Meg McNiel hunches over a small table in her Central Phoenix tattoo studio. Inside, the place is clean and virtually brand new, but it’s just another door in an old, beat-up strip mall from the outside. Although she’s only been in the space for months, the teal walls are smothered in artwork from the last few decades — ranging from skateboard decks to tattoo-style flash paintings of pinups, eagles, and daggers created by McNiel and her friends.
In contrast to the walls, McNiel prefers the studio when it’s empty. Set up with a pair of metal tattooing stations, a couple of desks, and a handful of chairs for guests, it’s small enough that it begins to feel cramped whenever each of those chairs has a person in it. As she works, the outline of a tiger head with a couple of roses tucked behind its jaw begins to take shape on the tracing paper resting on the small table in front of her.
“It’s weird tattooing my boys’ friends,” McNiel says, brushing her hair behind her ear, which sports a midsized gauge. “I remember when they were little kids. Now, they’re 18 and coming in to get tattoos.”
With every stroke of her thick, black pen, the tattoo that will go on this teenage arm comes to life a little more. It’s not the first time she’s drawn this tattoo — she’s currently tracing over a lighter sketch she did earlier in the day — and it’s just one of the hundreds of tiger heads she’s inked over the years.
Her customers are young, but her techniques aren’t.
While other tattoo artists might take their first few sketches straight to the computer to adjust and perfect in Photoshop — or even draw the original sketches on their iPad Pro or Wacom tablet — McNiel does it the old-school way right up until she goes to copy the design into a stencil using the Thermofax machine.
The process isn’t the only old-school aspect of McNiel’s tattooing. The tattoos themselves are primarily 100-year-old American traditional designs from the likes of Sailor Jerry and Lyle Tuttle, even if they’re on someone a small fraction of their age.
At 39, McNiel’s pale skin is dotted with various faces, skulls, and snakes from respected artists like Steve Boltz from New York and Mesa’s Aaron Coleman. The right side of her head is shaved down to show her latest ink, a panther head from Travis Antoni, her partner at the studio.
As the formal start time of the tattoo draws nearer, McNiel’s studio fills with testosterone-fueled 18- and 19-year-old boys. Although most shops discourage clients from bringing an entourage, the artist’s kids and their friends usually get a pass.
“I think we should move this down a little bit, or the ears are going to look weird like that on the top of your shoulder,” McNiel says after eyeballing the stencil she recently pressed into her teenage client’s upper arm. The kid agrees, and the drawing is wiped off to clean the space for another application.
Once the stencil is reapplied an inch or two lower and in need of time to dry, McNiel begins to pour the handful of colors she uses in each design — the same half-dozen that tattooers used 50-plus years ago. As she sets up her sterilized tattooing station, her son’s friends crack jokes and stare at their phones. Her client, whose red sleeve is still hiked up over his shoulder, pulls up the camera on his iPhone to post the experience on social media.
As a teenager, McNiel’s client probably doesn’t appreciate what he’s getting from his buddy’s mom. People travel from all over the world to get tattooed by her, and anyone who knows American traditional tattoos in metro Phoenix knows McNiel’s name. She’s won awards at local and national conventions — although she doesn’t participate in them as much anymore so she can spend more time with her boys. McNiel may not have the Instagram followers of famous artists, but people around the world can identify her work.
With everything prepared, yet another historic design is ready to be applied to one of the Valley’s youth. And the needle begins to buzz.
The word “traditional” gets thrown around a lot in the tattoo world. Tattooers refer to their styles as “neo-traditional,” “Japanese traditional,” “Chicano traditional,” “Native American traditional,” and more. Those may all be traditional in their own ways, but the names themselves are all stemming from the term “American traditional,” which is the type of tattooing you might see in an old sailor design from anyone who was tattooing 50 to 100 years ago.
That’s the type of tradition that separates McNiel from the rest of Phoenix’s tattoo scene. Aside from being known for bringing her former shop at Fifth Avenue and McDowell Road — Love and Hate Tattoo & Piercing — back from the dead, not many artists play by the traditional rules. Particularly not very many female artists.
