I have a long, sometimes sordid history with tattoo artist Micah Perry. I should say that before I even get started here.
Micah Perry is not only my friend but a hero to me — someone who came from a rough, not always queer-tolerant background and built a successful career in a field that’s not always queer-tolerant either. And he has persevered, becoming a successful, well-known international tattoo artist.
In a time when our president tells us the world is ugly, and that queer people aren’t worthy of the same rights as other Americans, and when fascism is on the rise around the world, it’s worth shining a light on those who transcend ugly politics and homophobia and not only survive but thrive.
I’d known Micah Perry for years before we became friends. That moment — the moment I knew I wanted more of this guy in my life — happened at LAX. We were boarding the same plane, bound for London. I was on my way to the UK to see my boyfriend, and Micah was on his way to Rome to see his. I remember clearly our conversation as we waited for our plane.
“We really are lucky,” he said. “Look at us, flying across the world to be with men we love. If you had told that little kid growing up in Mississippi that one day this would be my life — that I would be living my year split between L.A. and Hawaii and San Francisco, and traveling all over the world — I would have thought there was no way. That could never be possible. Now look at me.”
I recently sat down with Micah Perry for a tattoo. We talked about growing up in Mississippi, dating, sex and coming out.
“I was born in a small town in Southern Mississippi,” Micah says. “I was the youngest of three. We were a very poor family, deeply Baptist. Farmers. Even as a little kid my aunt always knew I was gay, and she encouraged it. When I was 7 she was shot and killed by my uncle, who then shot himself. I was devastated. We adopted my cousins, and my father — maybe because of all the stress — became alcoholic and really abusive toward me. I was the youngest and the most sensitive, so I was an easy target. My mother divorced him, and ultimately so did I. I haven’t spoken to him since she left him.“
His eyes are sad. He picks up my arm, looking at the tattoo he’s just finished, turning my arm over and over. The piece is of a red barn and a large tree, with fall-colored leaves, a moon and a sun. It’s the beginning of something much larger — a collaboration between Micah and me of a dream I once had and his vision of that dream.
“I based this image on the farm where I grew up,” Micah tells me. “It was beautiful country. Classic big red barn, fields full of all this fresh, growing food, orchards and forests and a big lake we fished out of.“
Was it lonely? I ask. I spent the majority of my life in big cities with a well-off liberal Jewish family. I’ve never not known a world full of other queer people, and I’ve never had to fight for recognition or to be accepted.
“I made friends with older people,” he says. “Mostly in their 20s and 30s. I had a job at a steak house and the manager was gay and did theater with my mother, so she trusted him,” he laughs. “If only she knew! They were sneaking me into gay bars out of town, and lord knows my innocence was long gone by 15. These guys always took care of me and kept me safe, though. They taught me about safe sex, and I could tell them anything and they never judged me.”
Older men were a big part of my growing up gay too, I tell him. Men who taught me how to live, how to be gay, how to be part of a community.
“I remember the first gay bar I went to, Rumors,” he says. “There was actually a documentary about it called Small Town Gay Bar. I remember being out in the parking lot and pickup trucks piled with rednecks would swerve by, swinging bats and shot guns, yelling ‘Faggots!’ and everyone would run inside except the queens, who took off their stilettos and chased after them, dressed in these amazing sequined gowns, throwing their heels. Those fucking queens in that parking lot at Rumors, they were heroes. They taught me you can’t let the bullies get you. You can’t let the world tell you you are wrong or sick.”
Racism was a daily part of life for Micah Perry, too. “My cousin was a big anti-racism advocate,” he tells me. “He had a tattoo of a dead, burning KKK member on his arm and anti-racist stickers on his car. Late one night we were out driving, and we ran into a road block — two police cars, four cops. Seeing the stickers and my cousin’s tattoo, they told us to get out the car and that we were ‘in Klan territory.’ We were strip-searched, the car ripped apart, all for nothing. I thought for sure this was it and they were going to kill us. We weren’t black, but we were two poor white kids, so they didn’t care about us. But they let us go. We couldn’t file a report because they would have come for us. That’s just the truth in the South with racism. In 1996 we had a sit-in at our high school to protest the fact that we had separate proms for blacks and whites. Can you believe that?”
Micah Perry became interested in tattoos while in his teens. He got his first tattoo at 17, and when he met the owner of the shop, who took a liking to the work he’d done in his sketchbook, he was offered an apprenticeship on the spot.
“I dropped out of school and started focusing on what I loved most,” he says. “My art and tattoos. The owner was a black businessman in Mississippi, so he understood discrimination and let me know he was fine with who I was. All he cared about was my talent. I really appreciate that about him. He allowed me a safe place to learn my craft without fear.”
Finding work wasn’t always easy for Micah, and he experienced plenty of discrimination for being gay along the way.
“It definitely wasn’t always easy,” he tells me. “For a long time the tattoo world was dominated by straight, white, conservative guys. That’s changing now, but coming up I experienced a lot of homophobia. I worked for a shop in Hawaii that was owned by this born-again Christian guy who was always trying to get me to go to these classes to ‘fix’ my gayness. I was always having to tell him no. One night I tattooed my boyfriend and he kissed me right there in front of the owner. The next day I was off the schedule and fired for ‘using profanity.’ But I didn’t let that stop me. I knew I was good, and fuck anyone who tried to tell me I wasn’t, especially if it was because I was gay.
These days Micah Perry finds himself working in Hawaii often.
“The shop where I work in Hawaii now is owned by a straight biker gang, and they accept me more than anyone ever has,” he says. “The owner calls me his son, and I call him Papa. My chosen father. Best dad ever.”
One place Micah hasn’t yet tattooed in that he wants to head to is Mexico City. “I’d tear down some of these walls they keep talking about building along the way,” he says. “I’m all about tearing down walls. My own and the real ones.”
We live in some pretty dark times right now, and for many of us it’s hard to imagine how we’re going to survive a Trump presidency. And that’s why stories like Micah’s give me hope. They act as proof that even under the worst conditions — struggling to just be who you are — you can triumph, and that by triumphing you too become a hero. You become a story worth telling to the world; a story that gives us all hope.