A few years ago, tattoo artist Leila Haile was commissioned by a friend to cover up a tattoo of kanji symbols. The friend, who is not Japanese, no longer felt comfortable having symbols from someone else’s culture inked on their skin.“It was through that interaction that I was like, ‘People shouldn’t be ashamed to get this done,’” says Haile, who is also the co-founder of Ori Gallery on North Mississippi Avenue. “You should be proud to be accountable.”
After working on that commission, Haile’s Kuroo Tattoo (833 SE Main St., leilahaile.com/kurootattoo) began offering negotiable pricing to cover up appropriate designs. But Kuroo diverges from the tattoo industry’s hypermasculine, white-male biker-dude culture in deeper ways. In addition to specializing in melanated skin, Haile offers an extensive consultation process that discusses clients’ relationship with their body and establishes what will allow them to feel most comfortable during the session.
Sometimes, that’s just a matter of allowing the client to watch a movie on the projector installed in Haile’s cozy, plant- and book-lined studio. Other times, consultations include detailed care plans and meetings over lunch to establish a rapport.
“There’s just like that continual care,” Haile says, “that mutual aid that’s the cornerstone of my work as an artist and an activist.”
Even beyond their own efforts, Haile says Portland’s tattoo culture is beginning to change. Recently, Ori Gallery opened Stratum, an exhibit of tattoo artists, all of whom are women or nonbinary and of African descent.
“Going from being stuck in this very white supremacist, fucking terrible goddamn environment in my own education, to so many years later, creating the very space that I needed to desperately as a student,” says Haile. “It’s almost impossible to achieve that in this town, but it fucking happened.”