Nonbinary Oakland tattoo artist launches effort to benefit Southern LGBTQ agencies

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Friday November 18, 2022
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Oakland tattoo artist Cedre Csillagi, holding an image of the pansy tattoo, has launched A Thousand Pansies to help benefit an LGBTQ organization in Selma, Alabama. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland
Oakland tattoo artist Cedre Csillagi, holding an image of the pansy tattoo, has launched A Thousand Pansies to help benefit an LGBTQ organization in Selma, Alabama. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland

Six months ago, amid a flurry of anti-transgender legislation being passed across the country, nonbinary Oakland tattoo artist Cedre Csillagi first contemplated launching something to bring awareness to trans issues. Raised in Austin, Texas, they also wanted it to somehow benefit LGBTQ people in Southern states where the bulk of the transphobic bills were being adopted.

They hit upon using their own skillset as a way to not only raise funds for an LGBTQ nonprofit in Alabama but also foster a sense of community. For a $500 donation directly made to The Knights and Orchids Society, a Black-led LGBTQ services provider based in Selma, people can sign up for a limited number of sessions Csillagi is offering each month to ink them with a special pansy tattoo they designed.

"The idea is to be spreading solidarity and love, and everyone has the same one," Csillagi explained in a recent phone interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "I am hoping it becomes an icon or imagery for queers and allies to wear."

The initiative has been dubbed A Thousand Pansies. Their goal is to reach 1,000 pansy tattoos and they plan to share the design with other tattoo artists by the end of the year so they can help reach that number. By early December Csillagi will have inked 13 people with the pansy tattoo, which includes the one they have on their left shin, their first time giving themself a tattoo in that area.

Already, more than $5,200 has been raised, said Csillagi, from people getting a tattoo or deciding to contribute money toward the campaign even if they don't want to be inked.

"The thousand is a big number, but it feels attainable if doing it together and if there is a lot of us," said Csillagi.

Embraced quickly

Their pansy tattoo campaign officially began in September and immediately was embraced by people who get tattoos. One of the first to sign on was author and activist feminist Kate Schatz, 44, a queer and lesbian resident of Alameda.

Schatz already had Csillagi tattoo her years ago and had them add the pansy tattoo to the inside of her right arm on the bicep. Her wife, Lauren Pariani, also wants to get the tattoo, which would be the first time the couple has gotten the same one, said Schatz.

"Why wouldn't I? It kind of aligned with so many things I care about," said Schatz, who co-authored, along with W. Kamau Bell, "Do The Work: An Antiracist Activity Book." "One, I love Cedre's work. It is an honor to have Cedre's work on my body. Also, tattooing is personal. I like my tattoos to have a lot of meaning."

Unaware of a similar tattoo campaign, Schatz said she also loved the idea of having a collective tattoo in solidarity with others. The design also "is beautiful," she added.

"There is something about getting a tattoo both personally significant and also part of a collective effort and also tied into doing really meaningful mutual aid fundraising," said Schatz. "It just brings together all these things I think is so important."

With a film crew from London visiting the TKO Society this month on top of a hectic schedule for the staff, spokesperson Christina Nicholson told the B.A.R. no one was available for a phone interview. But in an emailed reply, she said the nonprofit was thrilled when Csillagi contacted it about their fundraising proposal.

"We are always grateful for those who fundraise on behalf of our clients and our ability to meet their needs. This particular fundraiser has been different because Cedre has been so involved and in constant communication with us, which we appreciate so much," wrote Nicholson. "It really feels good to know how much they really care about helping us to accomplish this goal."

The nonprofit's name is an acronym its co-founders came up with that means Knowledgeable Noble Independent Gifted Honorable Tenacious Soldiers (Knights) and Overcoming Racism Classism Heteronormativity and Injustice Down South (Orchids). It is aiming to purchase its Selma building for $90,000 this December and, perhaps in 2024, the building that houses its Montgomery office for $250,000.

According to Jennine Bell, TKO's finance director, another $500,000 is needed for the planned renovations to the Selma property. It has set a three-year timeline for the project, with a reopening eyed in May or June of 2024.

In the meantime, a number of Alabama families have sued to block enforcement of a state law that would criminalize doctors and parents for providing their transgender children with access to necessary medical care. The lawsuit, of which the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights is helping to litigate, is currently before the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after a federal district court judge blocked the law in May.

Csillagi picked the TKO Society as a beneficiary of the tattoo campaign partly because of the myriad health and wellness services it provides to its local LGBTQ community. Its wanting to purchase its building also felt like a goal that could benefit from the fundraising aspect of their initiative.

"It felt super goal-focused and they were very responsive. They were one of two places I reached out to and they were excited to work with what I was doing with my project," said Csillagi. "They are super underfunded. There just needs to be more money funneling into places like Alabama."

