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Coming Home to Your Body

A hot minute with Ren Marshok of Tender Heart Tattoo.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the January 2024 edition of Outlife757 Magazine.

Sylvia Plath once said that “if the body is a temple, then tattoos are its stained-glass windows.” Ren Marshok then has truly created a sanctuary at Tender Heart Tattoo in Norfolk.

Walking into his shop located in the Arts District on Granby Street feels as though you are entering a sacred space. This is true as the iconic location was formerly Fuzion Ink Studio, one of the first shops to reopen after a nearly 56-year tattoo ban in the city ending in 2006, and just down the street from the former parlor of Cap Coleman.

It was important to Ren and his founding business partner Liam to not only honor this legacy but also their identities as queer trans men.

“We wanted a place where we could feel comfortable being ourselves and an environment that felt good to be in,” he said.  “Where you could come do your work, be yourself, and that just be okay, and make that space for our clients as well while creating a home for queer artists in the area.”

Ren’s journey to tattooing began on a somber note. He was like most 21-year-old’s, unsure of what direction to take. After a good friend passed away, her parents gave him all her tattooing equipment. It became clear to him that this was what he needed to do with his life, and he could honor his friend and keep her memory alive.

“It was kind of just like I have a lot of feelings and I need to get them out somehow. Heartache and suffering was the catalyst for creativity,” he said. “It was like arting out emotion and I didn’t really hone my drawing skills until I took an interest in tattooing.”

This led him to knock on every door in Roanoke and eventually Hampton Roads to land an apprenticeship. It paid off at Blue Horseshoe Tattoo in Portsmouth where he finetuned the craft for 6 years. It was also where he met Liam and envisioned their own shop that celebrated queerness as well as gave back to their community.

“I don’t want to just be another business owner taking queer people’s money to better myself,” he said. “I want to take it and put it back into my community.”

Every year, Tender Heart hosts a flash event the Friday before Pride and the entire staff working Pride Fest on Saturday. All money raised goes directly to the Southeastern Transgender Resource Center. They have also held benefits for friends, top surgery funds, Planned Parenthood, and recently, for children in Palestine. These events are also important to Ren because of those that helped him on his journey.

It is this connection that makes Ren’s art so powerful, especially as it relates to the intersection of tattooing and queerness which have both had a long history of divided opinion in society.

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