Meet three Sacramento tattoo artists with an enduring connection to its LBGTQ community  

Angela Lopez at work.

By Ruth Finch

Part of Sacramento’s diversity includes boasting an array of tattoo artists for anyone who wants to get inked up. But for some, especially queer and trans people, the idea of getting a tattoo can seem daunting. For locals with those concerns, there are several artists in Sacramento that serve the LGBTQ community almost exclusively.

Angel Lopez

Angel Lopez started tattooing in 2016. While Lopez’s eclectic style is constantly evolving, some of the artist’s standout work has brutal motifs of drippy branching spikes, sometimes with the contrasted text of the tattoo saying “SOFT”, “BUTTER”, or “THERE IS SO MUCH LOVE HERE FOR YOU.” Lopez’s work ranges from the wholesome to the macabre.

Lopez’s tattooing journey, like many who try to get into industry as a shop apprentice, featured many obstacles.

“I’ve been wanting to do this since I was a small child and I finally got a yes,” Lopez said. “But when I did get a yes, there were Confederate flags in the shop.”

Lopez experienced sexual harassment after moving to another tattoo shop which is no longer in business.

“He also grabbed my ass before,” Lopez recalled of the owner. “He’s married with a kid near my age, and I was like 19.”

After that shop closed down, Lopez moved on to another shop, but didn’t feel safe there either. It was robbed while the tattoo crafter was taking a break outside during a session – with a client still inside.

“He came up to me and he was like, ‘Dude, I just had a gun pulled on me,’” Lopez explained. “After that, I left.”

After the latest departure, Lopez was able to find a new shop, Cloud 9 Tattoo.

“I’ve been there for seven years,” Lopez noted. “I feel really comfortable and safe.”

The majority of Lopez’s client base is a part of the LGBT community. Some are looking for an artist with experience tattooing over top surgery scars, which Lopez has, as well as recognition of the self love that can stem from having tattoos – even allowing some clients to appreciate parts of their bodies they felt insecure about.

Recently, Lopez did a large piece on one client’s lower abdomen and thighs that helped quell that insecurity.

“They were like, ‘I used to be really insecure and I just bought a bikini because I want to show it off,’” Lopez recounted.

Another long-time client of Lopez’s, Jay Shepherd, talked about how tattoos from Lopez helped with gender dysphoria.

“I am nonbinary transmasc, which means I have a lot of weird bad feelings about my chest,” Shepherd said. “It did not feel right or look right on my body, it was something that just decided to show up there.”

Shepherd chose Lopez to help after getting tattoos from the artist in the past, which fostered trust between them.

“They would ask if something was okay every step of the way,” Shepherd said. “I feel very safe around them.”

Shepherd also got a tattoo from another artist in Sacramento, Wren Hernandez.

Wren Hernandez

Hernandez got started tattooing in 2022 with artwork that showcases graceful line work depicting the natural meeting the divine. Whether human, animal or something else entirely, there’s a sense of the celestial in Hernandez’s work.

“I kind of like, pick and choose a little religious iconography here and there for my own selfish gay purposes,” Hernandez mentioned.

Hernandez is from Vacaville, but growing up there – whether getting tattoos or otherwise – was not comfortable.

“They’re very traditional tattoo shops, and like, it’s traditional in a good way,” Hernandez acknowledged. “But also traditional as in like there’s just a bunch of like old scary men in here.”

So, Hernandez’s decision to start tattooing included a need to leave Vacaville. Similar to Lopez’s experience, the journey had its share of roadblocks. While Hernandez was taken on as an apprentice at a shop in Rocklin, it came at a high price.

“I was told by the boss of the shop, ‘Yeah, you can stay here, just pay me $150 a week and you can stay here,’” Hernandez remembered. “I could watch them tattoo. I had permission to clean up the shop and sweep and mop up after them.”

Those artists made Hernandez start tattooing immediately, which seemed bizarre. Hernandez did just five free tattoos before starting paid jobs. It was extremely difficult to learn the craft this way.

“It was pure chaos,” Hernandez said. “I was sharing a station with five other apprentices who were also paying him $150 a week.”

Hernandez says the boss was threatening to “fire” apprentices, even though they were paying him to be there. After three months, Hernandez couldn’t do it anymore.

“I almost didn’t have a dollar to my name because I was really desperate to get my foot in the door to stay,” Hernandez reflected. “I was kind of forced to leave because I didn’t have that much money.”

A year later Hernandez found a new shop, Affirmation Tattoo. The artist felt welcome there and was able to learn in a more productive way that felt safe.

“I saw the rainbow flag in the window and I’m like, ‘Okay, maybe I’ll be okay,’” Hernandez said.

When Shepherd got a tattoo from Hernandez, the vibe at Affirmation was cozy, with plants everywhere and reassuring decorations. It was a noticeable contrast with the sterile, American Traditional heavy environment of other tattoo shops that Shepherd had visited.

“I mean, it’s called ‘Affirmation Tattoo,’” Shepherd pointed out. “How much gayer can you get?”

Julianne Marella Villegas

Julianne Marella Villegas started tattooing in 2019. Villegas’ delicate childlike style draws inspiration from anime, Steven Universe and vintage toy collections.

“I’m also inspired by this idea that embracing your inner child, the cuteness, the colorful, feels a little rebellious to the kind of adulthood that I was meant to have,” Villegas said.

Villegas is a handpoker, a style where each dot of the tattoo is individually set into the skin by hand, with no machines involved. It leads to a soft, almost pastel image on the skin. Villegas prefers the experience of giving a handpoked tattoo to using a machine.

“I get a more intimate understanding of the skin as well, in order to find out how to better apply this tattoo to each person,” Villegas detailed. “It’s so easy, so gentle.”

Villegas ultimately ended up working at Mission Gráfica, a youth nonprofit print shop.

“I had the dream that a lot of little queer brown kids have where I want to do better for my community,” Villegas said.

But after pursuing art in high school, and then going to art school, Villegas found it difficult to make some decisions related to a nonprofit. Securing funding to start art programs and organizing those efforts took time away from the community Villegas wanted to serve.

“I would be meeting people who weren’t in my community more than I was going to meet people in my community,” Villegas recalled. “It’s a bitter pill that’s hard to unswallow.”

Villegas turned to tattooing to form meaningful relationships with people in the community, hoping to create a space for people to feel emotions like sadness and grief that’s still comforting and soft.

“I feel like there’s something about being a fat brown queer trans polyamorous person that I’m not really being given an opportunity that often to be soft and cute and not be taken as so aggressive,” Villegas explained.

Through their art, Villegas wants to help others accept parts of themselves that they found difficult to accept before.

“I’m healing myself by being able to embrace what I couldn’t embrace being girly, embrace being pink,” Villegas said. “To be someone who embraces tenderness and emotion.”

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