They plan to have the initiative benefit additional agencies focused on the transgender community. Csillagi initially had looked at donating to a Texas-based agency but couldn't find one they felt would be a good fit. Either it was a nonprofit already well funded or was too small.

"I would really like to do a place in Texas because of the intense legislation happening with trans people there right now," said Csillagi. "My siblings and friends who have kids who are trans, they are leaving the state because they don't feel safe."

Until seeing Csillagi's initiative Schatz had never heard of the Alabama nonprofit. It prompted her to look into it and what programs and services it offers.

"A lot of people often are asking me who to donate to and now I have another organization on my list," said Schatz, who also liked the fact her donation was going to a smaller, community-based nonprofit rather than a national group that likely has ties to major donors.

"In a time like this, when people feel so overwhelmed and at a loss for what to do in the world when everything can seem pretty bleak and hopeless, I really appreciate Cedre figuring out a way to bring together the tattoo world and support this organization and really get people involved," said Schatz.

Also now sporting the pansy tattoo is chef Preeti Mistry, 46, a queer, lesbian, and gender-nonconforming resident of Sebastopol in the North Bay. The former Oakland restaurant owner on November 1 got their tattoo on the elbow of their right arm.

It is right above a curry leaf plant tattoo they had previously had Csillagi give them on their right forearm. When the tattoo artist reached out in the fall regarding the pansy tattoo idea, Mistry didn't hesitate to take part in it, they told the B.A.R.

"I thought it was really beautiful," said Mistry. "I felt like it speaks to their talent, and I think that is the thing about movements and resistance. We all have a place. None of us can fix everything, but we can all do something."

The morning the B.A.R. spoke to Mistry, they had just seen news coverage about Texas officials moving to implement their own law that makes it illegal for parents to allow their transgender children to have gender-affirming care. It is why Mistry is using their platform as a celebrated chef to help spread the word about the pansy tattoo campaign.

"I feel one thing that has been a very important item in my life and my professional life is always using my platform and my space, and not even that, just the meaning in my work and my life is important to me. I think we are in quite dangerous times in our world," said Mistry, who added they don't want to take the privileges they have acquired for granted. "I am going to use the privilege I have to try to do better for the so-many people who continue to be hurt by these ridiculous laws."

Csillagi, 44, who was born in Houston, has lived in Oakland since 1999. They opened their Diving Swallow Tattoo business in the East Bay city in 2005 and three years later brought on as a co-owner Rocio "Wolf" Arteaga, who is queer and nonbinary.

The business partners had first met at Black and Blue Tattoo in San Francisco, where Csillagi had apprenticed in 2001. Since then Csillagi has become a coveted tattoo artist who is booked through 2024 for their regular tattoo clients.

An image of the pansy tattoo that Cedre Csillagi has designed. Photo: Courtesy Cedre Csillagi  

They landed on the pansy concept for the special tattoo campaign because they wanted an image already known to people as being a queer symbol. The word pansy had been used as a derogatory term for gay men, in particular, but then was reclaimed by the LGBTQ community, perhaps most famously by the San Francisco rock band Pansy Division.

As Csillagi researched the word's history, they learned of the Pansy Craze in the 1920s and 1930s centered on underground drag balls. It also tied into their being known for horticultural inspired tattoo designs.

"I specialize in realistic botanicals," explained Csillagi. "I do flowers a lot. It felt natural to land on an image of a flower."

They also see it as a nod to the guerrilla art project undertaken by Paul Harfleet. Known as the Pansy Project, Harfleet began planting pansies as the site of homophobic attacks in his hometown of Manchester, England and has since done so in numerous cities around the world.

"That really solidified that the pansy was right," said Csillagi. "Anytime I see a pansy in the world, art-wise or otherwise, it just feels right."

Every person receives the exact same pansy tattoo design. It is only to be done in black and grey ink, said Csillagi, to keep the cost down and to make it easier for other tattoo artists to also begin using it.

"I can't wait to be in some random place on vacation somewhere and see one," said Schatz. "To spot it in the wild, that is going to be so much fun. Even on Instagram to see people getting them has been fun."

As for Csillagi, they told the B.A.R. they have a particular trans celebrity they would love to see join the community of people with the pansy tattoo.

"I have lofty goals of tattooing Elliot Page," they said. "They are one of the notable trans nonbinary people that are just really putting their bodies in the line of violence, essentially to be in the public eye."

Csillagi is posting updates and photos of the people receiving the pansy tattoo to the Instagram page with the hashtags #a1000pansies, #athousandpansies and #pansytattoo.

They also created a website where people can get information about the campaign and sign up for emailed updates on how to make an appointment to be tattooed with a pansy, as Csillagi releases new dates and times for each month.

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