Gemma Astor lives in a cabin in the Rangeley woods with her husband and Bandit, a lop-eared rabbit. Sometimes during quiet moments in the little house, Gemma reads about the divine feminine and spirituality, as she refers to this subject. These books help her see her art—particularly her painting—as a devotional offering.
The 39-year-old uses her artistic talents in a way some might find unexpected. Gemma is a tattoo artist who maintains a shop, Gemstone Tattoo, in Portland. Gemma acknowledges that tattoos aren’t for everyone. Still, she cautions people not to rush to judgment of those who have them. “Tattooing is a powerful way to honor yourself, claim your body, declare something, or heal from something,” the lifelong Mainer said.
Where once tattoos belonged to a subculture characterized by bikers, sailors, people in the military, and some harder-edged elements of society, Gemma says modern tattooing belongs to everyone. In her practice, which is predominantly female, clients range from 18 years old (the minimum legal age in Maine to get a tattoo) to well into their 70s. Gemma, who went to high school in Kennebunk, got her first tattoo upon graduation. She said it was a rite of passage among her friends.
From an early age, Gemma had wanted to be a painter. It had not occurred to her to become a tattoo artist. Her dream was to attend the Rhode Island School of Design. Instead, she went to a school in New York City where she learned that big city life was not for her. Upon returning to Maine, she spent a year taking art classes at the University of New England before deciding to take her creative expression in a different direction and try her hand at tattooing.
Tattoo art requires skill in drawing and allows for colorful and bold imagery, but the images are designed within the context of body art, to be drawn on skin, which is a living organ. The skills involved in tattooing require a different set than those for painting and drawing, although tattoos begin as original drawings that Gemma creates. She loves her work and her clients but admits that tattooing can be “a tough gig. It’s quite intimidating, or it can be as a woman. The profession, like so many, is a notorious boys’ club.”
The art of tattooing is not taught in school. Instead, the craft is learned through an apprenticeship. To be successful, a novice tattoo artist needs to find a position with someone who is talented and who has sound business practices. In Maine, tattoo artists must possess a valid license which is renewed every September and maintain current bloodborne pathogens training. Tattoo shops are subject to regular inspections by the state health department.
Gemma served a two-year apprenticeship in a shop in Portland. She expresses an enormous amount of gratitude for those years. A portion of her apprenticeship was spent strengthening the muscles in her hand, to be able to hold the tattoo machine and skillfully draw lines. The reward for such practice was getting to give someone a tattoo. Gemma was nervous the first time she took this step, “It was an emotional culmination of a lot of work and waiting to be able to do it.” That first tattoo was a little scorpion embellished with flowers. Gemma gave it to a friend whose horoscope sign, like Gemma’s, is Scorpio.
Gemma feels honored that clients have chosen her to share this personal experience. The people who patronize Gemstone Tattoo come there for a wide variety of reasons. They come to memorialize a deceased pet. They come to celebrate a child’s birth, or their own rebirth after undergoing gender reassignment surgery. Her clients come to celebrate joyous milestones, and they also come to change the narrative of darker moments.
“People have navigated major loads of depression or suicide or self-harm scars,” Gemma says. “The tattoo is sort of a butterfly moment where they get to change the story, to adorn themselves with a totem of strength or empowerment.” The tattoo refocuses attention. Rather than the scar, the story is about the tattoo.
When a person is thinking of getting a tattoo, Gemma urges that person to view it as permanent. While there are procedures to remove tattoos, the success rate varies, and Gemma has heard these procedures can be extremely painful and expensive. She advises clients to select a design that will have an enduring meaning rather than something that may be regretted in the future. She discourages, for example, choosing a tattoo with the name of a romantic partner. The truth is that relationships may not be permanent, but the tattoo will remain, long after the romance may have faded.
Gemma’s designs often reference nature, particularly botanicals. One she is particularly proud of is a large floral piece she did for a client who works as a nurse practitioner. After settling in Maine, the woman realized she missed the plants and flowers that thrive in the place where she grew up. A garden filled with blue chicory and pink mountain laurel rises up from the waist and drapes over one shoulder. Images of fuzzy white willow buds and yellow trout lilies are also present in the tattoo. It is a permanent ode to the woman’s youth and summertime.
In addition to specializing in botanical-themed tattoos, Gemma has created a line of versatile apparel bearing botanical images—lupine, pine, and rockweed. It’s “a nod to the earthy, rugged, and adaptable nature of life as a Maine woman,” she says.
The pandemic of 2020 was a mixed blessing for Gemma. It forced her to close her Portland shop for five months, which was difficult. But it consequently gave her more time to paint and to develop as a fine artist. Painting was her solace during the forced period of unemployment. Painting was a “place to escape fear, especially those first few months. What kept coming through felt so organic. It needed to happen.” She found in painting an outlet to express intimate feelings of connection with nature and the Maine woods. One can almost smell the earthy, moist forest floor in her painting of Chanterelle mushrooms, for example. It is clear that Gemma intimately knows and loves the woods.
Gemma’s husband urged her to find a means to exhibit her work. One gallery, Carver Hill Gallery in Camden, offered to display her work. An exhibition of her paintings at the Camden gallery is being planned for some time in the summer of 2021.
So, after all these years, Gemma has rediscovered the path she once dreamed of but didn’t follow—that of being a painter. At the same time, thanks to her tattooing experience and expertise, she doesn’t feel compelled to limit her artistic journey to a single path. “I feel really rooted as a tattooer. I feel really grounded in my business. But it’s time for me to explore painting. It’s a devotional offering that I can’t achieve in my tattooing.”