Noel’le Longhaul’s unique style and approach to the centuries-old practice of tattooing transcends our narrow, worldly expectations.
I arrived at Charon Visionary Art and Tattoo, overlooking Avenue A in Turners Falls Massachusetts, with some cash and no idea what I wanted tattooed on my body (perhaps something on my chest?). Most folks would be nervous…and I certainly was. However, the moment I saw Noel’le Longhaul emerge from their curtained portion of the studio, I knew it’d be a brilliant experience.
Noel’le is a rare combination of nuanced visual artist, revelatory musician, outspoken LGBTQA* advocate, and brilliant tattooer, with a genuinely compassionate personhood and physical presence which can only be described as transcendent. At 25, Noel’le has accomplished and experienced so much, which is undoubtedly present in their tattoos and process, “…a lot of the times [the tattoos] reflect a complicated experience of fraught or difficult femininity that I engage with. They reflect my political standpoint in terms of being pieces that talk about the non-hierarchical organization of organic chaos…they also reflect the landscapes that I grew up in, and have chosen to remain in.”
Anyone tattooed in the past five decades knows how a usual session works. There’s some sort of initial consultation, the artists designs the piece, or okays a piece brought in by a client, stencils the work on the customer, then blasts the design onto their body. It’s a cordial, enjoyable and efficient process that I’ve been a part of many times. Since Noel’le did not start tattooing under the supervision of a mentor, essentially developing their skills in a vacuum, her process is much different, “Ultimately, tattooing was, for me, a ritualized process of support for people that I cared about…my body, and what I could do with my body in terms of being in service to their experience…”
Noel’le typically begins with an extended conversation about what you’re looking for, generally, during your tattooing experience. This conversation ranges from psycho-spiritual to purely aesthetic, while Noel’le intently listens and sketches throughout. Want to build an image based on a personal narrative? Have a vague childhood memory that’s manifested itself as a set of complex motifs throughout your life? Perhaps you have a picture of some cool floral wallpaper from your grandparent’s house – tell or show Noel’le and they’ll accommodate, internalizing your viewpoints while lending their specific blend of surrealism, realism, and expert touch to the design.
“The conversation aspect of my process is ultimately about finding places where we actually mesh with each other…the tattoos themselves are archives of the process of finding the overlaps and the dissolves of the experiences of the people I’m working with.” After this conversation and several drafts, they draw up a final image, then sculpt a sketch of that final image onto your body. The rest of the session is freehand, based solely on the skin sketches and the final drawing made earlier in the conversation.
What makes their process unique for me, is that it’s inherently more collaborative and empathetic relative to my past experiences. Philosophically speaking, all tattooing is collaborative, unless you’re taking the stick-n-poke needle to yourself or turning the gun on your own leg. Essentially, a tattooing experience with Noel’le is notably collaborative since it’s a design created through thoughtful interaction over hours of intense engagement.
After surveying Noel’le’s portfolio, it’s easy to identify certain themes and visual motifs such as the deep woods, smallness, negative space, and weathered body parts. Since Noel’le’s own humanity and perspective is such a central part of the design process, they can’t help but interject these themes. In addition, to some extent, these themes are partially a product of re-occurring aesthetic requests made by people who choose to tattoo with them, “I think I have one series of visual images, a visual cannon that people identify with to varying degrees. Some people say ‘I just want a landscape like how you make landscapes.’ And other people who need something way more nuanced and strange than that.” The artful accomplishment of the visual language that Noel’le has developed over time, coupled with her uniquely democratic and empathetic process leads to a full calendar of bookings. In fact, I waited nearly eight months to see them.
What’s important about Noel’le’s work, apart from the skillful renderings of ideas and physical objects into eternal bodily signposts, is her existence within the work. In addition, their process is inherently inclusive. People come to Noel’le Longhaul because they want their body to fuse with her rare artistic presence while having their perspectives included and respected. After two hours of conversation, and three hours of nearly continuous tattooing, I was lucky enough to be forever marked by an experience with them.
Noel’le Longhaul tattoos by appointment at Charon Art Visionary Tattoo in Turners Falls, Massachusetts. They also perform with western Massachusetts-based bands Loone, Mallory, and paper bee. Be on the look-out for a soon-to-be-published book of Noel’le’s writings, art and tattoos from Silver Sprocket Bicycle Club.