June Gervais, author of Jobs For Girls With Artistic Flair (Pamela Dorman Books 2022 available in hardcover, Kindle edition and on Audible), talks about her highly praised first novel.
What inspired you to write about an aspiring tattoo artist? Why did you decide to set it in the 1980s?
My fascination with tattoos was sparked in childhood, and the tattoo shop setting felt ripe for stories.But when I started the book that became Jobs for Girls with Artistic Flair, I actually didn’t plan to write about an aspiring apprentice in the 1980s. I imagined Gina Mulley as a single mother, an established tattooer in her thirties, circa Y2K, when tattooing really began to catch fire in mainstream culture. I was 19 when I started writing this book, and I thought it would carry more weight if it included a character who was further into adulthood.
As I dug deeper into the story, however, a mentor encouraged me to write a chapter set in Gina’s youth. The resulting scene had such energy, and was so off-the-wall, that I wanted to see what happened next. The fact that Gina’s teens and early twenties would have lined up with the 1980s turned out to be a stroke of luck, because although I didn’t know it yet, tattooing at that time had a much different vibe. It was riskier, more secretive; in other words, it attracted the kind of misfits who make for good characters.
What kind of research did you do to learn about the tattoo industry?
Besides scouring books and documentaries, I interviewed and shadowed ten different tattoo artists, and every one of them taught me something unique and valuable. A few of Gina’s life experiences—like buying her first tattoo machines from an acquaintance who was headed to jail—are drawn from the life of a real-life artist, Lynn TerHaar, the first woman to open a tattoo shop in our county. Many of the fun details about old-school tattooing were furnished by Marvin Moskowitz, a third-generation tattooer whose family had a well-known shop on the Bowery before tattooing was outlawed in New York City. I spent time with Michelle Myles of Daredevil Tattoo, who is not only a veteran artist but a scholar of the art form, and runs a museum within her shop.
I often met these people through moments of synchronicity that left me feeling awed and grateful. One of the most moving was stumbling on the artist who tattooed my mother in the 1980s. She turned out to be a well-known tattooer named Marguerite, one of the first women ever to tattoo on Long Island. I’d had no idea.
At times, Gina struggles to adapt when confronted with change—or lack thereof—in both in her professional and personal spheres. Often, it seems like all the odds are stacked against her. Why was it important to you to show Gina faced with such adversity?
I want stories to be honest about the perils of uphill climbs. If you desperately want to learn a craft, but no one’s paying you to do it—and you’re already weighed down with responsibilities—and you’re short on money, time, or a supportive community—what do you do? Well—you scrape together everything you can and plow ahead; but there’s no guarantee that your labor will ever bear fruit. You can have all the self-discipline and passion in the world, work late into the night or wake before sunrise, but sometimes you’re still thrown back to square one, by events completely out of your control. So you make Plan B and Plan K and Plan Q. You dig deep and find new reasons to keep going, and you find traveling companions, if you can.
I have felt all of this keenly in my quest to write while still caring for loved ones, paying the bills, and clumsily trying to be a decent citizen of the world. All my urgency and frustration—and all the breakthroughs and moments of growth and beauty—ended up in Gina’s story.
What’s your connection to, or history with, tattoos?
I was six years old the first time I walked into a tattoo shop; my mom was getting tattooed, and she took me along. This was in the late 1980s, roughly the same time when my book is set—well before tattoos became mainstream, especially for women—and I was too young to know that the experience I was having was highly unusual. I also had no idea that culture-at-large often viewed tattoos as trashy or dangerous. Mom also studied karate, so I spent a lot of time at her dojo, where many people were tattooed. Because of her, I associated tattoos with love and beauty and strength.
Throughout my childhood, I used to sit beside my mom tracing the lines of her tattoo with my finger. That butterfly on her wrist is probably the most influential piece of art in my life. When I got my first tattoo on my eighteenth birthday, she came with me.
The book deals with dual themes of work and finding a vocation. Gina and Rick (a fellow tattoo artist) are both extremely passionate about their work while Gina’s brother Dominic fell into tattooing because he was good at it. And Anna is stuck in a dead-end job but trying to discover her calling. Can you discuss how these themes affect Gina and the other characters?
Gina has grown up in an insular, go-it-alone family where her mother and brother work to pay the bills, period; she hasn’t been exposed to people who are striving for some common good while also supporting their families. Both Rick and Anna, on the other hand, have been raised in environments where contributing to a larger community is highly valued. Rick mentions at one point that his parents are in helping professions, and even as a tattoo artist, he wants to do whatever good he can. Clues from Anna’s life point to a faith background that emphasized service. These two people really introduce Gina to the idea of vocation.
