For our most recent local shop feature, we visited Rose Red Tattoo & Permanent Makeup in Ellicott City, MD, a shop committed to professionalism and creating a welcome environment for any and every client; Rose Red Tattoo has given more than one customer a “happily ever after.” View the shop feature post for more details on Rose Red’s mission and history. The following supplement is a transcript of the interview with Lisa Doll, tattoo artist and owner of Rose Red Tattoo & Permanent Makeup.
Danny (PP): Which came first for you: the permanent makeup or being a [conventional] tattoo artist?
Lisa Doll: Originally I did regular, conventional tattoos. I started in 2011, did that for a couple years, and then decided to get into the permanent makeup and add that along with it.
D: So, what inspires you as a permanent makeup artist? Like, what first gravitated you toward wanting to do that kind of work?
Sure! So I originally started doing permanent makeup, because I had a client that came in who was severely burned. She was 19 years old and a year prior, she was at a bonfire party. Someone had thrown diesel gasoline into the fire and it created a fireball. She shouldn’t have even been alive; it was pretty extensive… her burns and everything. I was tattooing some parts on her legs, and she came in once and she had gotten permanent makeup done to kind of re-give the look of some features and eyebrows; and that got the gears turning. [I thought], “You know what, I think I could do totally do that.”
It was about a year after that, that I officially looked into the world of permanent makeup, how it related to tattooing, and decided to go to school [to] learn that side of things. I didn’t want to just assume that because I did tattoos, I understood the anatomy of the face. I figured I would learn something, even if it was just some techniques. I very much wanted this certificate. I took this seriously. I went to school, I graduated, and I got the certificate. I joined some professional societies on that end of things as well, just to further make sure I knew what I was doing, and then started adding that to what I did [originally] as a tattooer.
D: What was your experience like going to school for permanent makeup? Did you enjoy it?
I did. It’s very much like the tattoo world in the sense that there is a little bit of run-around involved where you feel like you’re not getting all the information that you thought you were getting and you paid for. [It’s like] they’re only giving you about eighty percent and the rest of it you have to figure out; but it was something that I was able to do safely and do well. I just had to then continue on to take it to that next level and [do it] really well, and become one of the “top people” who can do different things with [permanent makeup].
Meeseun (PP): And I’m sure being a part of those organizations helped with the networking aspect and being recognized as someone who’s “legit.”
Absolutely, yeah! Legitimacy was really important to me. I knew some tattooers who would start doing other types of things, like permanent makeup or whatever, and they were just kind of winging it, which I felt was very disrespectful to the client. Especially because it’s your [client’s] face. It’s a totally other world.
D: Right, and you went into it with some experience because you threw yourself right in—
—Yes. That was super helpful, having that conventional tattoo experience. It really just gave me a leg-up on everything.
D: Was it nerve-wracking when the burn victim came to you that first time and you were tackling that project initially?
Yeah. Luckily, we kind of eased into it. At first, we were tattooing areas that weren’t burned… you know, just places on her foot. She was actually a big music fan, and she would go and get certain emo band signatures. So, at first I was just tattooing that kind of stuff.
Then, eventually, she had skin graft areas, which is where they take skin from [one] area and try to put it in other places. It’s scar tissue, but it’s still much easier to tattoo. I got used to working with that. We never really tattooed on her burn scar areas, because a lot of it just wasn’t really workable in that way; but the skin graft areas, we were able to work with.
D: Since we’re on that topic, what do you find are the challenges that present themselves when you’re doing something like a scar cover-up?
The challenges are definitely meeting the client’s expectations, because we’re limited from the get-go. You know, you’re dealing with a 3D surface, you’re trying to use lights and shadows to kind of bring in a design that camouflages [the scar] and make it not look 3D; you get rid of the scarring and that kind of thing.
And a lot of times, clients don’t want it to be very big… and it has to be pretty big. [The clients] have certain design elements in mind that just may not work at all for the tattoo. So, right off the bat, it’s kind of... defragmenting that process; it’s like, okay, I understand you want a nautical scene that’s four-by-four, but that’s just not gonna work for this. What we could do is bring in some nautical elements and make it a lot bigger — you know, that’s the realistic expectation [for what] we can do.
