Michigan’s tattoo parlor sexual assault problem and the activists intervening
Juan Karnita / AP

Michigan tattoo artist Cameron Pohl, who was in the 12th season of the reality series Ink Master, has been accused of sexual misconduct, unwanted advances, treating women poorly, and aggressive homophobia. Why is this not well known? Because reports of the violence and those who have survived it have exclusively come forward on social media.

Fish Ladder Tattoo Company, of Lansing, parted ways with Cameron in June, admitting to being “embarrassed and ashamed” to have allowed his “repugnant behavior.” The local celebrity has been outed by several women who have come forward, and in one case his soon-to-be-ex-wife spoke out on his history of gaslighting and emotional abuse.

Social media is often viewed as a depository of all sorts of information and misinformation, a place where facts, claims, opinions, and flat-out lies intermix. However, what situations like this (as well as others like it, i.e. #MeToo) make clear, is that there has generally been no safe way for those subject to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse to come forward prior to social media. Posting “publicly” on social media has become one of the few avenues where victims can find solidarity and support from others who have experienced the same violence.

The behavior highlighted in the Pohl case is not localized to a single “incident,” nor is it new. Eclectic Tattoo, also of Lansing, terminated employee Levi Hatch after allegations of misconduct surfaced. The tattoo shop kept the language minimized around Hatch, but it did at least acknowledge the “discomfort” of clients. In a public post on Facebook, David DeRue of Tattoo Nouveau in Lake Orion has also been accused of sexual assault and abuse of power toward employees. In Ferndale, 9 Lives Tattoos fired an unnamed employee around the same time. And the owner of Blue Heart Tattoos (temporarily) posted a racist rant publically on social media.

Likewise, in 2019, tattoo artist Alex Boyko was charged with three counts of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct. His aggressive behavior goes back a few years and, as an article on Jezebel outlined, several victims had come forth on social media with their own #MeToo stories. Boyko would go on to sue three other tattoo artists who spoke out against him. However, it appears 2019 was the last we heard about such criminal behavior, as there has been virtually no coverage by media outlets of these alleged assaults since then.

There is nothing isolated about these incidents. There is nothing incidental about these cases. This is a power dynamic at work.

The same movement that helped bring attention to the racist firing of Christine Turner from Green Dot Stables, the Detroit Solidarity Movement (and its newer project, We Keep Us Safe), has been helping shed light on the abuses, amplifying the voices of those who have been harmed, and calling out the predators in such industries. They have also been proactive in posting lists of safe shops and tattoo artists who have met the minimal requirements of not abusing fellow employees or customers. Their focus has not been Metro Detroit alone. As the examples above have shown, the Detroit Solidarity Movement has been working state-wide and is a model that survivors and activists in other places around the country should pay close attention to.

Paired with Survivor Strong, a non-profit that focuses its efforts on survivors of domestic and sexual violence, the movement has had success in getting tattoo shops like Eclectic and Fish Ladder to set up fundraisers and donations as recompense.

This is not the only industry that has had its underbelly exposed, though: creepy photographers, Olympic athletes who have sexually assaulted people, and the police have all been put on blast on social media for their violent behaviors.

Exposing the violence of these tattoo artists and those who protect them is a major step forward in flipping that protection to those who matter: those at risk of being abused and assaulted. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people are still assaulted or raped, and it’s through grassroots movements like this that predators can be called to account and potential victims can be protected.

However, the fact that this has exclusively been a project on social media platforms without any media coverage, combined with the fact that most victims are still rightfully weary to get the law involved, once again exposes the violence inherent in our system.

Workplace harassment and abuses of power, minimizing claims (if not fully erasing the crime) of sexual assault and rape, and gendered misconduct are all symptoms of—or, better, behaviors which are endorsed thru a lack of action based on—the inequality that runs rampant in society. Race, gender, and class will continue to be the basis of this unequal power and the abuse of it until we begin to take it seriously.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.