How can an artist build a sustainable creative life? How can an artistic community inspire, inform, and support its members? For those who are marginalized, the path to economic prosperity may already be rocky. So how can BIPOC and queer artists overcome those challenges and attain creative fulfillment and financial stability?
Partners and creative entrepreneurs Terin J. D. and Korie Pickett (KP) are determined to find answers to these questions.
KP and Terin. Photo by Sarah de Rueda.
They call their work The Playground. Tucked away on the alley that runs behind Kirkwood Manor in a small building with French doors and wood shingles, The Playground is the home of Cry Babies Electric Tattoing, a Black-owned, inclusive tattoo studio. It’s also the hub of a broader mission for which Terin and KP share a passion: to build a community-centered, artistic, expressive, safe space for Black and queer people.
Their creative life together encompasses tattoos, photography, publishing, video, and training for apprentices. And since October 2020, it’s also the home of Queen Spirit, a new nonprofit.
Cry Babies Electric Tattooing
Native Hoosier Terin has been tattooing for seven years. His studio has lived in various locations in Bloomington, always serving as a space for marginalized customers to feel comfortable being tattooed, and for marginalized artists to learn and grow. Terin hopes to give apprentices a healthier learning experience than he had, in which “being a Black tattooer felt like being a taboo inside a taboo,” as he once described it.
“Terin’s put in a lot of time and effort and energy into making the studio a space that reflects his history and where he comes from,” KP explains. “It’s not easy to find Black culture in Bloomington. So rather than leaving to go find that culture, he started to create it. It was important to Terin to have a community space where he could do his art and also really reflect his culture, reflect Black culture, and for it to be a comfortable space for everyone that came through the doors.”
“When you come into this space, you’re going to be met where you’re at. We just ask that you be kind and considerate. We love seeing Blackness and being surrounded by it. When you’re immersed in your culture, there’s just so much comfort there.”
At the Playground, tattoo apprentices receive support not only for their art and technique, but for their personal growth. Terin teaches the craft and culture of tattooing, and KP helps apprentices manage the shift to living a creative life and how to make the financial end work—or anything else they need help with. “We get very invested on a personal level,” KP says. “We hope that when you leave here, you’re better not just with your skills, with your artistry, but as a whole person. It’s really beautiful to see.”
The Crane Project
To that end, in February, Terin and KP launched a new project. Terin had been thinking for a few months about folding a thousand paper origami cranes. According to Japanese legend, anyone who folds a thousand cranes will have a wish granted. What began as a solo endeavor soon morphed, however.
“We saw the financial needs for the people within our space,” KP explains. “We have an apprentice. We have a shop assistant. And we’re able to pay the assistant an hourly wage, but it’s not enough these days. And they expressed to us that they were struggling.”
“Every time a person in a marginalized community walks through our doors who wants to be a part of what we’re doing, that’s their main struggle: finances.”
“I think I’m supposed to extend this project to everyone,” Terin told KP. “What can we do? What can we make happen?”
The result is the Paper Crane Project. The Playground staff began by each folding their first crane and documenting a wish. For Terin and KP, the wish is to purchase their building. For apprentices, the wishes are practical: reliable transportation, access to medication, or simply a sustainable life.
Terin and KP collaborated with video artist Red August to document the project, which they promote through Instagram.
The Paper Crane Project is already generating income for apprentices and attracting clients who want to participate. “People are on board because they see what they also want for themselves in this project. To support something that genuinely makes a difference is incredible,” KP says. “I’m kind of on a high, because this morning I went with our shop assistant Ebony to a car dealership. We negotiated a deal where her monthly payment can be covered by a portion of the crane project. So the wish is coming true.”
KP is quick to note that traditional options like grants and loans aren’t within reach. “As people of color and queer community, and because of the way the world’s set up and our system, we’re rarely approved for anything like that. This is a way for us to go straight to what we need.”
This process of leveraging art to access financial resources has required more than an artistic vision: Korie jokes that she’s learning a lot about payroll and accounting along the way. Personal transformation and growth can happen for everyone at The Playground. “It’s been a really cool thing to see the evolution of that. And it comes from a place of, ‘I want to work hard, I want to see my dreams become possible.’ And we’re killing it.”