D: So, the client comes to you with an idea and you have to customize it according to what the scar dictates.
Exactly. Yes. [It’s] trying to meet both sides of trying to customize what it is that they want, but then the reality of what we have to work with and what’s gonna make for a really nice tattoo.
D: And it seems like the most common scar cover-up tattoos that you do are post-mastectomy?
D: What was your experience like first starting with that? Do you remember your first [post-mastectomy] client?
Yeah. When I started with that, it was before I opened up this business and everything, including permanent makeup. [That is to say], I had started doing permanent makeup and post-mastectomy tattoos before I opened this place.
[These are] similar situations [to conventional tattooing], with even more emotional things going on… where [the clients] are unhappy about their body and their body image in some way, and they’re looking for you to improve that. So, you get even more wrapped up in the complexities of everything. That’s why I feel like it is important to have a very real and direct conversation with them, and make sure that those expectations can be met.
From the get-go, there were certain clients that I turned away and said, “I don’t feel comfortable, because I don’t feel like what you want and what I can actually do are going to meet up, and I don’t wanna be a part of something else that is gonna make you unhappy about your body.”
I want to be here to— it’s not just about the money, you know what I mean? A lot of that stuff I did at first was pro-bono or very low-cost, so I could get used to the area and help out the women. I wanted to be a positive addition.
D: And it’s probably initially disappointing for them, but in the long run, you really just want to give them something they’re happy with so they can embrace their scars.
Sure. I had some women email me who I had turned away at first that said, “At first I was a little upset, but honestly, the more I thought about it, I don’t really want a tattoo.” [laughs]
And I agree with [them]. I don’t think it would’ve been something I wanted, because they’ll come in, and they’re already... almost, like, cranky. They’ll be like, these are all the things I don’t like about my post-mastectomy. I don’t really like tattoos and I don’t really want a tattoo. I don’t really care about cherry blossoms, but maybe we can do some cherry blossoms.
M: [laughs] Geez…
D: [laughs] Yeah, this sounds like a project I don’t want to take...
[laughs] Yeah! And I’m like, yeah, you’re going through a lot in your head, and I don’t think this tattoo is gonna help you with that. Maybe look into some other avenues or some reconstruction or whatever you might like… explore all your options.
So, I wound up building a network of people that I recommend, like certain dermatologists or surgeons who I know that do really nice work that I’ve seen. So, [rejected clients] typically don’t leave here without me at least recommending something.
M: So, how do you first prepare for a post-mastectomy tattoo? [And] can you talk to us about the first one that you’ve done?
Oh my gosh. [laughs]
M: [laughs] It was some time ago, huh?
[laughs] Hm, yeah let me think about the first one I ever did. I believe… Okay. So the first one I ever did was [on] a woman who actually had very minimal scarring. It was just on one breast; it was a scar that went down the center. It was mainly due to… a lift, after everything, that kind of thing. We did something real basic. We just put a nice flower on it and then brought in some leafy filigree and left it at that.
So, when it comes to preparing for [the tattoo], it’s a pretty similar process as everything else where you sit down with them, you talk with them about all their ideas, you look at the area, and you take pictures of the area for whatever you need, like if you need to trace it. And then when they come in for their appointment, I show them the drawings based on what we talked about.
Placing it on the body is really important. There are some times when, once I put the stencil on, we’ll take a look at it, and I’ll be like, I think we need something else over here or let’s bring these leaves out a little fuller… whatever the case is. So, it’s a collaborative effort the whole time.
D: And I’m sure you learn a lot about [the client’s] story during the tattooing process.
Yes. That’s one of the things where almost regardless of what you’re doing, whether it’s sensitive subject matter or not, people want to tell you their whole life story because they’re used to seeing it on [the tattoo shows on] TV. They’re like, oh, what do I do? I go get tattooed on Miami Ink and I tell them all my deepest, darkest secrets and all the horrible things that have happened to me in my life.
