Jenn Cordero, Carmelo's Ink City
On this episode of Working: Syracuse, we go inside Carmelo's Ink City tattoo
shop, located just off Hiawatha Boulevard, to meet one of the city's few female tattoo artists: Jenn Cordero.
Cordero is a 30-year-old artist, gamer, and proud owner of an ugly cat. In a tough, male-dominated field,
Cordero employs her smart mouth and sharp eye to set herself apart and attract clients. In the decade since
she first picked up a needle, Cordero has worked to elevate her craft. She believes a good tattoo encompasses
more than the artistry and execution of the design. The experience of getting each piece also plays a role. "I
watch and I listen and I pay attention — even to the tone of the voice and stuff like that," Cordero says.
"And being a female, I know how to feminize everything." Tattoos cover Cordero. Her small frame features pieces
that illustrate her life story, but she's saving space for a few more chapters. "My back is empty 'cause I'm
saving it for when I'm 40. 'Cause my homeboys who taught me how to tattoo are covered by the time they were in
their mid-20s, and they were like, 'I don't have room for the rest of my story,'" she says. "So when I'm 40,
I'm gonna tell the good bit of it."
Jenn Cordero's neck tattoo signals her seriousness about the industry. "I had to get a neck tattoo because people didn't believe I was a tattoo artist," says Jenn. "If I'm wearing a long sleeve, and I have my hands in my pockets and I'm at an expo, people were passing right by my booth, thinking that I was just a little girl chillin' in the booth."
Cordero has worked at Carmelo's Ink City for almost two years. Before landing a full-time position in Syracuse, Jenn "shop-hopped" in Copperas Cove, Texas due to the sexism and mistreatment she encountered. "At the end of the day, you leave bosses, not jobs," Cordero says.
The ink on Cordero's body tells the story of her life. The many females on her body represent important moments in her life, and her sleeve tattoo documents her love for video games. But her back is empty.
Cordero's philosophy is this: "If you can't make it alone, you can't make it all." To emphasize that idea, she inked her fingers with the Spanish word "sola," which means "alone."
When it comes to machines, Cordero prefers the older and louder ones.
INTRO MUSIC: [Plodding bluesey guitar with organ accompaniment begins to play]
BRONTE SCHMIDT, HOST: Hello and welcome to Working: Syracuse, the podcast inspired by
journalist Studs Terkel featuring Salt City residents talking about what they do to earn a paycheck and
how they find meaning in those jobs. I'm your host Bronte Schmit.
Reporter Chelsea Portner spoke with Jenn Cordero about what it's like to be a female in the tattoo
industry. Cordero has been a tattoo artist at Carmelo's Ink City in Syracuse, NY for almost two years.
Over her 12 years in the industry, Cordero has bounced around from shop to shop and city to city,
gaining her a reputation as a shop hopper. But Cordero has staked not only her career, but her life on
decisions that defy the status quo.
INTRO MUSIC: [Plodding bluesey guitar with organ accompaniment fades out]
SOUND: [Tattoo guns buzzing in the background]
JENN CORDERO: There was a shop I worked at where one of my fellow employees, I shook
his hand on the first day we met and he said to my face "I don't think women should be in this industry,"
before even saying his name.
JENN CORDERO: My name is Jenn Cordero and I'm at tattoo artist at Carmelo's Ink City in
CHELSEA PORTNER: Jenn Cordero stands in her tiny studio just off Hiawatha Boulevard.
The sterile white walls contrast with her vibrant artwork. Above her black, leather chair is a playful
self-portrait of Cordero dressed in black and gold regalia with her cat in hand. She is the only female
artist at Carmelo's Ink City, a reality she has faced at nearly every shop she has worked at. Being the
only female artist in a shop exposes the deeply rooted bias and sexism of the industry. And because of
this Cordero has navigated her career in an unconventional way.
SOUND: [Melodic piano fades in]
JENN CORDERO: I was in Ohio with my dad in flight school and I did not want to do it,
so I booked it. I ran away back to Copperas Cove, Texas. I was supposed to live with a friend and last
minute she's like 'oh, nevermind,' so I was homeless, but it was fine because it was like camping. Texas
is like it's hot at night you know what I mean and I was working at Pizza Hut, so it's not like I was
hungry. Copperas Cove doesn't have much light pollution, it was beautiful outside and stuff like that. I
don't even remember it negatively and then one day I was just wandering around town on one of my days off and
there was a shop that was four, 45-year-old felons that just got out of prison who were trying to restart
their lives and support their families with a shop and I went in there and i'm like 'hey you guys wanna
teach me?' and they took me in. They taught me how to tattoo and within a year I was on the floor.
CHELSEA PORTNER: Cordero was a quick learner. Her first tattoo, a small, Chinese
symbol, came out perfectly. And since that first piece her style, demeanor, and place within the industry
JENN CORDERO: I started tattooing 12 years ago and so I've seen a significant change in
how things were. I mean machines are even different. They have a new kind of machine that barely makes a
sound and mine are mean and loud. There's a lot more women in the industry but not near enough.
CHELSEA PORTNER: Cordero chooses to use the older, louder machines. She prefers them.
But in conversation she is quiet, reserved, weary of eye contact. The opposite of her noisy equipment.
JENN CORDERO: I learned at the very beginning that because this is such a male
dominated industry, women aren't allowed to say much. I stay quiet and keep to myself because men tend to
roll their eyes. And I'm not saying they don't want us in the industry, it's more like 'okay, sweetie,
sure, sure.' Like that kind of thing, you know? So they don't even mean to, that's just how I have been
treated my entire career like they know better and they don't wanna hear it from me.
