Inside the Mysterious World of Witch Tattoo Art
Noel’le Longhaul – one of the world’s first ‘witch tattoo artists’ – has mystified Instagram with her primeval creations
The best word to describe Noel’le Longhaul’s tattoos is “primeval.” Even when freshly inked and uploaded onto her Instagram, they look like illustrations from an ancient grimoire or a book of disappeared folk tales, passed through the generations and probably bound in human skin. Her signatures are black-and-white with rustles of colour, intricate Edward-Gorey-does-Where’s-Waldo-level detail, and intriguing pockets of negative space. Wild animals and witches make their appearances, but mostly her portfolio is filled with portals to thickets, mountains, and other expanses of wilderness. Stare too long and you might fall in.
Longhaul, 25, is a Great Falls, Massachusetts-based tattoo artist, artist, folk musician, and witch. They identify as both a non-binary trans person and a trans woman, and uses she/hers and they/them pronouns. With a BFA in printmaking from the Rhode Island School of Design, they have also done plenty of installation art and had a woodcut practice, all of which is evident in their tattoo style.
After a few years of tattooing in private spaces, Longhaul currently tattoos at Charon Art Visionary Tattoo, where they base their practice around “compassionate or empathic collaboration.” Longhaul has worked mostly with trans and queer folk and is “particularly interested in supporting people in their process of building homes for their spirits out of their bodies; particularly bodies that are ‘complicated,’ marginalised, or criminalised.”
We caught up with Longhaul to talk tattoos, blood magic, trans invisibility and visibility, and the place of identity politics in art.
How did you begin tattooing?
Noel’le Longhaul: I got a couple of tattoos in shops when I turned 18, and none of those experiences felt good. I didn’t feel well-treated by the people I was working with. Something went wrong somewhere in the transactional nature of the whole procedure that kind of turned me off from the whole culture. Around that time my friends and I just started tattooing each other in pretty crude, sewing needle and thread ways. But it was something that rose up as special and it was something that rose up as being a way for us to have this access to a ritual that actually did something as powerful as leaving a little mark on each other’s bodies or on our own bodies. And it became a really important way for my friends and me to be marking time and to be finding new ways to contextualise our bodies and tell our stories and it never really mattered a whole lot what it actually looked like, it just mattered that it was a thing you did together.
I had a really hard time the whole time (I was going to school), but I had one year in particular that I just didn’t leave my room very much and just spent a lot of that time tattooing myself with this tattoo machine. It was just this way for me to actually maintain a grip on my body and use it as a tether to reality in a context where I was otherwise very untethered from reality and very untethered from my body. I came out of that year with just a bunch of tattoos on me and people just started asking me who did them and I just told them that I did them and people just started asking me to tattoo them.
You mentioned that you felt uncomfortable in the commercial tattoo shops where you got your tattoos when you turned 18. What sort of things were they doing that you felt just wasn’t right?
Noel’le Longhaul: I felt like there was a culture around repressing the inherent intensity and the inherent intimacy of the process of tattooing. I felt like that was something that was largely circumscribed by the masculinity of the shops that I was in. I feel like the cultures that the bulk of contemporary American tattooing come from are military cultures, and the conservatism that has risen up around the artwork that has come out of that, but also around how people are allowed to enter the tattoo world and what the right way to tattoo is, comes from this bank of tattooing being a product of wartime, male bonding rituals and is just really violent and carries that violence. And I just didn’t want any part there.
How would you describe your tattooing style or technique?
Noel’le Longhaul: I don’t really feel like I’ve ever just not been free-forming. I’m really interested in my tattoos doing things where they can acknowledge the intensity and the chaos and the volume of people’s narratives. And then I also want to get that to a place where there can still be a sensation of stillness around what it means to be holding that and carrying that. I try to have my tattoos feel as though they’re detailed to the point where every hair on the head is accounted for and paid attention to and loved, but for the extent of that chaos to total up to something that makes sense and is legible.
“I’m really interested in my tattoos doing things where they can acknowledge the intensity and the chaos and the volume of people’s narratives” – Noel’le Longhaul
So would you describe your tattooing as a form of healing or care, especially for marginalised bodies?
