“The date is fuzzy, but as near as we can figure it was 1991,” TeeJay says of the year she got her start as a tattoo artist.
Fuzzy, maybe. But one thing's clear. A respect for individual dignity—and disinterest in trends and critics—have served her well these past two decades.
A Rochester native who lives in Irondequoit, TeeJay entered the profession at Sailor Fred's Golden Needle on Lyell Avenue in Rochester. Today, she owns White Tiger Tattoo, with area locations in Greece and Webster. She shares those spaces with a handful of fellow artists, and relishes watching them grow into a craft she loves.
TeeJay has also made a name for herself across the country—with all kinds of folks. Each of them, a willing canvas.
“I have one client who regularly travels from New Jersey, and another who comes up at least once a year from Texas,” TeeJay says.
“Pretty much the only thing my customers have in common is they're all over 18 and want to have tattoos. Beyond that, they vary widely.”
The tattoos they want vary, too. A delicate origami design that seems to cast a shadow on the skin. Intricate patterns of motorcycle gears and chains. Birds. Banners. Portraits. Pocket watches.
And—in a category by itself—reconstruction. The kind that follows breast cancer procedures.
“My medical tattoo clients are even more varied—other than all being women. Many of them never wanted a tattoo nor expected to find themselves with one,” TeeJay says.
Her masterful hand gently recreates the colors and contours of a nipple lost to surgery. For many clients, it marks the close of a traumatic chapter in their lives.
It's a life-affirming experience for her clients—and her.
“There are hugs and tears sometimes. And nervousness. Some of them have a great sense of humor about what they've been through, and some are desperate to move on. They allow me to be in their physical space and be a part of their healing process,” she says. “Some have become friends.”
“There are moments I've shared with clients that have meant the world to me. I've had people come back years later and tell me that their lives have changed for the better based on some conversation we had during their tattoo session.”
Living proof that the mark you leave is in direct proportion to the hearts you touch.
* * *
P.S. — TeeJay received her own first tattoo when she was 18. It's a small dagger on her ankle with a rose wrapped around it. “It was done by Debbie Cooper of Underground Tattoo Studio,” she says. “I don't know where she is now.”