Though she majored in art at the University of Texas at San Antonio, Pepper Raefin never believed her career would be creative.
“I wanted to contribute to my household,” Raefin said. “I was also worried focusing my career in art would make me lose my passion for it.”
But life had different plans. In a turn of events, by her mid-30s, Raefin was living in Honolulu, working as an apprentice in a friend’s tattoo shop.
“My journey to tattooing was unexpected,” Raefin said. “I never, ever grew up thinking I would become a tattoo artist. I had this traditional idea of a grizzled old man tattooing.”
Originally from Orlando, Raefin popped around the country with her husband for about 12 years.
His job required a lot of travel, and Raefin was game.
Eventually the pair ended up in Hawaii, and Raefin fell into a job with the Department of Education working as a special needs teacher.
“The Department of Education had completely different goals. They wanted to save money, and I wanted to be an advocate for these kids,” Raefin said. “I spent my time in meetings, doing paperwork and I knew in my first quarter as a teacher that it wasn’t for me.”
An offhand comment by a friend who suggested a career in the tattoo industry made her scoff, but Raefin eventually reached out to an acquaintance who worked in a Honolulu tattoo shop.
She worked as an unpaid apprentice for a year, doing the dirty work and following her mentor’s lead without compensation.
Her first creation, a tiny apple, ended up on a volunteer’s shoulder.
“Working on skin is so different than working on paper,” Raefin said. “It takes so much trust for someone to allow you to work on them, because bar lasering, the work is there forever.”
The apple turned out smooth and quaint; 2021 marks five years since Raefin packed up her Island life and moved to St. Petersburg, where she now owns her own tattoo shop, 13 Arrows.
13 Arrows, Always Changing
The walls are covered with Raefin’s deep and textured portraits, a stark difference from her tattoo style of watercolor and Sailor Jerry-esque neo-traditional skin work.
“My style of painting is nothing like splashing watercolor, I have been known to have a very structured personality,” Raefin said. “My team says it’s because I’m a Virgo.”
Whether the stars are involved or not, Raefin’s preferred watercolor technique allows her to cut loose, create without lines and boundaries.
“It makes me think outside the box, and be more free and whimsical,” Raefin said. “Whimsical is not my normal state.”
The shop is also a home base for two other artists, Jocelynn Ivy and Pinky Rae.
“The ‘Me Too’ movement has come for the tattoo industry – it has arrived, rightfully so,” Raefin said.
Raefin originally hired mainly women – run to create a female friendly space and opportunities for women in the field – something she says is difficult to find in the tattoo industry.
Then came her shop manager, Svafnir Merveilles, who identifies as nonbinary.
“I became much more aware that having that attitude [of women only] might not have been as open as I once thought,” Raefin said. “I want to open up opportunities for the LGBTQ community as well, and this made me do some soul searching on if this was the best approach.”
Either way, 90% of 13 Arrow’s clientele identifies as female.
“It’s about being open minded, and understanding the community,” Raefin said. “I’m enjoying watching us evolve.”
In the spirit of change, Raefin and her small crew of queer and female artists are moving 15 minutes away to a larger shop at 4505 Park Blvd. on April 1.