So, it’s the same, you know, of course with anything cancer-related. This is a part of their journey, so whether I pry or not, they typically tell me all about their situation. And it does give me a lot more insight into what they go through, even [into] the medical community, you know, how some of the doctors and surgeons just see them as money. They’ll do multiple surgeries [the patients] really don’t need, and then they’re left with these undesirable results. It gives me a lot of perspective.
D: I read an article about your experience with Nicole O’Hara. That was really touching. She said she didn’t used to like tattoos or something of that nature, but she felt like this really helped her embrace her post-mastectomy [body image]. Are there any [other] really significant reasons that clients have given you for wanting these tattoos?
Sure! One lady in particular, she wanted a butterfly representing her tattoo design, because there was a woman she had met in some of the self-help— like counseling for when you find out you have cancer— support groups! That’s what I’m looking for. And [that woman she met] didn’t make it; she passed away. And that was something that really affected [my client]; so she wanted the butterfly to symbolize the woman who passed away.
And I thought that was really touching as well, because you kinda forget that your clients are meeting other people who are going through the same issue and a lot of them pass away.
D: Right. And I noticed from your portfolio — which is awesome by the way; I spent way too much time perusing that before this interview — I noticed there were a lot of florals in your scar cover-up tattoos.
D: So, is that a common request from scar cover-up clients?
Well, yes; that’s actually a common thing that I recommend, especially because it’s a subject matter that most women are comfortable with. So, like you mentioned before with Nicole O’Hara, she said she wasn’t necessarily into tattoos before this. So a lot of my clients just come to me saying they just want something pretty and feminine… floral is just the perfect genre to go with.
Also, it’s very organic; I can really bring it in and use it to cover up scars and still have it look intentional. You know, it doesn’t look “off” or a little bizarre; and we can make it busy enough, too. So, it really just suffices all the design elements I’m looking for when covering scar tissue and things like that.
M: Have there been any clients who don’t want to go the floral route?
Yes. So, I have some clients who, right off the bat, are like, I don’t want floral. And I’m like, cool, well, let’s talk about some other options!
For example, there was one lady I had who I did a watercolor mermaid for. She didn’t want the mermaid’s face shown; she wanted the view to be from behind, almost like the idea of a woman diving into the water.
M: Oh, wow!
D: That’s pretty cool.
So, I was able to curve it around the breasts in a certain way that covered up the scarring; and because it was very expressionistic with the watercolor style, I could put colors wherever I needed to. That was very successful and didn’t have a flower in it.
D: What’s the most challenging custom scar cover-up you’ve ever done?
There was a lady who, when she was 10 years old, she had really bad burn scars from— I think it was boiling water on the stove. So, most of her arm was just completely scar tissue; but she came to me in her 50s, so [the skin] was very old and it was very mature. That was the only reason I was even able to work with it. And she was like, you know, whatever you think will work... maybe floral!
It was very challenging and difficult because we knew we weren’t going to be able to hide the texture, because her whole arm was that texture. It was the idea of just trying to pull the eye away from what was going on.
But I was very happy with the successfulness of it. We pretty much took roses and just [put them] all over; I made them large so they would cover more space and kinda work with some of the divots. So, for example, if the arm— let’s say you have a space that’s puffy, but it has some divots in here [points to arm], I try to use the flower to work with that to make it look like something that was intentional.
D: Do you find that you get more requests for scar cover-up tattoos or typical permanent makeup procedures like microblading?
I would say my load is about sixty percent permanent makeup, scar cover-up stuff, and the rest is just regular custom tattoos. Part of that is because that’s the way I like it to be. I still very much enjoy doing non-specialized — if you will — tattooing. Because at the end of the day, I started wanting to make a lot of pop-culture fantasy tattoos; and those don’t necessarily have a place in [scar-cover-up and permanent makeup procedures].
So, I still very much want to hold a space for that. The ornamentation that I do kind of goes both ways [for conventional tattooing and scar cover-ups], so that’s nice. I like doing the gem stones and a lot of the Art Nouveau kind of style. Antique-y ornamentation, and luckily, I can pull some of that into the post-mastectomy tattoos as well; but I like it when I can just fully realize something and put it on a leg, and you know, not have to worry about all those other elements.
