Unapologetic: Healing With the Purifying Power of Tattoo Pain

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Why you should care

Because there’s no price tag you can put on outlasting your adversaries. 

The tattoo shop is hard to find. If you try Google Maps, you won’t unearth much. Once you do obtain the address (via Instagram Direct), you may still have trouble locating it — the building’s exterior blends into the monochromatic ones surrounding it. When you finally enter, you’ll be greeted by a loud buzz. And there, inside Secret Fire Tattoo, you’ll find Hira Lupe and her wife, Laura, working.

The influence of horror movies, Japanese comic books and Italian art are apparent in Lupe’s work.

“As a child, I always drew a lot and I started drawing very scary things,” she says. “I liked little monsters and spirits and goblins and things like that.”

I don’t enjoy inflicting pain, but it’s a way to release other, psychological pain.

Hira Lupe

Many of her motifs include flowers and skulls. Classic fare. But it’s her whimsical animals and pastoral scenes that are fan favorites. And with 45,000 of those fans following her on Instagram, Lupe has built a large portfolio of arresting, bold and often thematically dark examples of her blackwork-style tattoos.

“I tend to tattoo one person a day and spend from five to eight hours with this person,” she says. “We draw it together and then, once they sit, they’re in pain, so I’m there to support them. I don’t enjoy inflicting pain, but it’s like a way to release other, psychological pain.”

Lupe knows about pain. Since learning how to tattoo in her hometown of Milan, her journey to become an artist in the body art industry has been filled with an unexpected amount of it. Since she made her start, Lupe has battled not only toxic environments with stifling supervisors but also bias based on her sexuality and gender. When she moved to New York, her struggle came to a head.

“I worked for this guy who hired mostly women and treated them as not real human beings,” she says. Her only ally at the time was her colleague Laura. The two began bonding over their shared experiences of feeling discriminated against and marginalized in the shop.

“When we started dating, she told me what was going on…” Lupe pauses. “That the owner harassed her.”

Their employer’s behavior changed after he learned that the couple was dating, but not for the better. Lupe and Laura couldn’t find a reason to stay. Soon, they made plans to open their own tattoo shop, looking for the perfect space to represent a new start in their careers.

At Secret Fire, they’ve fostered an inclusive and safe space where they can be themselves as artists and as people. Many of their clients have responded to this mission because they too have experienced trauma and come to memorialize or honor their painful pasts.

“[Tattooing is] a very intense job because sometimes I hear really deep stories, loss, depression,” Lupe says, “and sometimes I bring them home and I think about these people and I’m so glad that I was able to give them something to heal.”

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