This is eye-opening for Gina, but complicates her relationship with her brother Dominic. At one point, she wanted nothing more than to follow in Dominic’s footsteps. Now she is baffled and angry when he won’t use his position as a business owner to speak out against injustice in their town—which is something I think a lot of Gen Z readers will relate to. What Gina eventually comes to understand is that for Dominic, work holds a sense of purpose, too; that purpose is just confined to his immediate family and friends. But it’s one more rift that makes Gina question whether she still belongs at this tattoo shop she always considered home.
Tattoo tastes and trends have changed a lot since the 80s. What kind of designs do you think Gina would be creating today?
Luckily for Gina, the kind of botanical designs she created for Anna have grown in popularity the past few years. So have the dotwork and stippling you see in the book’s illustrations. But in order to make a living, most tattoo artists need to do a good deal of whatever’s popular in addition to what interests them, and demand is sometimes driven by what’s trending on Pinterest or Instagram—I saw a very funny clip on Inked Magazine’s YouTube channel where artists were bemoaning how many lions and pocketwatches they’ve done lately. Gina would also probably be getting a lot of requests for lettering, tiny minimalist tattoos, watercolor tattoos, and mandala-style ornamental work, and I’m sure she’d be getting inquiries about hand-poked tattoos… But I imagine Gina getting most excited about a client who gave her the license to create a large-scale piece just for them, something imaginative and new.
The book certainly has a feminist bent, and touches on social justice—was this choice intentional or did these elements arise organically as you wrote? How does Gina think through what we owe ourselves and each other?
I think writers always circle back around to their obsessions, and from the time I was little, I’ve had this built-in obsession—in any given situation—about 1) whether things are being done fairly, 2) whether everybody is okay, and in response to all that, 3) whether I am doing enough. Sometimes I manage to channel this into effective action; sometimes it just manifests as grief and anxiety. And I think the same could be said for Gina in this book. There is no single character in Jobs for Girls who is straightforwardly, autobiographically me; but Gina gets angry about racist real estate practices because I’m angry about racist real estate practices. Anna is haunted by the specter of war because I am, too. Rick’s preoccupation with the question “De qué sirve?”, regarding his work—essentially, “what good does it do?”—is very much my own.
I love that you also asked about what we owe ourselves. In 1986 Marie Shear wrote, “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people.” And amidst all Gina’s conversations with Rick, in which her eyes are opening to other people’s experiences of injustice, she’s also having another awakening: Maybe my wellbeing and my thoughts matter, too.
If you went to Gina’s shop, what kind of tattoo would you get?
I love this question! I think I’d want an oil lamp—or maybe a desk lamp?—tattooed somewhere near my foot.
The lamp thing alludes to two quotes that were deeply meaningful to me as I persevered with this novel. One is from E.L. Doctorow: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” The other is an ancient line of sacred poetry: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” These two quotes meant so much to me that for years, I told myself: If I ever get this published, I’m going to get a tattoo of a lamp somewhere near my foot. Because the thing about the headlights is true, but I don’t really want a headlight tattoo. Although it might have a cool biomechanical steampunk vibe.
The concept of identity—whether familial, sexual, or community—plays a significant role in the novel. What do you hope readers will take away from the read?
Towards the end of the book, Gina thinks through all the specific nicknames she’s been given by every important person in her life, and the identities attached to those names. None of these encompasses the entirety of who she is. By the end of the book, she’s selected another name, and she’s lettered it into a drawing of what she hopes to do with her life.
Writer Eunice Brown, the founder of Dear Grown-Ass Women, has said, “You don’t have to like me. But I sure as hell do.” By the end of Jobs for Girls with Artistic Flair, I think Gina Mulley has become a person she sure-as-hell likes, and she may not know what’s ahead of her, but she knows for sure that she wants to bring her whole self to it. I hope readers finish the last page feeling a little like that: more alive, a little more awake. I hope they feel electrified by a similar sense that the moment they’re living in is fertile and fleeting, and their wholeness matters. And so does everyone else’s.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
June Gervais grew up on the south shore of Long Island and is a graduate of the Bennington Writing Seminars. Her many jobs have included shelving library books and taking classified ads, grassroots activism and graphic design, art direction, and teaching. Jobs for Girls with Artistic Flair is her debut novel.