Berkeley, California, might just be the only place on the planet where you could spot lagoon-loving vaquita porpoises, Arctic polar bears, delicate inflorescences of Texas wild rice, and honeybees all at once—in tattoo form, at least.
Since the presidential election, Modern Electric Studio has been holding monthly fund-raisers to benefit organizations that support causes threatened by the Trump administration. On these Flash Fridays, artists create a selection of tattoo designs thematically related to the organization’s work for $100 to $200 a pop. Offering up skin-and-ink versions of endangered wildlife, their March event raised about $2,400 for NRDC.
So far the studio has selected each month’s donee in direct response to Trump and co.’s most recent actions—and there’s been no shortage of causes to choose from.
The first event, on November 11, benefited Planned Parenthood after it became clear that Mike Pence would soon bring his dismal record on reproductive rights to the vice presidency. When the Army Corps of Engineers sent an eviction notice to the Standing Rock Sioux, Modern Electric raised funds for the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council, which coordinates medical care for those protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. An American Civil Liberties Union benefit followed on the heels of the administration’s Muslim ban. Most recently, NRDC’s turn came as Scott Pruitt began stacking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency with climate deniers and plotting crippling blows to the agency’s budget.
In a “manifesto” published on Facebook, the studio writes: “Tattooing has given our family a unique weapon with which to push back. By using our art in service of human rights and environmental protection, we are afforded a chance to make material contributions and foster discourse around these causes.”
In other words, these tattoos-for-a-cause allow Modern Electric’s clients to put their money where their mouth—er, epidermis—is. Aaron Nassberg, the shop owner, says that with each prick of the tattoo needle, the decision to promote conservation, defend indigenous rights, or fight for social justice becomes “physically encoded” into the body in a way that a monetary contribution alone might not. (Of course, for those disinclined to getting inked, there’s nothing wrong with donating to an organization you support without changing your body forever.)
“In a way, you are defining who you want to be. Every time you put a tattoo on your body, you are choosing to embody that permanently,” says Regina Larre Campuzano, an artist at Modern Electric. “It’s a good way for people to remind themselves to show up for the fight every day.”
Getting a tattoo is a highly personal decision and an expression of bodily autonomy. And even with flash designs that are repeated on many others, there’s ample opportunity for individual significance. According to Campuzano, one client selected the bee tattoo at the NRDC fund-raiser in honor of her parents, who were both undocumented field-workers. The woman’s father was deported many years ago. “Her tattoo is an ode to her parents’ work, to reclaiming her heritage, but also to the importance of both bees and immigrant labor for our survival,” Campuzano says.
With the artists’ chairs crowded with folks devoted to the same kind of activism, the talk in the studio on these Flash Fridays inevitably turns to the issues at hand. Campuzano says the spirited dialogue transforms what would otherwise be a personal moment into a chance for community building. It’s not uncommon for people to exchange phone numbers at the end of the day.
And these types of conversations continue long after clients walk out of Modern Electric’s doors. “People are going to be asking you about your tattoos forever,” Campuzano says. Each time, the fund-raiser attendees will have an opportunity to share the importance of the issue they chose to modify their skin for.
The artists spend the lead-up to the fund-raisers researching the designated organization’s mission and using their unique style to visualize its efforts. For NRDC, Campuzano included a vaquita, the world’s rarest mammal, on the design sheet, because the group has been a leader in the campaign for their conservation.
“It is probably inevitable for [vaquitas] to go extinct during my client’s lifetime, but they’re still going to live somewhere in a really powerful reminder of what we’re doing to this planet,” Campuzano says. “It’s still going to be around in someone’s skin.”
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.