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'A dream come true': Tattoo shop in Hillsborough creates a safer space for artistry

Ayden Love, a resident artist at Critter Swamp in Hillsborough, prepares to tattoo a client on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020.

Editor's note: This story includes references to sexual assault.

Tattoo artist Ayden Love knows about many of the problems within the industry: racism, sexual assault and a "boys' club" culture. 

That's why tattoo artist clients are traveling from all over to see Love at the Critter Swamp in Hillsborough, a Black, trans and queer-owned tattoo shop that was created to combat these issues. 

The shop is co-owned by Love, J. Avery Theodore Daisey and Terin J.D.

"Critter Swamp was created for people who don’t feel comfortable going into tattoo shops," J. Avery said, "for people like us who’ve been cast aside, rejected, ignored, underrepresented in the tattoo community."

Love said they wanted to create a welcoming space because they didn't fit in with the white, straight, cisgender and male-dominated tattoo industry.

"We specifically wanted to start a studio space that felt safer for queer people, for people of color, for trans people, for women," Love said. 

Sexual assault within the tattoo industry is a national issue and one that has been specifically called out in North Carolina.

The artists inherently have the power in the relationship with clients having to comply with what they are told. When clients are not educated on tattooing procedures, some artists take advantage.

Creating a comfortable environment where clients do not have to fear being assaulted is a priority for Love. 

"I have a large portion of my clients that tell me about experiences that they've had and why they are traveling from states away to get tattooed by a queer person or what have you. It's really disgusting,” Love said.

These artists said they do not tolerate the inequalities in the tattoo industry. 

"The tattoo industry can be really racist, and just listening to the experiences of people in the tattoo community, people of color, you can really get a sense that they have to tolerate specifically a lot of racist behavior to be included,” Love said.

The artists aim to make as safe of a space as possible for their customers. 

"I don’t think safe spaces exist," J. Avery said. "I think we can try and work really hard at creating safer spaces, and that is definitely what I feel like we are doing at Critter Swamp."

Shea D. Broussard, one of Love's clients and friends, praises Love's artistry and the accepting space the owners have created. 

"To have a tattoo studio that is owned and operated by Black, trans and queer folks is a dream come true," Broussard said. 


While most businesses had to adapt during the pandemic, Critter Swamp hasn't existed without it. The shop opened in August, and before signing the lease, two of the owners had never met each other. 

"It was just a big trust fall, I guess," Love said. 

J. Avery said the pandemic allowed their space to exist. 

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"If quarantine did anything, it really made us all strive for what we really want: for our communities, for ourselves, for what we want to see in tattooing," J. Avery said. "Quarantine has been, in the shallowest of words, taxing on everyone, but most of all Black, brown, Indigenous, people of color, trans folks, queer and/or nonbinary folks.”

Critter Swamp is still able to book clients and have a steady stream of clientele, operating at appointment only. 

"We are all getting booked months in advance so it's definitely not slowing our business down, but because of the nature of the work, we've had to take a decreased client load to try and decrease the opportunity for transmission to exist," Love said. 

Critter Swamp has many safety precautions in place. The shop is regularly sanitized, and artists are tested regularly. Clients are also asked to get tested before an appointment, masks must be worn at all times and temperatures are taken. 

The owners said the artist stations are at least 6 feet apart from each other and that there is a medical-grade air purifier that runs as an extra security measure. 

Critter Swamp is doing what it can to keep its customers safe while also providing an inclusive space. 

"We all just wanted a space where we could still be in an art form that we appreciate but without what traditionally we would have to put up with to be in that circle," Love said.