#GirlsWhoInk: How Philly’s Femme-Focused Shops Took the Pain Out of My First Tattoo

A Kensington-based “lady tattooer collective” is making its mark on the city.

tattoo parlor

Now and Forever Tattoo shop owner Kristel Oreto / Photograph by Gene Smirnov

Body modification was a coming-of-age tradition in my household. My brothers came home bearing tattoos within months of going to college, but I didn’t share their cavalier attitude. Those parts of adulthood that involve subjecting myself to pain, mental or physical, terrified me. Dentists’ appointments, blood tests, making small talk — these were necessary but agonizing things. I did feel that a tattoo was necessary — not only as a statement that my body is mine and mine alone, but out of love for art. Still, for years, I didn’t dare enter any of Philly’s shops to put my trust in a stranger. 

But at Now and Forever Tattoo, it’s easy to trust, for both the clients as well as the women and non-binary artists who practice there. Owner Kristel Oreto describes the studio, with its flamingo pink walls, as a “lady tattooer collective,” though it’s more like an oasis in what can be an otherwise unwelcoming field. “I wanted to create an atmosphere that wasn’t really masculine but was still true to old-school tattoo shops,” Oreto says. “It’s still a male-dominated industry. I have young ladies that tried to get apprenticeships and couldn’t … or need a safe place to work.”

The number of woman-owned and femme-friendly tattoo shops is growing nationwide, but particularly in Philly. A quick scroll through the Instagram tag “#girlswhoink” reveals places like Black Rose Ink and I Am Art Tattoo & Piercing, a shop with all artists and piercers of color. Oreto believes this wave will drastically change the industry within five years. I think I saw the beginnings of it firsthand. 

After months of Insta-stalking, I built up the courage to visit Now and Forever. A bell jingled when I opened the door and caught the attention of Marcella Harvi, that week’s artist accepting walk-ins. She directed me to an ornately decorated sitting area where her flash book full of teeth, pin-up girls and 16th-century ghouls sat on an antique table. She offered her last slot of the day. 

When 6 p.m. rolled around, I was facedown in the hot seat. The first drag of the gun was … mild. I’d spent days imagining having to sit perfectly still through sensations so agonizing that I wouldn’t be able to think; in fact, the gun felt more like a scratch. We talked a lot in the next hour and a half — about our hometowns, dating, previous jobs. Harvi spoke about wanting her clients to feel welcome and safe, not like they have to “earn” the ink. 

And suddenly, it was over. When I looked in the full-length mirror, I realized I’d eradicated the knot of self-doubt, grief and stress that had been building up inside me for the past two years. Above my left elbow sat a frog-like creature in a pointed hat with smoke billowing from the top. This funny little imp gave me a moment of levity I didn’t know I’d needed. And in semi-apocalyptic times like these, reclaiming my body in the face of my fears had lifted some weight off my shoulders.


Published as “An Oasis of Ink” in the September 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.