While many women in the tattoo industry (multiple studies over the last few years show that roughly 20 percent of tattooers are female) choose to stick with more feminine, softer designs, McNiel goes straight for the historically male-dominated bold style of American traditional. There are many who believe she does the best old-school American traditional tattoos in the Valley, regardless of gender.
“She does phenomenal tattoos,” says Mikey Sarratt, owner of High Noon Tattoo. “She’s a good person, and I don’t want to sound rude, but she doesn’t tattoo like a girl.”
With 200 to 250 professional tattoo shops and studios in the Valley, and at least a handful of artists at most of them, there’s somewhere around 1,000 tattooers in Metro Phoenix. Those artists vary greatly in style, from the oldest traditional tattoos to modern biomechanical and fine-art pieces. But of the bunch, Phoenix’s best old-school traditional tattooer — a style dominated for decades by burly men in intimidating shops — is a hockey mom in a private studio.
And it’s not just within the Phoenix tattoo scene that McNiel is a rarity. Even the biggest and oldest tattooed cities only have a few truly traditional tattooers, and most of them are grumpy old men who’ve been tattooing for decades.
Tattoos in America started primarily in port cities where Navy sailors would be docked for their time off during wars — particularly World War II. Over the next several decades, tattooing saw small ebbs and flows in popularity, with much of the work being done on outlaws, gangsters, and other subcultures away from the norm. Throughout the 1980s and ’90s, Phoenix’s tattoo scene was as strong as any outside of California. Although there was merely a small fraction of the shops that exist today, the Valley was one of few places to have large populations of both bikers and people of Chicano descent — two groups who carried the tattoo scene in those days.
Although the true roots and definition of “Chicano” tattooing will be debated for generations to come, it currently covers a wide range of black-and-gray styles portraying anything typically considered Chicano imagery. From hynas in clown makeup and neighborhood lowriders to portraits of relatives and names of loved ones, Chicano tattooing has always been a major part of Arizona culture.
Phoenix’s American traditional history, on the other hand, was primarily built around the area’s well-known biker scene. While other regions’ early tattoo stories revolve around WWII soldiers getting inked before going off to war, every tale about the earliest Phoenix tattoos involves one motorcycle club or another. Very few artists who were tattooing in the Valley 30 or more years ago are still working, but clients on two wheels dominated many shops well into the ’90s.
Many of those older shops have closed down or changed hands since 2000, and most of the old-school American traditional tattooers died off, both figuratively and literally. Although McNiel didn’t move to Arizona until 2004, she carries on the style and tradition that many of those bikers wore — minus the tribal armbands of the ’90s.
In 2005, the tattoo industry changed when the reality series Miami Ink brought the formerly secretive art form into the living rooms of millions. With the success of other television shows like LA Ink and Ink Master, tattoos became socially acceptable for all but the most conservative people. An outbreak of ink began to spread across the globe, and many major cities became hubs for tattoo artists.
The Valley grew rapidly over the last couple of decades, and the tattoo scene expanded with it. Aside from the homegrown talent, artists from smaller areas moved to Phoenix in pursuit of a more prominent scene while the saturation of artists and shops — a problem much of the Valley is dealing with now — and living costs of major cities drove some of the world’s elite tattooers to Arizona.
These days, many of Arizona’s top tattooers either focus on a more modern neo-traditional look or a more detailed style, whether it’s done in the manner of fine art or as a black-and-gray portrait. The Valley is home to world-class artists in some of the more niche areas of tattooing, like biomechanical tattoos and the trendy watercolor style.
In Meg McNiel’s opinion, creating a top-notch traditional tattoo just requires adhering to the same policies famous tattoo artists like Owen Jensen and Bert Grimm followed generations ago. Back in the days of WWII and the Korean War, tattooers only had access to a handful of colors. Black, brown, green, and the primary colors were the only shades of ink that existed, so those are almost entirely the only ones that McNiel will use. Most of her content consists of pinups, snakes, daggers, eagles, ships, and similarly iconic imagery.
