Skin Deep: A Profile of San Francisco Tattoo Artist Idexa Stern

Photo: Idexa Stern

Three and a half years ago, I got my first tattoo. I’d been thinking about the idea — an abstract, halved pomegranate — for about ten years when suddenly, at 29, it felt like the moment had come to ink this idea into permanence on my forearm. But instead of just walking with crossed fingers into any old tattoo shop in San Francisco, I went around the city interviewing artists at various shops. I was searching for someone who understood my vision, someone kind and patient who saw a tattoo not just as decoration, but as a symbol laden with personal significance. Some of my friends thought I was nuts. Just check Yelp, go into a highly-rated shop and be done with it! they told me.

In the end, my diligence led me to Idexa Stern, owner of the shop Black and Blue, located in the hipster enclave of San Francisco known as the Mission. The maritime-themed shop has a relaxed, welcoming vibe with a waiting room that looks more a cafe than a tattoo parlor, the space decorated with model ships and a seafaring vessel’s wheel mounted on the wall, while a neon hook hangs in the window below the shop’s name.

Photo: Lindsay Merbaum

Idexa is a self-taught tattoo artist originally from Bremen, Germany who moved to the US in the 90’s to study with Angela Davis. When that dream didn’t pan out, she decided it was time to put aside her intellectual work and do something else. After getting a few tattoos of her own, she realized she’d found her calling.

Photo: Aurora Meneghello

Idexa got a tattoo kit and began doing design work for friends, who would then have trained artists complete the actual tattooing. To become an artist herself, she needed an apprenticeship, a position she was unlikely to secure as a woman. Instead, in 1995 she and a fearless friend opened their own shop, which catered to the lesbian community and to the lesbian S&M community, within which both Idexa and her business partner were active. Initially, the shop was by women, for women, though male clientele would occasionally inquire. “Sometimes,” Idexa says, “we’d get these cool calls from people that would say, ‘Oh, I really want to come in. Am I allowed? I’m a guy,’ and we’d be like, ‘Wow. This is amazing. Of course you can come in! And we love you even more for not assuming that you can.’ ”

Not everyone was as welcoming or sensitive, though. Idexa sensed that there were men in the tattoo community who were threatened by a woman-run shop. “We got a threat over the phone once. It definitely seemed like the guys were threatened, which we thought was kind of funny because we were all really beginners.”

The shop was also a symbol of the gentrification underway in the Mission. When Black and Blue opened its doors, the neighborhood had mostly Latino residents. As Idexa puts it, “Like the boys took over the Castro, the lesbians took over the Mission for a while. Maybe not ‘took over’ but we felt like it.” Though Idexa is concerned about the degree of gentrification that has since occurred in the neighborhood, pushing out many long-time residents while high-priced boutiques and restaurants move in, she says she can’t point fingers. “I don’t want to be acting like I’m not part of it. I have a business that’s a high-priced tattoo shop, so I participate in it.”

In 2005, after the shop had been open for ten years, Idexa bought out her business partner and became the sole owner of Black and Blue. Around the same time, the movement for transgender rights was building in San Francisco. Idexa began to see the women-only model as restrictive. She describes herself as “gender fluid” and has never believed in the duality of gender. “I really felt like a lot of things about homogenous societies don’t really work,” she says. “That’s part of why I moved out of Germany, to be with people of different walks of life, of different ethnicities and genders and sexual orientations.” In running a women-only shop, she came to feel like she had created a kind of island: a haven, but also a means of isolation. “We had established ourselves in a very male-dominated profession at the time. I felt like we really had changed the face of the tattoo world already, and so I didn’t really need to necessarily hold that spot, especially because some of the women I had taught opened shops that were women-run and they only hired female tattoo artists.”

Idexa began hiring cis gender male tattoo artists as well as trans artists. As a result, her shop became more diverse and “colorful,” as she puts it. Today, Black and Blue is one of the top-rated tattoo shops in the Bay Area, advertising as a “woman owned, gender and POC inclusive.”

While Idexa’s first tattoo was a significant symbol to her in and of itself, she also finds meaning in the act of tattooing. She describes it as a rite of passage for the tattoo-ee, a kind of ritual to which the participants can ascribe their own meaning. Often, Idexa says, we seek out tattoos because of an attachment or problem we need to let go of, such as a relationship or an aspect of ourselves we want to move past. “It’s more an awareness that there’s an unseen world, that there are things that we strive towards and that we’re inspired by and it’s not necessarily a look. That’s more learned from so-called ‘primitive’ cultures, like if there’s a mark, and if there’s blood, if there’s an intention, you can really move some energy. Most people only know that through sex. And there’s no real container for that in this culture.”

Photo: Aurora Meneghello

Idexa frequently warns her clients that their lives will change after being tattooed, though not everyone listens. “I’ve seen people years after I tattooed them and they’re like, ‘Oh my God, this whole thing happened in my life after!’ ”

Today, Idexa focuses on abstract, geometric work. “I get people who want bold, solid work,” she says. “I’m not really interested in designing anything on the computer, nor do I work with paper anymore. My clients sometimes bring sketches, but when I re-draw it, I draw it directly on the skin. So, it has to have more simplicity to it now. As I get older, basically simplifying my life, it’s kind of reflected in my work.”

Photo: Idexa Stern

When I asked Idexa if she had any advice for tattoo newbies, she suggested they sit on the idea for a few years and then, when ready, research artists in advance to make sure their styles conform with the vision for the tattoo. Recommendations from friends are all well and good, but you need to see an artist’s portfolio, check out the shop, and consult with that person before committing. “I’ve gone to shops before where it seemed like people didn’t really care and a lot of the time there was this attitude about first-timers, whereas I actually love doing first-timers, mostly because I think a lot of people really don’t have great experiences the first time. [Tattooing] is a service industry, too and a lot of artists don’t really have that down. They like to do ‘their thing’ and I don’t believe in doing ‘my thing’ on other people. I want to do ‘their thing.’ And I can help them find that.”

Idexa Stern Photo: Lindsay Merbaum