I love Heirloom — for the patience they’ve had with me and for the work they’ve done in making that a reality. Sure, some of the art they’ve done for me has just been good fun, but a lot has had deep meaning and been deeply healing, and their ability to handle both fun and cute art and deep, meaningful art has been amazing. There’s no other shop I would trust with pieces this important.”

Zinta Aistars

Zinta is the creative director of Z Word, LLC, a writing and editing service. She is the host of the weekly radio show, Art Beat, on WMUK, and the author of three published books in Latvian — a poetry collection, a story collection and a children’s book. Zinta lives on a small farm in Hopkins, where she raises chickens and organic vegetables, and wanders the woods between writing assignments.

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