Noel’le Longhaul: For me to claim that my practice was a healing practice would be an immensely hubristic gesture. Also, my ideas of healing have changed in the last couple of years. I don’t think the things that I’ve experienced as traumatic in my life have actually healed, I just think I get better at incorporating them. As a tattoo artist, I want my role to be an aide towards incorporation, and to have experiences that need to be brought closer to us brought closer to us.
Do you identify as a witch and how would you describe your practice?
Noel’le Longhaul: There’s a history that I’m participating in, a history that is circumscribed by emotional labour on the part of femmes. It’s circumscribed by all of the other gender violence that goes along with that. It’s also circumscribed by the repression of a host of other things that I could talk about in terms of magic.
Ritual and practices certainly don’t function within a denomination for me, but essentially I identify with a lineage of knowledge that people talk about as starting with the idea of witches. I also identify with the sensation of the loss of collective knowledge and I feel interested in participating in a collective pursuit towards a heretofore unimagined world. For me, I can’t separate the ideas of having any kind of magic practice as being anything that is not fully in service to the destruction of patriarchy and white supremacy and colonialism. I’m fascinated by the myriad openings that can be taken every day.
How does your tattooing intersect with your participation in witchcraft or magic?
Noel’le Longhaul: For me, a lot of the study of those things is overlapping in terms of just trying to pay attention to what is actually happening around one. For me, those practices are mutual practices of radical listening. I also think that tattooing, very simply put, is blood magic and I think that it’s something that is inherently very intense to do. People can choose to participate in that sensation to varying degrees, and certainly there’s no obligation to participate in that sensation, but finding a ritual as a method of marking time is something that for me feels like it holds a chance to experience a narrative of time that is different from the narratives of time that all the crap in one’s life suggests one think about things in. I also think that any time we intentionally change our bodies, we’re doing magic, and I think that doing that in a way that feels intentional and feels respectful and consensual is also the ways in which those things overlap.
How do your magic and your tattooing intersect with your activism?
Noel’le Longhaul: I definitely don’t identify as an activist. All of the things that I do are informed by rigorous and constant readjusting of a political analysis that for me has always been oriented through the lens of anarchism. So what that looks like for me has really changed over the course of the last 10 years in response to how the political climate has changed, also in response to how the state has dealt with specifically anarchist organising. I’ve taken a tact of trying to affect culture from a position that more intentionally embraces the marginal position that I have, and I’m trying to use the resources that I have access to and the processes that I have access to to be affecting a discourse or affecting people’s lives in a way that feels more diffuse and stranger and harder to narrate than I felt when I was a teenager and had a more like, “the solution for things to get better is for everyone to become an anarchist” type of thing.
For those of us who are uninitiated and ignorant about such things, what is “blood magic”?
Noel’le Longhaul: I don’t think that’s a question I can answer in this interview, I’m sorry.
Do you have any advice for non-binary folk who might feel left out of either the current conversation going on about trans rights or not feel “trans enough”?
Noel’le Longhaul: There are different tiers of violence that come along with problems of invisibility then come along with problems of visibility. As someone who identifies both as a non-binary trans person and as trans woman, I have an experience in which a whole aspect of my experience, which is my non-binary narrative, is consistently erased and invisibilised by most people and infrastructure. And then I have an experience of my trans femininity, which exposes me to corporeal and material violence in a way that has created a scenario that is part of the things that make me feel like I can’t live in a city. In the process of there being a collective conversation generated around visibility, it’s really important to remember and keep in mind the ways in which visibility is actually toxic also, and the ways in which it’s something that opens up these massive potentials of harm from the world. I think that conversation needs to really be central.
What do you think about the greater movement towards the acceptance of identity politics in art?
Noel’le Longhaul: There was never any art that wasn’t about identity politics. The myth that a bunch of white dudes just get to have the category of art and then everyone else is subjugated to talking about their fragment of that idea, and not able to actually address something in its entirety, is total bullshit. I think that people have been making and always will make art about themselves and how they see the world and will use their experience to talk about those things. The fact that those voices for a long time were mostly voices of white men still means they were telling those stories. It doesn’t mean they were telling stories objectively. And I think that people are just making art and if it has to do with their identity then it’s great, and it’s something to be proud of.
See more of Noel’le Longhaul’s work on their website here