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Permanent Change: How Zoë Schütt is Redefining the Tattoo Industry

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCT chapter.

Embarking on a tattoo journey, whether it’s your first or your fiftieth, is a mix of excitement and nerves. For veterans, it’s the challenge of finding that perfect patch of skin for the next masterpiece, for newcomers, it’s a thrilling, yet daunting decision of what image will adorn their body for life. Amidst all this, one crucial factor often overlooked is the importance of feeling safe and understood by your tattoo artist.

Zoë Schütt, the owner of Zodiac Tats and co-owner of Coven Club, is no stranger to the complexities of navigating the tattoo industry. Coven Club, situated in the vibrant heart of Woodstock, Cape Town, is an alternative aesthetics studio that houses amazing talent, such as independent tattoo artists and beauty technicians. I immediately feel welcomed as I enter the space to get another tattoo and have a chat with Zoë. Caity, the nail tech who painted my nails just the week before, greets me with a warm hug, a testament to the genuine connections fostered here. I am no stranger to the tattoo chair, but Zoë takes the time to guide me through the process once more, ensuring I feel informed and comfortable every step of the way. Sitting down with Zoë, I’m struck by her warmth and authenticity. It becomes clear that creating a community where everyone feels seen, heard, and valued is at the heart of everything she does. However, behind this vibrant vision lies a journey marked by challenges that demanded unwavering perseverance.  

Zoë started her career tattooing back in 2019. Prior to this, her corporate job began taking its toll on her mental health. “I couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me,” she says. “I’ve got this good salary, I’m doing better than anyone in my family, but every morning I wake up and I’m depressed.” As her mental health spiralled, Zoë found herself admitted to a psychiatric facility, a wake-up call that demanded change. It was in this period of self-discovery that Zoë unearthed her true calling. “I’ve always been an artist. It’s the only thing that has made me feel understood and fulfilled. But I’m also severely ADHD, so just doing art wasn’t enough. I don’t finish my projects, and I get bored quickly, so I decided to get a tattoo and think about what I was going to do next. Then it just clicked. I realized that I could do this.”  

Despite uncovering her passion, Zoë’s journey to honing her skills as a tattoo artist was anything but smooth sailing. Her apprenticeship at a tattoo studio lasted nine months, marked by toxicity, sexual abuse, and discrimination. “From the third day, I knew it was an unhealthy environment,” Zoë recalls, but the pressure to provide for her family compelled her to persevere through the ordeal. Reflecting on her experience, Zoë highlights the absurdly sexist expectations placed upon her as a woman in the industry. “I was expected to wear a full face of makeup every day.” she shares. “I had to have cleavage and wear heels, and when I said I didn’t want to do that, they weren’t tolerant at all.”

At one studio, she faced backlash for not being dressed appropriately.  “It was the middle of summer; it was boiling, and there was no air conditioning in the studio. I was told that I was not allowed to wear shorts or skirts because I was making my male coworkers and clients uncomfortable by showing my legs.” The contradictions didn’t end there. Zoë recounts how some studios deemed her not “attractive” enough, pressuring her to exploit her sex appeal to attract clients, while others criticized her for being “too much,” insisting she cover up more. “I was told at the start of my journey that the only way I was going to make it was if I slept my way to the top. That is what my first mentor told me,” she says.  

Zoë bravely shares the harrowing reality of enduring sexual harassment every single day she stepped foot into her workplace, facing unwelcome advances from both colleagues and clients alike. She recalls how her co-workers knowingly assigned her to clients with perverted intentions, laughing and finding amusement in her discomfort. “Every day, I went home in tears.” Zoë recounts. “I figured that I would rather risk it all and go my own way than continue to sacrifice my dignity and mental health.” The tipping point came when she was subjected to sexual abuse by another tattoo artist, someone she had trusted as a mentor. “I was being tattooed by my mentor, and he used that as an opportunity to abuse me.” Fear kept her quiet for a long time, but she realised that she wasn’t alone. “I heard similar stories from so many female clients who had faced objectification from their artists.” she shares.  

Fed up with the relentless mistreatment she endured, Zoë refused to let them dictate her future. “I was not going to be anyone’s victim,” she declares. And thus, Zodiac Tats, Zoë’s very own independent studio, was born. Determined to carve her path, Zoë turned to TikTok, using the platform to share not only her artwork but also her raw, unfiltered experiences. “I spoke out about it on TikTok, and so many other female artists came forward and said that this was the norm in the industry,” she says. When launching her own studio, Zoë chose honesty as her guiding principle. “I let everyone know that I was not a professional tattoo artist and that this was just a passion of mine. Luckily, I had so many people who were willing to grow with me and let me practice on them.”  

