A Utah studio teaches women how to tattoo — and stirs controversy in the industry

Sugar Studios offers a training course as an alternative to apprenticeships, which its owner argues can be toxic for female artists.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cami Todd tattoos Angelia Palmer at Sugar Studios in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023.

Editor’s note • This story has been updated to include additional context and comments.

There’s a neon pink sign, reading “Sugar Dolls,” that greets visitors to Salt Lake City’s Sugar Studios, a beauty and body art studio.

The pink matches the aesthetic embraced by owner Erica Basden and several of the women who work with her — representing what they said Sugar Studios stands for and is trying to normalize in the body art industry: Creating a female-run studio that encourages growth and education for women in what they dub a male-dominated industry.

According to the career website Zippia.com, just over 29% of the tattoo artists in the United States are women.

”When I was younger, I remember I wanted to get into tattooing,” Basden said, “and the only people that would even consider it were guys that are, like, wanting to date me in return or something. It was just this very uncomfortable feeling, where I had to feel like I had to date this person in order to gain any knowledge, basically.”

Sugar Studios, at 1816 S. State St., “came about because we felt like there wasn’t really options for, especially, women in the industry that were welcoming and safe,” Basden said.

Basden is offering a new approach: eight months of classroom-based training rather than apprenticeships, usually for two years, with established artists.

There are Utahns who have been working — some for years — to create safe ways for women to learn tattooing, other artists point out, pushing back on Basden’s characterization of the state’s industry.

With those efforts ongoing, in a state where there are limited regulations on the industry, Basden’s studio is stirring controversy.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Erica Basden at Sugar Studios in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023.

No state licensing

In Utah, individual artists within the tattoo industry are “very unregulated,” Basden said.

Body art businesses face county health regulations involving health and safety standards — such as sanitation procedures, said Nicholas Rupp, spokesman for the Salt Lake County Health Department. Salt Lake County currently has 438 body art businesses with active permits; 172 performing piercing and tattoos, and 266 doing permanent cosmetics.

Salt Lake County, like other health districts — such as the Bear River Health District in the Cache Valley, the Utah County Health Department, and the Southwest Utah Health District in St. George — require body art businesses to get a permit from their local health department first. (Anyone thinking about starting a body art business should check the regulations with their local health department.)

Statewide, though, Rupp said, “the state has chosen, at this point, not to regulate individual artists.”

Other states may require artists to be licensed, Rupp said. In Utah, such licenses — issued by the Division of Professional Licensing — are required in other cosmetology fields, such as hair care and massage therapy, he said.

Tattoo artists, Rupp said, “don’t have to pass a licensing exam, like some other personal services type practitioners do.”

Generally, Rupp said, Utah has a history with the notion of “buyer beware.” With tattoos, he said, it falls on the person seeking an artist to make sure they know what they’re doing.

“We don’t necessarily implement consumer or individual protections at a regulatory level right away,” he said. “We sometimes wait and see until there’s an obvious need, which may not always be the best prevention.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tayven Wellington tattoos Olivia Young at Sugar Studios in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023.

Learning the trade

It’s crucial, Basden said, for would-be tattoo artists to learn their craft — such as understanding different skin types, color theory and needle usage. And artists need to practice.

Around Utah, there are few schools or formal programs to attend to learn the art of tattooing. There’s the Utah Tattoo Training Academy in Midvale, and some tattoo salons offer apprenticeships — if an aspiring artist can find a shop that will take them on.

Basden said she has seen drawbacks to a traditional apprenticeship. “You’re basically the shop assistant for a year or two,” she said. “Usually it takes over six months before they’ll even give you any type of information. You have to go and earn it. It’s very gate-kept.”

And apprenticeships can be toxic for female artists, Basden said.

“We’ve had multiple women come from other traditional apprenticeships where they just didn’t really get the education that they wanted,” she said. “They’ve also been put in just uncomfortable situations, where they were kind of taken advantage of, or worse.”

