Detroit’s ‘Lady L’ thrusts Black female tattoo artists to the forefront with Ladies of Ink

Creating space in the tattoo boy’s club

Mar 1, 2023 at 4:00 am
click to enlarge Lorri Thomas, aka “Lady L,” at her tattoo studio at the Ink Spot. - se7enfifteen
Lorri Thomas, aka “Lady L,” at her tattoo studio at the Ink Spot.

Lorri “Lady L” Thomas has been tattooing for nearly 20 years, and the last few years of her career have been centered around creating safe spaces for women who look like her.

In 2015, she created Ladies of Ink, a nationwide collective of Black female tattoo artists who challenge the status quo. Thomas’s goal was to have a space where Black women could not only connect with each other to help navigate the male-dominated industry, but to also make a comfortable space for female tattoo clients. After years of often being the only Black woman working in tattoo shops and one of few at conventions, Thomas wanted to try working in a female-empowered space.

“The biggest part in creating Ladies of Ink was to represent the underrepresented,” says Thomas. “To let people know that we’re out here and we’re just as good — if not better — and to provide a safe space for women to talk about what’s going on. Everybody doesn’t have people they can reach out and talk to about how things work. I’m mentoring some of these girls because they’re coming to me like ‘the person who is supposed to be showing me the ropes is fondling me,’ and they’re taking it as, ‘this is what I have to go through to get taught,’ and it’s not.”

Bree Sinclair is one of the artists who was there during the early formation of Ladies of Ink. She met Thomas through her mentor, known as Krissy the Butcher. At the time she was an apprentice, and says a lot of what she learned helped her to be the artist she is today.

“With Ladies of Ink, I do believe we were able to stick together and we all offer individual things that are very unique,” she says. “It’s beautiful to see so many Black people that are women, tattooing in a fucking convention space where we’re not even welcome — and we take up so much, that they can’t help but to notice us.”

Before she was Lady L, she was a young mother figuring out life. The youngest of her siblings, Thomas says she was always a creative and imaginative person. While other kids were drawing stick figures, she says she was trying to draw the world around her.

Her parents put her in various art classes throughout childhood, and in high school Thomas studied visual arts at Detroit School of Arts. She enrolled in Detroit’s College of Creative Studies, but that didn’t last very long.

“It was depressing, I felt so overwhelmed and intimidated at CCS,” she says. “We had all of these people from different countries and backgrounds, and I came from a Detroit public school that didn’t have the tools we really needed to create things, we worked with what we had. I was intimidated because I didn’t know how to really work Photoshop. I had this typography class that was just terrible. I went to a high school that had three computers per person. These kids came with skills like jewelry-making and glassblowing and I was just like ‘What the hell?’”

Despite the frustration and intimidation of being in design school, Thomas never stopped sketching and creating. When she was 19, she got her first tattoo on her lower back. It was a design she sketched herself, but at the time she never thought twice about becoming a tattoo artist. It wasn’t until she went to a tattoo party on Detroit’s Eastside that she began to see it as something a little more.

According to Thomas, the artist at the tattoo party could draw a little bit, but was really good at tracing lines. She sketched out the tattoo designs for her and her friend, and soon after sketched a few others at the party.

“As I was drawing my tattoo, other people came up to me like ‘Hey, can you draw mine?’ and the tattoo artists asked me if I thought tattooing was something I would be interested in learning,” Thomas says. “At the time I was working three jobs, my daughter just turned one, and the money he was making at the party was influencing me. He said he was going to teach me, but didn’t. He was trying to pursue me, and it was a dead situation after that. But I was interested in tattooing and started looking for an apprenticeship.”

click to enlarge Lorri Thomas says it was hard to break into the tattoo industry. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Lorri Thomas says it was hard to break into the tattoo industry.

