Marisa Kakoulas is the founder of the popular Needles and Sins tattoo blog as well as being a lawyer. As regular readers of the blog, Marisa’s interesting mix of occupations intrigued us here at Nine Mag, so we got in touch to find out more about her career.
Words – Annie Griffin
Painting – Shawn Barber
What sparked your interest in tattooing?
When I think on this question, multiple answers come to mind. I have these vague memories from when I was young of looking through my family’s old National Geographic magazines, seeing images of tattooed tribal women, and thinking they were the most beautiful women in the world with their markings. Then, as a teenager (and a rather geeky teenager at that), I fell in love with tattooed boys, who led me to NYC’s underground tattoo scene while the tattoo ban in the city was still in place. It was all very alluring. I guess the real interest in getting tattooed myself came when I began to see tattooing as a real art form and wanting to put that art on my body.
What was your first tattoo?
My first tattoo was the Star of Vergina, an emblem of Alexander the Great’s family. It’s a nod to my Greek heritage, but also, I just think it’s a simple but beautiful design. It has since been incorporated into my backpiece.
Who have you been tattooed by, and what do you have planned for the future?
I have been tattooed by Anil Gupta, Mike Bellamy, Michelle Myles, Jacqueline Spoerle, Peter of Lard Yao Tattoo, Tim Kern and Daniel DiMattia. Daniel has done most of my work, including my sleeves, backpiece, ribs, stomach and thighs. We’re working on a body suit of blackwork tattoos.
Dan and I were once married, and we work very well together in the tattoo process. Most of my tattoos are Dan’s signature blackwork/dot-work style, and I’m loving the way they are all coming together for this unified look.
Have you ever considered becoming a tattoo artist?
I can barely draw a stick figure. I wouldn’t want to sully the tattoo world with my scratches.
What inspired you to start the Needles and Sins blog?
I started writing about tattoos online around 2003 for bmezine.com, largely talking about the intersection of tattoos and law. Then, in 2005, I met Josh Rubin of the renowned coolhunting.com and we created the needled.com tattoo blog to explore tattoo as an art form. We ended up selling the site to RIVR Media, and I stayed on as editor until March 2009. It was then that I started needlesandsins.com. My own baby.
Needles and Sins is my personal hobby, not a for-profit venture. So I have the luxury of keeping to my original goal, which is to share cool shit I find on tattoos: new tattoo art, news items, what goes down at international conventions and other events, and naturally some tattoo law posts. I can’t help but geek out over that stuff.
How do you find new material for the blog?
I’ve been blogging about tattoos for over ten years, so I am fortunate to have an incredible online and offline network of tattoo aficionados who send me links and ideas and even contribute posts themselves. While I call the site ‘my baby,’ it’s actually parented by many amazing people worldwide. I also find inspiration by going to conventions, looking through portfolios, and meeting artists and collectors. I really love these tattoo gatherings, and not just because there are a lot of half-naked people walking around.
How long did it take for your blog to become as popular as it is now?
I’m not really sure. I stopped looking at our metrics because if the site had a dip in visits, I’d get anxious that I wasn’t giving people what they wanted. If I wanted to get hits, all I would need to do is write up something dumb about a celebrity, which will catch Google’s attention and draw fans of the person rather than fans of tattooing. I don’t do that unless it sparks a greater conversation about tattoo culture, which it rarely does.
I now use social media as an indicator to see what people are enjoying on the site, and also, interact with as many as I can. Building those connections leads to even more connections, and I guess that’s how things grow.
What kind of feedback do you get from your blog, does it vary from post to post?
The feedback on what I post really varies. Some people love the history articles, some love the artist Q&As, some love the news items. So I try to give a little something for everyone.
Have you got any big projects planned for your blog, are you planning to expand it in any way?
I want to expand the site’s functionality and navigability. I also want to bring on more contributors to share different voices within our community from around the world.
Is it hard to juggle the blog and a career in law?
Yes! But it’s totally my fault, so I really can’t complain about it unless someone asks me. Which you just did, so now I can whine under the guise of answering a journalist’s question.
What makes it hard is trying to provide value on both ends. Anyone can throw up a bunch of sub-stellar tattoo photos online and call it blogging. Anyone can show up to work and be a jerk and call it lawyering. (Just kidding, fellow attorneys!) Really thinking about what people want and working to give it to them, whether it’s tattoo info or legal info, is what makes the juggling difficult. That said, I love having these two facets of my life, the yin and yang of art and law. So the hard work is worth it.
You write for many different tattoo publications and have been profiled in most of them too, has this affected your work in law in any way? For example, how other lawyers perceive you?
It hasn’t. But I also don’t know many lawyers who read tattoo magazines.
Has your association with the tattoo industry affected your law career positively?
Absolutely. I’ve done a lot of pro bono work for tattooists on legal issues affecting the tattoo industry. There is so much grey area in how laws are applied to tattooing that I’ve learned to think more creatively and holistically about the law. That translates to the work I do outside of tattoo-related issues.
How about the other way around? How does your law career help your career in the tattoo industry?
I’m grateful for the opportunities to lecture at conventions, tattoo studios, and law schools, and also have an audience for my writing on these topics. I love to exchange knowledge and ideas about legal issues that arise in the tattoo community. All these things have enriched my career and also my personal life. I have a lot of fun doing it.
Were you heavily tattooed before you became a lawyer? If so did you feel the need to hide them at first? Do you cover them now?
I only had small tattoos at the beginning of my law career, and I most definitely hid them. I began my career working in a very conservative law firm in the nineties and I was scared that my bosses and peers would think I was a freak or that I couldn’t fully advocate for a client because I was ‘counter-culture’. It was a different time from today when tattoos are everywhere.
All my tattoos can be covered in a suit, except a small tattoo on my hand, which I cover with a band-aid on certain occasions. I don’t have a job where I can wear cut-off shorts and a belly-baring shirt. I have to look more conservative, tattoos or not, so it’s not really an issue. That said, I am always aware that tattoo stereotypes exist, and someone could use such stereotypes against me upon finding out that I’m heavily tattooed. The way to combat that is to work harder and make myself so valuable that no one even cares about my tattoos.
Are you using your knowledge in law to ‘fight the corner’ for tattooed people and the stereotypes associated with them?
Stereotypes tend to be idiotic, and often, you can’t fight stupid. I have written and lectured about employment discrimination, but I believe the best way to combat stereotypes is to be the very best person you can be. No one can reasonably look down on you if you’re awesome.
What inspired you to write your books?
I wanted to create a book that people would keep on their shelves for a very long time, something that they would love to show off on their coffee tables. Something to inspire new art in tattoo studios, and something beautiful to look at. Edition Reuss Publishing makes these really lush, high-quality large-format hardcovers. When they found me through my blog and asked me to work with them on a series of tattoo books, I jumped at the chance. I wanted to present tattooing in a respectful, comprehensive, and engaging way, and they let me do that.
I have done four books with Edition Reuss. The first one is the Black Tattoo Art, and it was published in 2009. It did really well because there wasn’t another massive exploration of blackwork tattooing at the time. Then we did other genres like Black & Grey Tattoo, which is a three book box set, and Color Tattoo Art, which focuses on New School, cartoons and comics tattoos. People kept asking about another Black Tattoo Art book, so my latest book is the second volume to that.
Do you have any more books in the pipeline?
I’m taking a little break at the moment, but I’d love to eventually do a book exploiting beautiful tattooed men. All for art, of course.