Zoë’s candidness on TikTok opened doors to an audience eager to engage not just with her art but with her authentic, unfiltered story. This transparency not only attracted like-minded individuals but also laid the groundwork for the connections that would eventually blossom into the foundation of Coven Club. “As I grew and secured my own studio, I had artists approach me and ask if they could join me. I realized that there was clearly a need for a space like ours in the industry,” she says. Zoë recognized that toxicity wasn’t confined to the tattoo world alone; it extended its reach into the beauty industry as well. “Beauty technicians often aren’t given the recognition they deserve as artists,” she explains. “That’s why we aimed to create a space where creatives could come together, be independent, and feel supported.” Reflecting on her past experiences in other studios, Zoë emphasizes the importance of autonomy and authenticity. “I’ve worked at studios where I had to be there all day without a salary and no guarantee of bookings. I was tattooing things that I didn’t feel connected to. Now I can choose what I want to work on because I’m not desperate to pay my bills.” 

The tattooing industry can often feel like a hostile environment, not only for artists but for clients as well. “There are people who love the vibe of a traditional studio,” says Zoë. “But we find that a lot of people are not catered to. It’s typically not a safe space for women and individuals under the queer umbrella.”  Indeed, the prospect of getting a tattoo can be daunting, especially for those grappling with social anxiety or discomfort about physical intimacy. “We try to make the environment as comfortable as possible so that it’s not causing you even more anxiety on top of those you might already have about the tattooing process.”  

In the tattooing industry, the pursuit of profit can sometimes overshadow true artistry, leading to a sense of competitiveness and even undermining the creative process. Yet, amidst this landscape of cutthroat competition, Zoë emphasizes a different ethos at Coven Club: unity and mutual support. “Everyone supports each other,” says Zoë. “Even if I do the exact same thing as another artist, it will still be different because we’re all artists, and we’re all unique. There shouldn’t be any competition in art because we’re all different.” 

Zoë draws boundless inspiration from her clients, viewing each collaboration as an opportunity to create something deeply personal and meaningful. “Whether it’s something super basic like a butterfly, I love that. I will never shy away from anything because it’s popular. I love adding my own style and my own touch to these designs and making it not only mine, but my client’s as well.” Zoë’s design process is a deeply collaborative one. “I’ll sit with my clients, get their vibe, hear their story. I don’t design your tattoo before I’ve met you, or else I’d be designing something for the wrong person.” This philosophy stems from Zoë’s own journey and is driven by her desire to create a safe and meaningful experience for every client. “I definitely believe that tattooing is an energetic transfer. Being able to be vulnerable with my client is important.” Zoë believes that this vulnerability is what transforms a simple tattoo into something truly special. “It’s so much more than the artwork. Even long after you’ve gotten it, you can look at it and remember the positive experience you had getting it done.” 

Zoë underscores the value of starting small and never gatekeeping the keys to success. “I encourage anyone who has a product that they feel aligns with Coven Club to approach us.” she asserts. “If I had the capacity to guide every single person that wants to pursue their passion then that’s what I would do. But at the end of the day, I’m just a girl,” she adds with a laugh. Her willingness to support others stems from her own experiences and a desire to uplift marginalized voices in the industry. “I’ve had so many clients tell me about their struggles as queer women in the industry, and I’m always happy to give them advice.” 

Since embarking on her journey, Zoë has witnessed a remarkable transformation in attitudes toward women within the tattoo industry. While acknowledging the challenges of breaking into such a traditional industry, Zoë finds hope in the increasing presence of female artists in traditional shops. “I am seeing many female artists join traditional shops, which makes me hope that they are being valued and respected in those spaces.”  

Despite the challenges she’s faced, Zoë offers invaluable advice for aspiring tattoo artists, gleaned from her own journey of perseverance and self-discovery. “It is difficult, whether you have an apprenticeship or learning on your own. It’s important to keep focus and to keep pushing,” she emphasizes. “Especially when you think things aren’t progressing, just keep pushing. Keep trying, especially when you’re failing.” Zoë stresses the importance of staying true to your artistic vision, even if it means parting ways with environments or situations that don’t align with your goals. “The right people will find you. Be loud about your journey. Do not be afraid to admit how bad you are because you will get better, and the same people who are skipping your posts will be liking and commenting on them soon enough.” 

Even as success comes knocking, Zoë advocates for making it work on your terms. For her, this means infusing intentionality into every aspect, from the art itself to the way she prices her services. By aligning her business practices with her personal beliefs, Zoë has carved out a unique space for herself in the industry, one that reflects her values and empowers her to thrive. Zoë Schütt’s journey is a true testament to the power of resilience, authenticity, and unwavering determination. From confronting toxic environments to creating a sanctuary of inclusivity and empowerment at Coven Club, Zoë has and continues to defy the odds and shatter stereotypes at every turn. 

Woman taking a photo of herself in the mirror
Photo by Zoe Schutt
Hi there! My name is Kelly-Ann and I am an undergraduate student at the University of Cape Town, majoring in Film and Television studies. I am passionate about anything related to film, alternative rock music, and activism. When I'm not jotting down ideas for my next article, you can find me rewatching Bojack Horseman, curating a themed playlist, or rigorously following my skincare routine.