Cami Todd, an artist at Sugar Studios, said that when she first wanted to be a tattoo artist, she spent about a year looking to get an apprenticeship. She said she read online that the best way to get signed on was to build a rapport with a shop — and to do that, she said, she went into one shop repeatedly to get tattoos, spending money in the hope of learning more.

For her new approach at Sugar Studios, Basden said, “we wanted to give them the opportunity to come and learn in a classroom setting, and not have to go and assist for years or try and find the right space.”

The training program, she said, is structured like a tuition-based trade school, split into two phases. In the first phase, students go through an eight-week course, learning the fundamentals and practicing on fake skins.

“In that eight weeks, we provide them with all of the information and all of the skills to really focus on line work and just to try to pull some clean lines,” Basden said.

Students who want to keep at it go on to phase two, which Basden said “is a six-month period where they will start on fake skins. Once they are doing clean, fake skins, they submit them to the mentors. If the mentors approve it, then they’re allowed to tattoo. Then they do have to complete 50 clean tattoos to graduate.“

”I would call it a eight-month trade program that teaches you the fundamentals of tattooing to get you started,” Basden said. If someone leaves halfway through, she said, there’s not much she can do. But if they complete the whole program and its requirements, she said, she “100% believes that they’re ready to be a tattoo artist.”

The Sugar Studios website lists other options for courses and training, including an “accelerated” apprenticeship option. The website also lists a third phase, called booth rent, where artists can stay on and practice after they’ve completed the trainings. (Other artists also can apply for booth positions, Basden said.)

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cami Todd at Sugar Studios in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023.

Advocating for apprenticeships

Sara de Azevedo, tattoo artist and owner of Locust Tattoo in Salt Lake City, said she and many female tattoo artists like her have “dedicated their lives” and spent “years training” to learn their art, often starting with apprenticeships.

An industry member in Utah for 22 years, de Azevedo said working one-on-one with an experienced artist is often an effective way to learn. She has not seen apprenticeships as widely negative experiences for women, she said.

De Azevedo has an Instagram account, SafeTattoosUT, in which she shares information on what she considers “reputable” tattoo artists — and how to spot what she calls “certification scams.”

She finds it frustrating, she said, to see businesses “using horror stories … to scare people out of getting real training.”

De Azevedo said aspiring tattoo artists need a two-year traditional apprenticeship, to understand how to create tattoos safely. Expedited courses and certifications, she said, aren’t taken seriously within the industry. “It is a piece of paper with a cute design,” she said. “It has no legal merits. It has no industry value.”

She considers Sugar Studios and similar training programs to be “selling this inclusivity for women and support for women,” she said, with a pitch that appeals to “women who don’t know about tattoos.”

In the Sugar Studios model, she said, “the people teaching them just graduated themselves. It’s [a] blind-leading-the-blind sort of situation. None of them have experience in the tattoo industry.”

Basden confirmed she has “hand-picked mentors from the women in the studio” who have graduated from their programs. When Sugar Studios started, Basden said, they had mentors from other shops, but they “didn’t put any effort into lessons, or they didn’t show up.”

Basden defended Sugar Studios’ eight-month program, “that we put a lot of hard work into. … We wish that the community was more understanding, because our program is not a scam.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jacqueline Langlois at Sugar Studios in Salt Lake City on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023.

‘Visibly rebellious’

Basden said 15 students are currently in phase two — and over the last year and a half the studio program has been opening, some 40 students have gone through it.

”You get to see them grow and improve,” said Jacqueline Langlois, an artist at the studio and a mentor. “It’s gratifying for me more than anything — seeing them take their first little steps with a thick skin and getting better, and then taking their own clients.”

Just as Sugar Studios says it aims to create a welcoming space for artists, Langlois said the artists try to do the same for clients.

Recently, she said, two young women came in to get tattoos to commemorate their leaving The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Langlois said that, being a current church member, she was able to put them at ease.

The artists at Sugar Studios said the popularity of tattoos is growing in Utah.

“Utah is a very conservative state,” Basden said, “but there is such a huge community that gets tattooed.”

“People want to be visibly rebellious here,” Todd said. “It’s a form of therapy.”

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