Nichole East Talks the Power of Tattooing Through Healing Ink

Image via Healing Ink

If you follow Nichole East (aka Baroness East) on Instagram, you’ve likely seen her paling around with some of tattooing’s most well-known artists.

East currently does brand management and marketing for elite tattooers including Nikko Hurtado and Black Anchor Worldwide. Prior to working in the tattoo industry, she was the the marketing director for the limited-edition toy company Kidrobot.

The position, says East, gave her a unique opportunity to collaborate with tattoo artists and she credits Kidrobot with launching her current marketing career.

From Toys to Tattoos

“I love tattoo art,” says East. “When the opportunity came for me to curate my own toy line, I chose tattoo artists Joe Capobianco, Mike Rubendall, Grime, BJ Betts, and a few others to create a limited-edition toy release.”

That introduction to Capobianco altered the course of East’s career, as she started to get tattooed by him and quickly developed a friendship with him. “I pretty much owe my tattoo career to Joe because he is the one that introduced me to Nikko, Jime Litwalk, Bob Tyrell, and everyone,” she says.

When Kidrobot decided to move its headquarters to Denver, East started working as the manager of Capobianco’s shop, Hope Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut. But the East Coast weather prompted East to move to sunny California, where she settled in and got to work.

“I’m not sure where my career is taking me,” says East. “All I know is that I love tattooing, and being part of this community has been an adventure.”   

Giving Back to Victims of Terror

East is a busy woman, who balances a lot of plates. But making time to give back and promote art as a healing vehicle is important to her.

In 2016, East joined forces with Craig Dershowitz, the founder and CEO of Artists 4 Israel, to launch Healing Ink, an organization committed to using the power of tattoos to ease the physical and emotional pain caused by war and terrorism.  

On the organization’s first trip to Israel, eight tattoo artists joined East and Dershowitz and tattooed in the Israel Museum in front of priceless artifacts and on Dizengoff Street, where a terrorist took the lives of innocent victims only months before.

“Getting people to commit to go to Israel has been a real challenge because of the way we have been shown the Middle East in the media,” says East. “I thought it was going to be all dirt and camels and we’d be in a war zone. I think a lot of the artists families feel the same and don’t really support their spouse going overseas and taking that risk. But man is it cool to change the perceptions of people.”

healing ink tattoo in museum

Since that first trip, Healing Ink—which is funded through donations and the support of Artists 4 Israel—has grown and given tattoo artists the chance to use their creative skills for good in locations all over the world.

“This year we are putting together our fourth trip to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv,” says East. “We’ve also tattooed survivors of 9/11 in New York City, those affected by the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, have done tattoo removal on women who have been sex trafficked, and will be doing an event in Chicago around gun violence this year.”

Healing Ink: Changing Victims’ Lives

East explains that for many of the people tattooed through Healing Ink, the experience is about more than just getting a nice piece of body art. It’s something that goes much deeper.

“Before Healing Ink, I knew little about PTSD. But after tattooing almost 100 people in our program I really have an understanding of how much of an issue it is for people who have been through traumatic experiences,” says East. “We hope that by these survivors getting tattooed it gives them an opportunity to reclaim their bodies.”

healing ink artists

The logistics of bringing tattoo artists and supplies to places like Israel and Tel Aviv is challenging, says East. But the team is committed to tattooing in locations that hold significant importance, and that often means having to transport tattoo beds, ink, and machines to areas that aren’t necessarily equipped or set up for easy and sanitary tattooing. At the end of the day, says East, the difficulties are all worth the extra effort.

For tattoo artists who participate in Healing Ink events and overseas trips, East explains that it is a humbling and life-altering experience. “Once you hear all these stories and then meet these people face to face and see how positive, how loving, and how much they appreciate their life—nothing can compare,” she says. “It makes you just want to do more for them.”

Involvement from Female Tattoo Artists

On every trip that Healing Ink takes, East says it’s important to involve female tattoo artists. Women including Megan Jean Morris, Ryan Ashley Malarkey, Savannah Colleen, Virginia Elwood, Michelle Myles, and Natalie Quintana have all participated in tattoo events through the organization.

“All these relationships just happen as the universe unfolds,” says East. “Some of these women I have known for many years through being in the industry and some are new friends.”

Megan Jean Morris healing ink

The camaraderie between tattooers forged through Healing Ink is something that East says is very special. “Everything unfolds just the way its suppose to on these trips and the relationships that we create during and after are really a gift,” she says.

Promoting Equality for Female Tattooers

East is a firm believer in building up women and she’s not shy about admitting that the tattoo industry still has a long way to go to put female artists on the same playing field as male artists.

“I feel hopeful about the future but there is still a LOT of work to do,” she says. “The day that I see a woman tattooer on the cover of a magazine without her legs spread will be a day I will smile.”

Though East respects and applauds any woman or female tattoo artist who chooses to model, she says that many tattoo publications and the industry as a whole tends to put unnecessary pressure on women to look and act a certain way.

“Not only do you have to be a talented tattoo artist—you also have to be ’sexy’ or you’re not gonna get any shine. Fuck that,” says East. “I see normal ass dudes on the cover of magazines all the time and none of them are asked to pose in their boxers or with their shirts off.”

East sees strong female tattoo artists starting to be respected and admired for their artwork and hopes that the trend continues as more women pursue tattooing as a career.

Her advice to female artists? It’s simple—be true to yourself.

“Showcase your talents and don’t succumb to the societal pressures that you have to always be ‘more’ than what you are,” says East. “You are already a talented woman. Embrace that and move forward knowing that you are enough.”

Images courtesy Nichole East and Healing Ink.

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