COVID did force some hard conversations about the future of the studio last year. Terin and KP talked about whether they’d go through both of their savings to keep it alive, if it came to that.
“We put over half of our income right back into The Playground this past year. We only need X, but what’s important is our community. So we’re safe, we’re fed, we’re clothed, that’s important. But if our community isn’t, then what are we actually doing?”
The answer was counterintuitive: open a second studio—in North Carolina.
A friend and fellow tattooer, Avery, was living in North Carolina and would come to Bloomington to do guest spots and events with Terin, so there was already similar clientele and philosophy. They all decided a new endeavor could be a good option for everyone. The new studio, Critter Swamp, was well received, work flowed in, and Terin and KP now split time between the two studios. Given the nature of the work and close contact with customers, they take extensive precautions, including always getting tested before the 10-hour drive.
“We had a dream of Indiana being home base and being able to go out and be creative in other cities,” KP explains. “That’s really been the blessing of the North Carolina studio. We’re still able to fulfill that desire to travel. Terin always says that he makes decisions based on what he thinks won’t actually work! And somehow they end up working, which is great.”
If Terin starting a second studio wasn’t enough to take on in a pandemic year, Korie also decided to formalize their approach to building an artistic community. In October, she formed a new nonprofit, Queen Spirit, named after the print magazine she was already producing and selling. Queen Spirit aims to shift the narrative from struggling artistry to sustainable artistry.
Queen Spirit’s goal, like the Paper Crane Project, is to support creatives in need by providing modest but critical funds. “The hope and the dream,” KP says, “is that one day the nonprofit will be functional enough to say, ‘Okay, you filled out this application, you meet all the requirements, so we will be happy to write you a check to make your vision and your art possible.’”
“We’re not this huge non-profit. We don’t have massive amounts of money. But there’s enough to make a difference.”
Like Terin, KP grew up in Indiana: but with the certainty that she would someday leave. After college, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee, then to Seattle, where she took a job as a director of marketing in corporate America. After three years there, she started to feel the urge to pursue her own creative work again, and to return to Indiana.
“Something always drew me back to Indiana. There’s something very slow and steady about the Midwest. It’s comfortable enough that you can push boundaries and try new things. It’s just chill.”
“Growing up, everybody would tell me, ‘Okay, you’re an artist, but what’s your real job going to be? What are you going to do to make money?’ And that’s why I stayed in corporate America as long as I did. I was too scared.”
The challenge, KP says, is a matter of education and confidence: education on how to make money by creating value, and how to have the confidence to assert that value in a price.
“It’s never easy to put a value on your work and yourself. It’s a hard conversation. I’ve always wanted to be able to give people the tools to move through that. Okay, you’re an artist: so what’s a product you can sell? What does that look like? I never want an artist to think, ‘Yeah, somebody bought my art, but I’m still broke.’ That’s another educational piece. How much did you spend on supplies? How much time did you put into it?”
“Just because you sell a painting for $50, it doesn’t mean you made $50. You paid $47 for the supplies, so you made $3. These are all lessons that I had to learn for myself. I’m hoping to save someone else the uphill battle.”
The process of forming a legal nonprofit was grueling, and KP admits with a laugh that she had no idea what she was getting herself into.
“I have a long running list I’m constantly adding to of what I want Queen Spirit to become. I’m learning everything I can about the nonprofit world right now. I’m constantly listening to podcasts, reading articles. I have this prayer that the right people are going to come to me and want to be a part of it as board members. A friend said, ‘You need somebody to help with finances. That’s where I believe I can help you.’ So there’s growth happening. I have to be patient with it.”
“Terin and I have all of these big, big dreams. We’re in constant gratitude that we’re at this point in our creative lives. We’re thankful that people acknowledge that the work that we’re putting in, and it is making a difference, but what’s coming can make so much more of a ripple effect. I’m excited for that,” Korie says. “I can’t wait to meet Queen Spirit’s board of directors, my team. I have no idea who they are, but I can’t wait to meet them!”
The next issue of Queen Spirit releases in mid-March.