CHELSEA PORTNER: In Texas, Jenn experienced direct and pointed sexism. Her male
colleagues asked her to clean more than other artists, didn't take her or her art seriously, and expected
her to work 14-hour days, six days a week.
JENN CORDERO: They call me sensitive over issues that if they had these issues with
each other it would be a problem, but with me I'm PMSing or I'm being sensitive or something like that.
Just things like that. And I'm the type that I'm like 'you know what, this isn't the shop for me I'd like
to put in my two weeks notice after enough of it you know?
SOUND: [Melodic piano music gets louder]
CHELSEA PORTNER: Jenn is just barely taller than the chair in her studio, she's petite
with angular features. She wears joggers with clean Adidas sneakers, and a slicked back bun that coils
just beside the ink on her neck. Despite her size, she takes on frustration in the workplace with little
to no tolerance. She has a temper that she is not afraid to wield when necessary.
JENN CORDERO: Every single day people make me angry. I've just been doing this so long
that I'm like 'cmon now if I could it, you can do it, sit still.' Or the people who come in here and you'd
be surprised at how many people like 'I don't know, what should I get? You're the artist.' I'm like I'm
not a psychic. If it's up to me you'll get cats and spaceships. I have terrible taste. Like I have i have
to this this speech to people everyday and they're like 'ohhh.' Like how am I supposed to know what you
SOUND: [Melodic piano music gets louder]
JENN CORDERO: I'll be like how about you do a portrait and they're like 'Nah I don't
want that.' So I'm like THEN WHAT DO YOU WANT? Like they don't know what they want, but when you start
throwing things out there they're like 'not that.' Well what do you want me to do just spit out
suggestions until you finally land on one? Like no. So I tend to get pretty grumpy. They tell me to leave
CHELSEA PORTNER: When Jenn started in Texas she was only tattooing praying hands and
rosaries. In Syracuse, she is able to create art that aligns with her prefered style and tailors the work
to each client's body.
JENN CORDERO: Realism is what I prefer to draw. There's plenty of different styles like
old school, new school, which is almost caricatures — big ol' heads, big ol' eyes, and little bodies and
stuff like that. But I am terrible at simplifying something, but still making it look right. So much
respect to the artists who do those tattoos, but it's just not my style. Like I can actually tattoo it if
somebody brings me a design, but to custom draw something super cartoon-y just isn't in me. Like give me a real portrait or a
real person and I'll replicate it.
CHELSEA PORTNER: Jenn prides herself not only on her honesty, but her innately
empathetic nature when holding the needle. She knows that her kit needs to include more than just cold
steel and fresh ink.
JENN CORDERO: Being a female I know how to feminize everything. Despite my
appearance, all the tattoos I have under my clothes are very feminine like I have a garder and stuff like
that. And I know how to work with the body. Not only admiring women the way I do, but being one. I do a
lot of free hand stuff that works with people's bodies and moves the way their muscles move. I know a lot
of people want thin lines and some artists are like everything needs a dark outline and I'm like no it
doesn't you can have a light thin outline. I work with everybody so it ends up working out really well.
But then of course I love my dude-ish peices, my sideboard pieces, and stuff like that so I get the best of
both worlds by far.
SOUND: [Melodic piano music fades up]
CHELSEA PORTNER: Barbed wire, broken hearts, and flesh and blood serve as constant
reference points in Jenn's job. Her 12 years in an industry built on pain and badass reputations has
cracked her tough exterior, exposing a soft spot for the clients and coworkers that have crossed her path.
JENN CORDERO: When I first started tattooing I had no faith in people and I thought
tattooing was going to make it worse and it's actually made it better. There's such a wide array of people
that I've just sat and had deep, meaningful conversations with. From old to young, white to black. I went
from thinking people are shit, people are awful whatever to I think we have a chance. It's hard for 12
years of people to really get me down you know what I mean? There are your shitty ones, but your shitty
ones we're allowed to say fuck you. This is the type of industry where I don't have to tattoo you if I
don't want to. I only tattoo people with good vibes and 99 percent of them do because I approach people.
I'm only condescending when I have to be, but I never actually go off on somebody so there's never
actually that type of negativity. A lot of people just work with me and I think being a female helps with
that. Like it softens people up a bit. I've had dudes yelling at Carmelo and then Carmelo doesn't want to
deal with them so I'll be like yo what is it you're looking to get and they calm down and they speak to me
SOUND: [Melodic piano music fades out]
BRONTE SCHMIDT, HOST: Thanks Chelsea for speaking with Cordero. If she's not drawing or
inking clients, Cordero loves playing video games. She has a Playstation controller tattooed on her hand
and and has played 500 hours of Skyrim since 2011.
OUTRO MUSIC: [Plodding bluesey guitar with organ accompaniment begins to play]
BRONTE SCHMIDT, HOST: That's all for this episode of Working: Syracuse. Check out our
website www.working syracuse.com for more interviews as well as some extra content on Codero. Be sure
to follow us on Facebook and Twitter @WorkingSyracuse.
Thanks again to Chelsea for speaking with Cordero. This episode was written and produced by Caroline
Schagrin. Extra reporting came from Kohinur Khyum. Our theme music was by Logan Piercey. Additional music
by David Cutter. I've been Bronte Schmidt and it's time for us to clock out.
OUTRO MUSIC: [Plodding bluesey guitar with organ accompaniment fades out]