Nice Tattoo, a tidy blue-trimmed shop tucked on a picturesque corner in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, is the kind of place whose brand is immediately legible: It’s nice. It’s a tattoo parlor where “everybody is nice to you,” as their tagline goes, and it looks nice too—airy, bright, and impeccably decorated, looking less like a traditional tattoo shop and more like the whimsical atelier of an indie artist. Photos show a cozy velvet couch, cute art, and an array of succulents, all eminently Instagrammable.
Nice’s branding makes sense: if you’re a newcomer to getting tattooed, the idea that nobody will be rude or talk down to you is instinctively appealing. But a lot of women in New York went for another reason: Because they believed they were supporting a woman-owned business. Nice’s website, until mid-March, claimed as much, saying the shop was “female-owned” and looking to hire more women artists.
According to Jessica Valentine, that’s not true. And she’d have good reason to know: Valentine (whose legal name was previously Jessica Dwyer, and is now Jessica Valentine Plourde), was a tattooer at Nice from the time it opened in April 2017 until early March of this year, when she quit to open her own private studio. She was also frequently the face of the shop in news stories, as one of its “co-owners.”
“I had been unhappy with the way I was misrepresented,” she told Jezebel recently.
Robert Boyle and Jenny Capano, two other co-owners of Nice, dispute Valentine’s account. The two of them say that Valentine was one of several co-owners, and that that they’ve never claimed the shop was solely owned by women. They also say that Valentine left over a series of disputes about what being “nice” to customers really meant.
“Until recently, when Jes started treating our support staff, the other artists, and our clients in ways that were literally not nice, there wasn’t a single decision that Jes made that Jenny and I did not support,” Boyle told me recently in an email. “We wish Jes nothing but the best, and we are not interested in tearing her down to argue against her lies, but it is factually inaccurate to suggest she was not the boss in the shop.”
Capano and Boyle both say that Capano has been the majority owner of the business since the end of 2017. Somewhere along the way, that fact got a little muddled: During her time at Nice, Valentine was identified in numerous peppy media stories and on Nice’s website as the “owner” or “co-owner” of the shop, while Capano and Boyle were barely mentioned. The New York Post gave Valentine (who then still used the last name Dwyer) the bulk of a story called “How women are re-inventing the tattoo parlor,” mentioning Boyle and Capano only in passing as her “business partners.” The New York Times went further, also calling Valentine/Dwyer “one of Nice Tattoo’s owners” and identifying Boyle as “a founder,” without looking very deeply at what either word meant, though they did give Boyle space to talk about what he thought Nice’s role in the tattoo ecosystem was, vis-a-vis women:
Robert Boyle, a founder of Nice Tattoo, said that Nice wasn’t intentionally positioned as an all-female tattoo parlor. “After we started to understand the implication of providing an alternative space for female artists, it became a position we felt was culturally important,” he said.
Even the Today Show got in on the act, with a segment on how “a female-owned tattoo parlor in Brooklyn is changing the body ink industry” as the web text put it, and a chyron identifying Valentine as the owner. (Seemingly every one of these stories was sent to the same place to get their headlines written.)
The thrust of all these stories was the same: that Valentine was in charge. Ironically, the Today Show story ended up running after Valentine had already quit. She says her departure from Nice was spurred by the fact that while she was given that “co-owner” title, she was in fact not in charge of much at all. The founder and true owner was Robert Boyle, she alleges, who she says gave her that title as part of a way to make the shop more appealing to women, without paying her a portion of the shops’s profits that she was promised or giving her any ability to make even the smallest decisions in how the shop was run. (For his part, Boyle says none of the co-owners have made the cut of the profits they were promised, because the shop is still operating in the red. “The shop has had a net loss over the last two years,” he says, “so there’s no distribution.”)
Two shop assistants who previously worked at Nice told us that their perception, too, was that Boyle was in charge and that Valentine’s ownership title wasn’t matched with any real power or decision-making ability.
After I contacted Boyle and Capano for comment in early March, the claim that they were female-owned vanished from their website, and an FAQ now makes clear that they are not.
Valentine feels that clarification happened a bit too late.
“I was starting to feel like a fraud,” she told Jezebel by phone. She added, “As time went on and I was finding that most of my clients came to us because it was ‘women-owned’ and operated, I could no longer remain there with a clear conscience.” When she opened her new studio, she also put up an Instagram post that read “Truly Women Owned” and subtly hinted at what she says happened at Nice.