“If you wouldn’t see it on your grandpa, it’s probably not a traditional tattoo,” McNiel says.
McNiel did her first tattoo on herself at age 13, when she wrapped a sewing needle in thread and dipped the tip into India ink. Two-and-a-half decades later, that first hand-poked moon is still on her left ankle.
Born to a dental hygienist and an architect from Beverly Hills, Meg McNiel was raised in a 136-year-old barn just outside of the small town of Issaquah, Washington, roughly 30 miles east of Seattle. With nothing but a Dairy Queen and a pizza joint to entertain the neighborhood kids, McNiel spent most of her childhood playing with friends and exploring the geography that comes with living at the foot of a mountain.
With the closest movie theater more than 10 miles away in Bellevue, McNiel was left to explore the surrounding wilderness with her brother and group of friends. Even if the young McNiel wanted to be a princess-like girly girl, Issaquah wasn’t the place to do it 30 years ago.
“You just had this gang of kids roaming around, and everyone had a certain call,” McNiel recalls. “When my neighbors heard their triangle, it was time for them to go home. When you heard that whistle, that was my dad. If you were up on the other side of those woods when it was starting to get dark and you heard that call, you hauled ass through those woods.”
As if regularly tubing down creeks and riding her bike through the woods wasn’t rugged enough for McNiel, the barn her family called home hadn’t yet been fully converted to a modern house. The barn was constantly under construction, and one had to climb up and down an aluminum ladder to the second floor just to get in and out — a hazard that kept many of her friends from being allowed to visit. For other parents, it was a safety nightmare, but for McNiel, it was the playground she grew up in.
When McNiel was in the third grade, her parents divorced. McNiel’s mother always lived within a mile of her father’s barn, so neither parent ever felt too far away.
Throughout her childhood, McNiel’s artistic mother would draw on her. The young girl would wait until after school the next day to wash it off, allowing time to show her new temporary skin art to her friends.
By the time she was 13, McNiel had been introduced to the art of making homemade tattoos by a documentary about the late-1970s LA punk scene called The Decline of Western Civilization. Considering that neither her parents nor their friends wore any ink — and tattoos weren’t a common sight in the small towns of late-1980s Washington — the young artist didn’t see tattoos in real life, but she already knew she wanted some.
“Some people see a tattoo and that’s what sparks it,” McNiel says. “I don’t think I saw one person and it sparked something, I think I saw the process of creating a tattoo, and that sparked something.”
After practicing with that one tattoo on herself, McNiel began tattooing her friends. At 16, McNiel went into a shop and lied about her age to get the hand-poked tattoo her friend had done on her shoulder blade covered up. Once she had one professional tattoo, it was a lot easier for the teenage McNiel to convince other artists she was over the legal age of 18. For the next several years, McNiel got increasingly bigger tattoos and more involved in tattoo culture.
“I always felt a little bit more complete or better about myself when I left a shop with a new tattoo,” McNiel says. “It felt like that’s what was missing, and it still felt that way just recently when I got my head tattooed.”
Through her late teens and early 20s, McNiel served as a counter girl and piercer at a pair of local shops. She wanted to learn to tattoo, but formal apprenticeships were hard to come by — particularly when you’re pregnant and/or nursing a pair of babies over the course of a few years. There were no “tattoo schools” two decades ago, and even the ones that have opened up recently are shunned by most of the tattoo community. Instead, McNiel just began asking the tattooers questions to pick up everything that she could. One way or another, she was going to learn how to professionally tattoo.
The ashes fall off of a lit cigarette and onto the small parking lot next to McNiel’s private studio in Central Phoenix. It’s been a little more than a decade since she moved to Phoenix, and she’s definitely left her mark on the city. Her artwork hangs in the stations of tattooers around the world. She brought a floundering historic tattoo shop back to its former glory. And she’s done it all while having enough time to watch her younger son win two state championships with his hockey team.