D: Yeah, totally. Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about your normal [conventional] tattooing style. I noticed a lot of gemstones in your work and whimsical, mystical features that are really cool. So, how did your style sort of progress over time?
Sure! When I first started, it was just kind of anything and everything. I was blessed and cursed with versatility; and what I mean by that is it’s great to be versatile and do a little bit of every style, but it’s also a curse because it’s harder to find that niche for yourself. Because when you can do a little bit of everything, you are kind of like, well, what do I settle on? What’s something that I want?
For the first couple years, I struggled with having a specialization because it seemed like what I wanted to do and what the world wanted me to do were two separate things. I liked doing weird stuff, like what I would call “playfully dark” stuff; and even though I loved it and I thought it was cool, it just seemed like my client base at the shops I was at were like… nah. [laughs]
It took a few years for me trying to figure out, you know, what is something that I really love that I can customize, but also clients really want? Because I can draw all day at home and make my weird stuff, you know what I mean? But if no one else cares about it, it’s pointless to bring into the career aspect.
Over time, I found that people really did enjoy my representations of ornamentation and gemstones and popular culture. You know, now we talk about Netflix, we talk about movies, we talk about shows that are on; and, I sort of tapped into that interest. I was like, okay, I’m going to start making tattoo designs that are based on popular images and popular things that are going on.
D: I think that’s true of any art form, you know, finding that balance between what you really want to do versus serving a client base. You always have to strike a good mix between the two.
Sure! And a lot of it, too, is… what am I actually good at? You know, because that’s a legitimate thing! At first, I was really pushing for something that I was decent at, but wasn’t really good at. So, then, it kind of just worked its way in where sometimes a client asks you for something; you do it, and then you’re like, man, I’m actually really good at this! This is something that really stood out! I should probably keep pushing that and keep going with that.
So, that’s pretty much where the gemstones and the ornamentation came in. I had been doing them pretty simple for a while without trying to go for the realism aspect. And then recently, I was like, I’m going to do [gemstone tattoos] to the nines and not worry about price or anything, because that’s the other issue — designing things and being like, well I can do this, but can people really afford it? [laughs]
You know what I mean? Because it’s going to take me a long time. So [in] trying to find that balance of, like, how can I make this look so amazing, but still keep it somewhat affordable? I feel like with the gemstones, I found that balance.
Mhm! I actually just won an award for it—
D: —Oh, wow! Nice!
—at the Baltimore Tattoo Convention. I’d done gemstone tattoos before, but I would consider this one to be my first realistic, really powerful gemstone. It was on a client, who I know is great with [being receptive to ideas]… [I can always say], “Hey, I’ve got this idea for this piece, give me your skin.” [laughs]
You know, I can’t be like, hey, pay me all this money for this tattoo that isn’t going to be in my portfolio, you know? So, she came in and it was on her arm, similar to something like this [points to her own gemstone tattoo].
D: That’s really pretty.
Thank you. I did the tattoo and posted it, and it just kind of went off from there.
D: I missed you at the convention, though!
I didn’t work it this year! I actually just showed up Sunday to put in stuff for the contest. [laughs] I was feeling a little burnt out. Last year was super busy for me. Lots of travel and lots of conventions... so this year I kind of picked my faves.
D: So, you found your style with tattooing, you went to permanent makeup school, and you talked a little bit about this before the interview... What’s the history of becoming a shop owner?
We had talked earlier about how I started doing what I call the “baby” version of what I do now, which is the permanent makeup and post-mastectomy stuff. The shop I was working in [at the time] just wasn’t conducive to that environment. It wasn’t “street-shopp-y,” but it wasn’t… refined? [laughs] I don’t know what word to use. It was more about the “fringe society,” the alternative lifestyle of tattooing…
M: The subculture.
Yes, the subculture, which, actually, I feel is irrelevant when it comes to a career. You know what I’m saying? I’m in a rock band, I’ve gone on tour, I play rock music, but who cares, right? If you’re coming to get a tattoo from me, you don’t care about my lifestyle! You care about [my] art and what is going to be put on your body.