A good apprenticeship was hard to find. Some wanted between $3,000-$5,000 to teach her how to tattoo, and others just turned her down because she lacked experience. The search discouraged Thomas for a while, but it didn’t derail her. She lucked out after she began going to an artist to get work done on new tattoos. He couldn’t offer her a formal apprenticeship, but she used their sessions to learn as much as she could about tattooing.

“Every time I got a tattoo, he would teach me something, like how to set up the machine and things like that,” she says. “He ended up selling me some of his old tattoo supplies, and he told me you can practice on pig ears, grapefruit, some types of chicken, and oranges. I thought it was going to be so easy after I got that machine set up, but I had to put it down. You can’t just draw and think because you know how to draw that you know how to tattoo. You have to learn the machine, and I definitely had to take my time.”

After getting used to the machine, Thomas began to do small tattoos out of her home. Eventually she began to make a buzz on the scene and ended up building a decent clientele. She began to rent a room in the back of a salon on Wayne State University’s campus, adding the university’s student to her roster.

The moment that changed everything was a free concert at university that featured rap-rock band Gym Class Heroes. While leaving the shop, Thomas had a chance conversation with the group’s frontman Travie McCoy, which led to her getting her first celebrity client — Tyga.

“Travie was telling me how he used to be a tattoo artist before he was in a band, and wanted to see my work,” she says. “He was like, ‘I think my cousin would probably get some tattoos from you,’ and went on his tour bus and grabs Tyga off the bus. He ended up looking at my portfolio and said I did pretty clean work. I ended up doing some work on his arm, some fillers, and I posted that picture online, and that’s really what put me on the map.”

While that picture helped Thomas get the attention of potential clients, it also got the attention of WSU, which didn’t like the fact Thomas was tattooing on campus and asked her to leave. Thomas returned to tattooing from her home, before finding another salon with space to rent. That was also short-lived as a competing tattoo parlor nearby reported Thomas once they got wind of her working in the hair shop. She ended up working at the same shop that reported her for a few years, until she couldn’t handle the conditions anymore.

“It was great until it wasn’t,” she says. “They didn’t really care about the art, they only cared about the money. It got to a point where we’re getting eviction notices. One day I came to the shop and the lights and gas were out, and there was a gas generator inside, and it just smelled like gas — I made that my last day. Jason Phillips, who owns the shop I work at now, had just finished painting a mural and took the money he made and bought a building, and was like ‘We’re out.’”

click to enlarge Lorri Thomas created Ladies of Ink, a nationwide collective of Black female tattoo artists. - Courtesy photo
Courtesy photo
Lorri Thomas created Ladies of Ink, a nationwide collective of Black female tattoo artists.

That was eight years ago and the beginning of Detroit Ink Spot, where Thomas still works today. Phillips says that Thomas is not only talented, but really cares about her clients.

“She’s a social butterfly, a real people person,” Phillips says. “She’s a very talented tattoo artist, who caters to her clients. She always tries to put her best foot forward and wants to be as professional as possible. She’s a real joy to have in the shop. She’s an advocate for equal rights for women in this industry, but still feels comfortable working with me and the other men in this shop. That means we’re doing something right here, and it’s great to have her.”

Although she says she’s been contacted to be on a popular reality TV series or two about tattoo artists, and even shot a pilot for a show of her own, reality TV in the way that we know it isn’t in the cards for Thomas. But the future for the 39-year-old artist looks promising and full of potential.

She plans to open a Black woman-led Ladies of Ink shop sometime in the near future, scaling back the amount she works, and continuing to mentor newer tattoo artists.

“It’s not just about me, it’s about teaching people what you learned,” she says. “It wasn’t that easy for me, and now that I have the resources to do it, I’m doing it. I don’t charge for my apprenticeships, I tell people to show up and be prepared to do the work. I’m excited about that, I feel like I’m really living my purpose when it comes to that. I’ll always be grateful I found a craft where I can have a great income and live, support my children, and still make beautiful art.”

More information about Lady L Tattoos is available at

Location Details

Detroit Ink Spot

19845 W. McNichols Rd., Detroit


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