For their part, Capano and Boyle also point out that all their artists are in fact women, and that they’ve worked hard to make the shop a friendly, approachable place for women, tattoo newbies, and everyone else.
“We would never say we were women-owned,” Boyle told me in a phone conversation. “Our feeling is that our clients are mostly women. Our staff is essentially all women. But for us that’s not been our culture. When we design things, we don’t make them intentionally for women.”
Both Capano and Boyle also deny that they ever put out a call to only hire female artists, which would be illegal under New York state discrimination laws. And they say that what’s happening here is little more than a business dispute gone sour.
“This is an awkward story,” Capano told me recently by phone. “It’s not a nice story, for sure.” (It’s also, she argued in a follow-up email, not a story at all: “This is really an internal personnel matter at a very small business.”)
It is certainly a business matter, and a dispute between people with solid motivations for remembering different versions of the same events. But Nice’s particularly weird situation also touches on a new discussion that’s started to bubble to the surface in the past few years: about the ways that feminism, empowerment, and women’s-only spaces are monetized and commercialized. (See: The investment firm State Street Corporation, which funded the Fearless Girl statue, but which is not, according to reports, actually putting all that many women in leadership positions.)
In a certain light, Nice looks like a small-scale example of how industries that have long been coded as traditionally male are adapting, sometimes awkwardly, to structural feminist critiques. It’s also illustrative of how a good intention—wanting to support and promote a business owned by women—can sometimes become much more complicated than it appears.
Women aren’t a new presence in the tattoo world, particularly not in what is now the United States. Native people, including Native women, practiced forms of ceremonial tattooing long before this country existed. Circus performer Maud Wanger, born in 1877, is the first known professional woman tattooer in the U.S., a trade she learned from her sailor husband, who claimed he had been taught by traditional tattooers in Java and Borneo.
It’s not a particular mystery why women would want to seek out a tattoo shop owned by other women, says Margot Mifflin, an author and professor who wrote Bodies of Subversion, a history of women and tattooing. “Some women like all-female or women-owned shops because the risk of harassment is less,” she says. “Or they feel more comfortable being touched by a woman, especially if the tattoo requires undressing. Some just like the feel of being in a women’s shop if it’s designed like a salon or private studio, as opposed to a street shop where they might encounter machismo or get hit on. And some may just want to support women artists since they’re still under-represented in the tattoo world.”
Women-run tattoo shops aren’t a rarity or particularly new in New York: New York Adorned was founded by Lori Leven in 1996, a year before tattooing became legal in the city.
But Nice attracted a lot of media attention, both because so many straight news outlets seem to have a sudden appetite for stories about what’s “new” in tattooing, a very old profession, and, seemingly, because it looked different: sunny, clean, and cozy.
All of the Nice stories were intently focused on her, Valentine says, and they put her in a tricky position ethically. She says she tried not to lie—she’d be asked why she named the shop Nice, and would say that she hadn’t named it, for instance—but was still often left with the sense that she wasn’t making the full situation clear.
“They focused on the female ownership aspect,” she says. “I think it was supposed to be positive. I think they believed I had a bigger role than I did.”
Boyle aided that, she says. “Everyone who walked through the door he’d say, ‘This is Jes, she’s the owner.” (Emails forwarded to us from one client show that Valentine used “owner” in her email signature. She says Boyle set that up: “He made me follow his format. And for the first year, really, I did feel like I was a co-owner.”)
Customers loved it. As one wrote on Yelp, “I really believe in supporting female owned business so this place is definitely highly recommended!” A small lifestyle blogger gushed about getting her first tattoo there, writing “I also love that it is woman owned and employs only women artists.” In reporting this story, I informally polled my friends who’d been tattooed at Nice or followed them on Instagram; they, too, unanimously believed it was female-owned and operated, and said it was part of the allure.
One particularly odd detail makes it seem as though the shop went out of its way, early on, to make the shop’s female contingent look even bigger than it then was. Valentine says that in 2017, Boyle created a female email alias, “Sarah Johnson,” who was identified as the shop’s “client relations” representative and answered emails from customers.
One former customer forwarded us an email she received from “Sarah.” The email provided tattoo aftercare instructions. “Sarah” added that Robert appreciated the customer’s patience when her appointment was delayed.
Valentine has a theory about why all this happened: the very next tattoo artist who was hired after her was a woman, she says,“and people were like, ‘Oh we love it, you girls doing this.’ I think that’s when a lightbulb went off in his head and he created this Sarah character.”
