To this day, people will still walk into Yer Cheat’n Heart Tattoo in Hermosa Beach and talk to Lisa Bracero as if she’s the receptionist. Sure, it doesn’t happen as much as it used to, but plenty of folks still expect their tattoo artists to be big, bearded, burly men.
“There are definitely guys who come in and won’t talk to me,” Bracero says while sitting at her tattooing station, located just a few hundred feet from the ocean. “They come in and they’ll talk to the guy in the room, no matter who it is. There are girls who do that, too, but I have no clue why a girl would specifically want to be tattooed by a guy.”
Being mistaken for a shop helper, secretary or arm candy is a plight all female tattooers face, and Bracero has actually had it a bit easier than many other women in the industry. While others may have dealt with sexism and misogyny from their co-workers, Bracero is lucky enough to have spent the entirety of her nine-year career (so far, at least) tattooing at two different locations of the same shop.
“I started getting tattooed at 15, and at 19 [in 2005] I started working at the [Gardena location] as the secretary,” Bracero says. “I became friends with everyone there, and that was my wedge into tattooing. I would sit there and draw flash in my free time, and eventually the boss let me start an apprenticeship.”
After more than a year of scrubbing toilets with toothbrushes and repainting the shop, Bracero’s old-school apprenticeship gave way to a career as one of Yer Cheat’n Heart's full-time artists. When the shop opened its second location, tucked away among the bars and restaurants of Hermosa Beach, Bracero was asked to switch locations. It’s a particularly fitting spot for an artist who gets the West Coast aesthetic.
“I think a place like New York is more focused on artsy tattoos, whereas it’s a lot more laid-back out here,” Bracero says. “It’s the surfer stuff, all the traditional, the gangster black and gray cholo style, all of it. It’s definitely different everywhere, like you look at European traditional tattoos and it’s so different from ours.”
While many tattoo shops hire women to do more feminine tattoos and to make female clientele feel more comfortable, Bracero's style makes her stand out. While most of her work could be considered American traditional (think of Sailor Jerry designs) and neotraditional (more colorful and detailed tattoos that often stem from traditional tattoos), the young tattooer’s unapologetic use of strong colors and heavy black lines allows her to create everything from a dainty butterfly to a masculine dagger.
“I think some of my tattoos are a little feminine, but a lot of dudes are my clients and I’m always glad to hear that they’re not,” Bracero says. “When I go into a shop, I want to look at [tattooers’] portfolios. I don’t care if it’s a guy or a girl doing my tattoo, it’s about what their tattoos look like. When guys come in here, I’ll show them my portfolio and I think it changes their mind sometimes.”
It makes sense for Bracero to be skilled at masculine tattoos, given her background. As a child, the ink slinger saw poorly done jailhouse tattoos anytime she hung out with her extended family. Even her initial interest in the art form came from tracing the outline of her uncle’s questionably removed tattoo when she was just a kid splitting time between Carson and the Puerto Rican countryside.
“Both of my uncles had tattoos, and my mom just used to give them shit for it all the time,” Bracero says. “When I started getting them, I got called every name in the book. After I got my first tattoo, I wore jackets around [my family] for a week before my mom came into my work one day and made me take it off. Now both of my parents are so supportive that my mom even says 'tatted' because she thinks it’s cool.”
Of course, Bracero’s parents have learned plenty about their daughter’s profession over the last decade (even if the artist is embarrassed by their attempts at slang), but that doesn’t mean Bracero has escaped the ignorant questions that come from people without tattoos. Whether it’s a friend, a family member, a client or just a passing stranger, there’s one thing Bracero wishes more people understood about tattoos:
“Not every fucking tattoo has to have a story behind it. I have tattoos because I like tattoos and I saw someone’s artwork that I really liked. They don’t all need a lot of meaning or a story.”