So, it was creating issues. You know, these women are coming in [to fringe shops] and are scared of the environment. It’s all out in the open, they don’t have privacy, and I was having a hard time charging what the permanent makeup was worth in that area, because they’re like, I don’t see why I should pay you this amount of money, because it was too casual… that’s the word I’m looking for. It was way too casual and subcultured.
I got to the point where I was like, okay, I can’t think of anybody in Maryland that I necessarily wanna work for and do this type of work with because none of the shops… at least that I was aware of really fit that, so I’m gonna open up my own.
In my life, I’ve kind of had to force a lot of things. For some people, things come easy. Not for me. All my life, I’ve been like, this is what I want and I have to break into the window to get into it, you know what I mean?
M: And that makes it more worth it!
Sure! But, before I did tattooing and everything else, what was easy for me was management roles. So, that was something I knew from the get-go. I’m not worried at all about the business aspect or being a good business owner. It was just a matter of putting the two worlds together… the delicate balance of having a custom tattooing environment with the more sensitive aspect of doing the post-mastectomy tattooing and permanent makeup; and I feel like I did a pretty good job. It was very successful.
D: Yeah, and you’ve created a really custom, unique environment for people to feel comfortable in when they get a tattoo. Especially for people who aren’t familiar with the tattoo industry, who walk into those fringe shops and feel scared.
Yes! They are, they’re very scared. And for me, I also noticed that it seemed like a lot of the tattoo community was fighting against where tattooing is, and where it is going, which is [into the] mainstream. It’s very mainstream. So, I opened up a business that caters to our clientele and our demographic instead of trying to fight against the demographic.
The majority of people who get tattooed are actually female. They’re the largest demographic, which a lot of people don’t realize. Yes, they might just get smaller tattoos or get tattooed once or whatever the thing may be... and, I like having a studio where you can get tattooed, but you can also bring your mom or your grandma, and everybody has a good time, and they all have a good experience.
D: My mom was actually with me for my first tattoo when I was 18.
M: Yeah, I was just thinking, too, that both my mom and sister have permanent makeup done. It’s funny because we get into these little... quarrels, because [my mom] doesn’t like the fact that I have “actual” body tattoos. She’s like, I don’t understand! And I’m like, you have them on your face! [laughs]
[laughs] Yeah, there’s a misconception. There are a lot of women who get permanent makeup that don’t consider them tattoos.
M: But it makes sense for the environment, too. I know— what you were saying with the shop that you used to work at, where women would come in and wouldn’t like the environment or feel comfortable— I know that someone like my mom would walk in and just be wide-eyed [like a] deer in headlights! [laughs]
[laughs] Yeah, so that was the thing, I felt like I was working really hard, but unfortunately, the places I had been working were hindering the direction I was trying to go in. Not that there was anything wrong with the shop per se; it just didn’t work with where I was trying to go. So, that’s pretty much what started everything.
M: Yeah, and I think that’s important to keep in mind with any business venture, you know? You want to keep in mind how your clientele will feel about the space that they’re coming into and the work that’s being done.
Yeah! And it was also being in certain situations where other businesses take advantage of artists that work there, there’s not a lot of empathy going around. I wanted to open up a place that was the opposite of that.
Everybody here [at Rose Red] is our employee. They get health insurance… you know, this is a real job. I wanted to attract other artists that understood that. This is not [a place to] “come to work, get high, and be elitist,” you know what I mean? Like, “oh you want a butterfly? Whatever.” and then complain that you don’t have any money and you can’t pay your child support.
So, this is a real job. We are professional artists and our medium happens to be skin. I wanted this place to be just like if you went into maybe… you know, if you contracted somebody to do a logo for you or graphic design, whatever. Instead, it’s custom artists making artwork uniquely for your body. It’s an environment that is supposed to be very conducive to everybody involved in it.
D: That’s awesome!
M: Did you set out to have it be… is it an all-female shop?