Boyle told me he couldn’t recall if he’d ever used the email alias “Sarah,” replying, “I’ll have to look that up.” He did confirm that no one named Sarah has ever worked at Nice: “I think I would remember that.”
Capano, meanwhile, said, “We were using an alias at one point, I believe,” adding that it’s common in fashion, the field she works in full-time. “If you don’t have an assistant onboard and you don’t want to respond directly, you make up a third person.”
Pretty much everyone involved in this deeply odd situation seems to agree that Nice Tattoo was Boyle’s brainchild. Boyle is a former VP of operations at Vox Media; he attended law school and has a long background in advertising and brand-building. Nice’s current website says the idea for the shop came about after Boyle “had a bad experience getting some small tattoos: one artist refused, one was rude, and another tried to price gouge him.”
Though he wasn’t a tattooer himself, Boyle sensed a business opportunity: once he came up with the idea of an explicitly friendly shop, he was joined by a friend named Eric Berg. Neither man had any experience in the tattoo world, though, and so Berg reached out to Jes Valentine in January of 2017, who was then tattooing under the name Zoey Ramone.
The men wanted advice on opening a tattoo shop from someone in the business, but Valentine’s involvement in the business quickly became deeper than that; she says that after a few meetings with Boyle, he offered her a tempting job: “He and I had a meeting where he offered me part ownership.”
In our initial conversation, Boyle didn’t mention Berg, but did talk about yet another co-owner, Lucas Shanks, a writer and advertising professional whose website says he created the brand development for Nice. Shanks confirmed via email that he’s a co-owner as well, and sometimes makes “creative assets” for the shop, like signage, party invitations and social media posts. He owns a “very small portion of the shop,” he says, but hasn’t been paid any of the profits from the business. “Not that I expect any, I joined the team at Nice Tattoo Parlor as a creative opportunity to help build a really cool brand.” (Berg says that he owns 2.5 percent of the business and Shanks owns one percent.)
Branding and developing a coherent identity were a big focus for Nice at the outset: on Medium, while Nice was getting underway, Boyle made a series of winding videos, usually sitting in the shop, about building a business and team dynamics. Meanwhile, their own team was growing: Berg and Boyle were joined early on by Jenny Capano, who’s had a long career in fashion and was an early investor in Nice.
“I’m a co-founder,” Capano told me in a recent phone conversation. She says she became the shop’s majority owner in December 2017, nine months after it opened. At that point, she said, “the shop became majority women-owned, which will remain true until Jes signs her termination agreement.”
Capano brought her sister in to do the shop’s interior decorating, which quickly garnered a lot of attention and praise from both clientele and the press. “We wanted to make the space nice and beautiful,” Capano says, “and attract clients like ourselves that maybe don’t have that many tattoos but would want to get a tattoo and go somewhere nice-looking.” These days, she says, “I wouldn’t say I go to the shop often, but I’m there for bigger-picture things like pop-ups, guest artists and press. I’m also the emergency call when things aren’t going well in the shop.”
Boyle told me that the decision for Capano to become the majority owner was directly reflective of their clientele: “Once we realized the clients were largely women, it felt inappropriate for me to be the person who owned the most of it.” He added, “Jenny, Jes and myself were the decision-makers.”
Berg, one of the other co-founders, says that “characterizing the shop as ‘female-owned’ is correct as far as I understand the equity distribution.” He added, though, “This ‘female owned’ isn’t something we ever actively promoted because we wanted the shop to be equally accessible to men and women.”
At some point, though, Nice did start branding itself that way. Nobody could quite tell me how the words “female-owned” came to be on the shop’s website, or where the specific job posting calling for female tattooers came from. (Capano suggested to me in our conversation that the wording on the website had been “majority female-owned.” It was not.)
Shanks also reached out to a potential client in New York on Twitter this summer by telling her the shop was “female-owned:”
Valentine has a different view: she believes calling the shop female-owned was just marketing. After Boyle started noticing that people were praising the staff for all being women, she said, “He said he wanted to give Jenny more of an ownership percentage so we could say we were female-owned,” which she says felt cynical to her. Her own ownership role, she said, didn’t come with any real clout: “I never had even a credit card,” she says, was unable to purchase supplies herself, and wasn’t on the lease.
Two former Nice shop assistants, Kat Pinheiro and Sophie Bushman, both told us independently that their impression was that Capano was providing the majority of the financial support for the shop, Boyle held the bulk of the decision-making ability, and Jes was little more than the face of the business.
