Kelly Sullivan is a second year PhD student in developmental stem cell and regenerative biology. She’s also a tattoo artist with four tattoos of her own, three of which she did herself. She’s been drawing tattoos for herself and her close friends for around two years now, since she was 23, but her artistry has been with her since she was a little girl. “I’ve been doing art for pretty much my whole life, ever since I was six years old,” she says, swirling a spoon in her cappuccino. “A lot of the subject matter has kind of stayed the same. It’s a product of boredom—I get a lot of weird hobbies all the time.”
She places her ankle delicately on her knee, pointing at three black initials stamped near her ankle. “I was kind of on and off about the idea of whether or not I wanted a tattoo, and I’ve always been into DIY stuff—I thought there was something really cool about the thought of actually tattooing yourself.” One night, in the middle of grad school interviews, Kelly came home, and armed with a sewing needle, some thread, a pencil, and some India ink from the craft store, she set out on what she called a “little art project.” The result was her first “stick and poke” tattoo, a style of tattoo artistry that is true to its name. Artists take some kind of sharp point that they dip in ink. Then, they stick it into the skin—lightly, just past the surface, but not too deep. If done correctly, these “stick n’ poke” tattoos can last for life.
“It’s actually really hilarious because, this tattoo,” she laughs, pointing to a tattoo on her ankle, “well I really love Bach, and on all of his sheet music he would put the initials SDG-it stands for a pretentious Latin phrase: Soli Deo gloria, for the glory of God alone. You know, I’m like, pretty half-assed about the religious thing, but I like the sentiment: he’s doing his job for something that he thinks is a good reason-not for money or for fame-he’s doing it for god. Questionable about whether or not I do anything for God, but I like the idea of taking pride in your work. But, as you can see, “ she points to the first black letter, “I don’t really know how to write cursive. So it turns out to everybody this is a cursive L, but it was supposed to be an S. And I kind of think it’s hilarious—everyone’s like ‘what’s LDG’ and I’m like ‘it’s supposed to be SDG—my shitty Bach tribute tat.’”
Although she’s a science student first and foremost, Kelly doesn’t find there to be a stigma in the science community concerning tattoos. “As long as I produce data people don’t really care about what you look like or wear,” she says, adding, “quite a few of my friends in science have tattoos.” Admittedly though, her work in biology influences much of her artwork. “Like 99% of my art is inspired by science in some way. In general, the other art that I make I do a lot of art on lab animals and naturalistic stuff. Anatomy drawings too–I really like the old pen and ink medical illustrations of organs and stuff.”
Despite Kelly’s considerable talent, the tattoo world itself isn’t the easiest to break into. A certain resentment exists against stick–and-poke tattoo artists, since there’s no formal training required. “It’s very hierarchal and it depends on who you know and stuff. They really don’t like stick and pokers—they actually have a derogatory term for them: ‘scratchers’.” But she’s quick to add, “You know I don’t necessarily blame them. I mean if I’m doing it myself in my house I’m not going to pretend that my quality is the same as something done professionally, even if I take all the necessary precautions to sanitize my workspace.” The risks inherent with being a stick and poke tattoo artists are why Kelly doesn’t work by commission. Tattoos are something she does for her friends in her free time, outside of the lab. As one of her friends, Dylan (SEAS’18) says, “Kelly was gentle and professional, makings sure to sanitize her tools and use gloves. The tattoo she gave me is probably my favorite tattoo to date.” Despite the glowing review, science is still Kelly’s chosen future career, but she makes sure to add, “ I could totally envision myself doing tattoos at sixty as a wacky old lady as a second-wave job after I get burnt out from science.”