I did not, actually. It breaks some people’s hearts. They really love the narrative of really strong females [who are like] we don’t like men, or whatever. [laughs] But, that’s not at all what it is. It just organically came that way. The reasons for that, we can surmise, but everybody that has applied has been female. I’m a female business owner, so I’m sure that’s attractive to other women, especially since there are some issues here in the tattooed community with female tattoo artists in a male-dominated environment that wears down on female artists a lot. Then, they see this place and they’re like, maybe I can come here and not have to deal with all that mess. So, it is a beacon for other female tattoo artists. Obviously with the permanent makeup and everything else, it has a bit more of a female aesthetic to it. I would love to hire a man in the future. It’s just about being talented and working with this environment. That’s all.
D: And that male-dominated aspect… that contributes to the whole intimidation factor when you’re going in for your first tattoo. [points to arm tattoo] This was my first tattoo, like a tribal phoenix type thing. They [originally] drew this thing up to be huge, and I was like, this is my first tattoo, I want it to be smaller; and they said, “No, it’s gotta be this big.” And, actually, the only female artist there was like, “Guys, it’s his first tattoo. Shrink it.” Which is important, I think, for professionalism and attracting more clients.
Of course. And I think it goes both ways. We still have a large male demographic and clientele; so it’s not like we’re just tattooing women here. We also tattoo plenty of men. Even some of [our male clients] have said online, “I just feel really comfortable with the female tattooers and this particular environment.” So, it works out for both.
M: I think, in general, society is moving towards creating a lot of these “safe spaces” for people and I’m sure when people come here, they feel like they are coming into a safe space.
Absolutely. And with the mastectomy stuff, too, it’s not as [well] promoted, but I do a lot of work with the transgender community. When they go through their reassignment surgery, a lot of times, no matter what side they’re going from, they have issues with their nipples or areolas; they might be scarred up or lose their color. So, they’re looking for the same services, and having an environment like this is so much nicer for them than going into some other studio where they feel like they might be judged, or just have to be all out in the open and explain their story to everyone whether they want to or not.
D: You’re doing some really admirable work. What are the challenges you find present themselves being both a shop owner and a custom artist?
It’s a lot of hats. To do them all well requires more than a hundred percent. I think it takes certain personality types. It takes certain almost obsessive qualities to make all those things work, which I happen to have.
M: We know a thing or two about obsessive qualities. [laughs]
It has to be something that is kind of all-consuming, even above relationships. That can suffer, you know, because if your husband is at home and he’s like, hey I’d like to see you, and you’re just like, nah! [laughs] You’re number two! I’ve got this number one! [laughs] This just takes all my time. You know, when I’m done with this, then we will hang out.
The challenge obviously is if I’m focusing on business stuff, like when I change everybody to employees; how is everybody doing? Are they busy? You know, taking into account everyone else that works here.
The studio is awesome in the way that it’s set up, but it’s also hard to hire because of all the aspects [involved]. I don’t want to force anyone into this mold, so trying to find an artist that is talented, specialized, likes a mainstream clientele, wants to be an employee and buy a house and you know, contribute to society... and be personable, it can be difficult finding all that. I feel so lucky to have the people I have here as it is.
And even things with the building… like the tree I was talking to you about earlier, and needing an arborist to come and cut some of these trees. That takes a lot of my time and energy that I could have been putting into drawing more tattoos. You know, doing more art studies or becoming a better artist.
So, it’s a constant balancing act of making sure you’re putting in enough time into both sides, so they both can grow.
D: Well, that’s about all the questions we have for you, but I’ve been ending interviews with a really cheesy kind of general question.
D: What’s your favorite part about being a tattoo artist and an artist in general? It could be anything!
Sure! I think my favorite part is just how impacting it is for both sides. I like meeting people, I like having a lot of the conversations I have with my clients, and kind of like we were talking about earlier, just really getting an idea of their lifestyles, their different points of views… I love that. Whether I agree with them or not, I always love hearing people’s viewpoints on life and their personal experiences; so tattooing them and creating an image that’s going to be on them forever is first a great honor, I feel. I think it’s awesome. And then getting to just experience people in general is just awesome.
D: That IS awesome. Thank you so much for having us.
M: Yes, thank you so much!