Pinheiro, who’s also a teacher and has been friends with Valentine for a decade, says she worked at Nice for most of 2018. Valentine, she says, “had absolutely no power. It was apparent very quickly that Rob was one in the charge.” Despite that, she says, “Rob would say he just works there and say Jes was the owner, all the time. He would flat-out say it.” (Boyle responds that Pinheiro’s views are colored by her friendship with Valentine, and that she worked there early on, when the shop was still getting off the ground. “Kat is a really good person and I’d never say anything negative about her, but she is not in a position to talk about Jenny and Nice Tattoo in an informed way.”)
Bushman, meanwhile, worked at Nice for about a year, up until March 2019, starting as an assistant and eventually tattooing, first as an apprentice under Valentine. She says that Capano, the female co-owner, would come into the shop every few months, direct aesthetics, “move stuff around,” and mediate disputes. “I’m still not entirely sure what she does.”
Meanwhile, Bushman says, “Customers absolutely thought we were female-owned. We had lots of them say that explicitly,” often commenting that they wanted to support women after a bad experience at a “more macho shop,” as Bushman puts it.
Capano told me in an email that the narrative described by Valentine “and her friends” is “offensive to me, a person who has spent countless hours working on building the business I believe in. It is degrading on a personal level. Nice Tattoo has been a labor of love for me ... asking my sister to help design it and even my husband and cousin to actually install so many items in the shop.”
When Valentine quit, Bushman says Boyle fired her as well, albeit in a way she found confusing, telling her that while she would still be “affiliated” with Nice, she’d no longer be tattooing or assisting anyone. (Boyle responds that he was trying to help Bushman, who was then only 19. “At that point, the ways I could help were to let her know that while she was looking for a new job that she could keep NTP in her bio, borrow tattoo supplies from us that she needed, and keep whatever money she owed the shop. I’m not a hero or anything for this stuff, it was just the right thing to do. I was just trying to be nice to her when she was in a tough spot.”)
Bushman took the hint and became a tattooer at Valentine’s new studio.
“I don’t like how he uses women who work there as faces of the business,” she says, “when he’s the only one making decisions.”
In the end, the rise of Nice—and the subsequent disputes around it—are indicative of a strange cultural moment where women still don’t have quite enough clout in the tattoo world to be really “taking over,” as so many soft-focus pieces like to put it. But supporting women-owned business is just popular enough that a shop can get a healthy amount of social media approval, and more than a few customers, that way. It’s also clearly an attractive story prospect for straight news outlets like the Times that seem to be holding onto dated concepts of tattoo parlors and the tattoo industry in general.
Capano and Boyle argue that every news story correctly identified Nice as only co-owned by women, which isn’t really true, though it’s not their fault. The more the shop’s fame spread across the internet, the more stories incorrectly identified the shop as “woman-owned,” among them the feminist site The Establishment and the female-focused tattoo site Rebel Circus, which incorrectly said the co-owners were Valentine and Hannah Kang, another popular artist at the shop, who didn’t respond to an email from Jezebel requesting comment. (Refinery 29 used softer language, opting for the vague but functionally correct “female-led.”)
What seems to have happened here, in the end, is a soft and passive kind of deception, and one that was aided by a type of women’s media story that is focused on the gentle and the feel-good. It’s far from the strangest brand of misleading self-promotion out there: the Nice story is nowhere near as bizarre or hilarious, for instance, as the guy who spent years pretending to be his own wife on Twitter, apparently to build an identity as a comedian. Nor is it as serious as the kind of female-impersonation that’s evident elsewhere in the business world; for instance, for years governmental agencies across the U.S. have tried to hand out contracts to female- and minority-owned businesses, under the usually-correct logic that those businesses are socially disadvantaged and need more help getting started. But fraud is relatively common, the oversight at both the state and federal level is lacking and, unlike Nice, there’s often millions of dollars at stake.
And Nice, moreover, did build what they set out to: A nice shop, a friendly shop, and one where hundreds of women have, in fact, gotten tattooed in an environment where they felt comfortable. In the midst of an industry still riven by debates about how to handle sexual assault by tattooers, that safe space does matter.
But the fact is that many people went there thinking they were part of something that, according to women who worked there, they were not, and that impression was not corrected. The lack of transparency in how the shop was run — and a media eager to write gauzy profiles without doing much homework — created a situation where many women were genuinely confused about where their money was going.
For Valentine, the shop’s branding—and its claims to niceness—were little more than skin-deep. “It was starting to feel fraudulent,” she says. “So I decided to leave before I got any deeper in.”