Before she could land a job as a tattooer in Washington, McNiel moved to Arizona in 2004 so her sons would be closer to her then-husband’s family.
Although her marriage of 13 years didn’t work out, McNiel soon found a job opening for a tattooer in a small Scottsdale tattoo shop. When asked if she had any formal experience tattooing, McNiel gave the owner a vague affirmative answer, and the job was hers.
The first shop was the kind of place where people would go to get their first tattoo or a little vacation keepsake, so it was the perfect place for McNiel to learn. Within six months, the young tattooer rose to the top of the ranks of the artists at that shop, so she jumped ship to a more respected shop in Scottsdale at the time, Divinity Tattoo.
After a few years at Divinity — where she saw her tattooing skills skyrocket to new heights — McNiel took her artwork to Phoenix’s Love and Hate Tattoo & Piercing. Although the shop had lost its luster in recent years, the building had functioned as a tattoo shop since the ’90s, when it was Blue Dragon Tattoo — which later opened up shops in Glendale and Flagstaff.
Through the late 2000s, McNiel established herself as one of the Valley’s top traditional artists while at Love and Hate. But in 2009, she took the first step toward righting the struggling shop when she and coworker Danny Ross purchased the shop from the previous owner.
“When I got to Love and Hate, that shop sucked,” McNiel says. “People were not down to spend money on tattoos, and the shop was a mess. The owner gave me free rein to do with the shop as I wanted, so I redid the whole shop. We did construction, we brought in our own guys, we changed the clientele and the reputation of that place.”
McNiel left Love and Hate last year to spend more time with her sons. Already, she wasn’t taking too many walk-in clients, and she was really only in the shop when she had appointments, so she didn’t feel the need or desire to continue with the daily hassle of running a major tattoo shop.
After bouncing around to a couple of other shops, McNiel decided to split a private studio with one other artist. Travis Antoni worked with McNiel at the last shop each of them spent time at before opening the studio, and the two of them say they enjoy the privacy of their new space. With no exterior signage and an address only given to customers, the unnamed studio is only open when one of the artists has an appointment — which is just how they like it.
McNiel’s younger son, 17-year-old Cedar, sits behind the desk of her studio. He works on homework while one of his 18-year-old buddies gets inked.
The day before, McNiel did marriage tattoos on a recently wed couple; she’d been tattooing them for so long she was invited to their nuptials. The day after, it’s another regular who’s having his full back done. But for one day, today, McNiel is giving a family discount to spend time with her offspring.
Aside from her regular maternal duties, McNiel does her best to attend as many of her sons’ hockey games and other events as possible. The proud hockey mom travels all over the state to watch the contests, but don’t expect to see her on the ice any time soon.
“Cedar took me ice skating once, and I told him if I fall and break my wrist that we wouldn’t have anyone who could pay the bills,” McNiel says. “He spent the whole time just dragging Mom around. I think that’s the last time he invited me to go skating.”
Although McNiel’s family life and tattooing career collide more and more as her kids and their friends cross the 18-year-old boundary, McNiel’s found a second family within Phoenix’s tattoo community. For High Noon’s Sarratt, McNiel is almost like an older sister.
“I first met Meg when we decided we were going to do a flash set together, and I was pretty nervous because she’s a badass and I was still coming up at the time,” Sarratt says. “We did this super-cool flash set, and she would always give me shit because I use purple in a lot of my tattoos. Meg is as traditional as traditional gets, so she doesn’t use purple.”
In some cities, that kind of camaraderie between two artists at nearby shops would be nearly unheard of.
“I don’t think any of us think of each other as competition,” McNiel says as she begins to lay the first lines into a nervous 18-year-old’s shoulder. “I think we all have different enough styles, and I think Phoenix has enough people getting tattooed to keep everyone busy. We all just try to be good people who want to do what we love for a living. If you’re not in it because you love it, or you’re just trying to make money, those are the people who need to stop tattooing.”
And now she’s done talking. She has a tiger tattoo to get back to.