Pansy tattoo effort blooms a song

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday September 6, 2023
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Musicians and producers each show their pansy tattoos, including, from left, Julie Wolf, Katie Cash, Vicki Randle, and Nino Moschella. Photo: Courtesy Cedre Csillagi
Musicians and producers each show their pansy tattoos, including, from left, Julie Wolf, Katie Cash, Vicki Randle, and Nino Moschella. Photo: Courtesy Cedre Csillagi

An anthem, of sorts, for the transgender community, and queer people in general, is blooming in an East Bay music studio with help from a former Oakland musician and songwriter now living in Ohio. It is an outgrowth of local tattoo artist Cedre Csillagi's A Thousand Pansies initiative.

Csillagi, who is nonbinary, is aiming to have 1,000 people sport a special pansy tattoo that they designed in response to the nationwide legislative assault on LGBTQ rights, especially discriminatory laws aimed at transgender individuals. With 15 tattoo artists in several states assisting Csillagi in inking people with the floral tattoo, it can be found now on more than 100 bodies. They reached that mark in late July and, as of August 31, had hit pansy tattoo number 111.

"Reaching 100 was a big deal," Csillagi, 45, who co-owns Diving Swallow Tattoo in Oakland, recently told the Bay Area Reporter. "Considering it will be a year since I launched it as of October, I am just proud of it."

As the B.A.R. noted in a story last November, people can sign up for a session with Csillagi or one of the other tattoo artists to get the pansy tattoo by donating $500 directly to The Knights and Orchids Society, a Black-led LGBTQ services provider based in Selma, Alabama. The fundraising effort recently reached its own milestone, with more than $50,000 now being donated to the TKO Society, which is in the process of buying the building that houses it.

The nonprofit would also like to acquire the property it uses for its Montgomery office. It recently shared floor plans for the Selma location with Csillagi, who hopes one day to visit the agency.

"It is incredibly beautiful. I am just really happy for the TKOS," they said. "I would love to tattoo some of them, the people who work at TKOS on staff."

Julie Wolf, left, and Katie Cash sit in the recording studio. Photo: Courtesy Cedre Csillagi  

Turning to song
When tattooing Nino Moschella, the owner of recording studio Bird & Egg in Richmond, California, April 19 with a different tattoo design on his knee, Csillagi brought up that they had been talking with musician Katie Cash about creating a song for the pansy tattoo initiative and suggested he produce it. Moschella, a straight ally who lives in Oakland, offered to donate studio time if Cash needed a place to record.

Within minutes they had group texted Cash along with fellow Oakland residents music producer Julie Wolf and musician Vicki Randle, forming what Csillagi jokingly referred to as the A Thousand Pansies Band.

"I was blown away," recalled Moschella, 47, whose spouse, Mia Birdsong, has been a client of Csillagi's for roughly 15 years and now sports one of the pansy tattoos.

Moschella, for years, has been friends and a collaborator with Wolf, 57, who is queer. In addition to being music producers, the two are both musicians and song composers.

"We are besties," said Wolf, who also is a music director and educator.

They also have long been friends and collaborators with Randle, 68, who has been in the all-queer-dyke band Skip the Needle Together the last 10 years with Cash. The close bonds between all those involved makes working on the new song particularly special for Cash.

"I was really honored that Cedre asked," said Cash, 45, a butch dyke who also lives in Oakland. "It was a really easy yes because of that and making music with my friends. I feel honored to play music with, and have such a high level of respect for, all the musicians involved."

As they began to work on a song for the pansy initiative, they landed on the idea of finding one's place in the world and came up with the title "Already Home" for it. It speaks to the basic universal need everyone has of finding community and a place that feels like you're home, explained Randle, who found such belonging from her chosen family as opposed to her biological family.

"We all experience that no matter where we come from," she said. "Some of us are lucky to find that community, to find a place."

For Cash, she was inspired by her own experiences of being a female musician with few role models to turn to and not adhering to the gender norms she was expected to conform to as a little girl. In photos taken during her youth, "I look like a doll," she said.

"It is so opposite of who I am in terms of how I visually identify," added Cash. "For me, it is just so important for people to be able to live within who they truly are and to be as free as possible within doing that."

The song's title "resonates with me in the sense everything I need is already within me and everything I am, I am born with," explained Cash about going through the process to discover one's true self. "I am already home. I don't need to seek far and wide, what we have is sort of like a heart place. Who we are is within us and we don't need to seek outside of ourselves for that truth."

The quartet eventually reached out to songwriter and musician DillBilly, who used to live in Oakland but now resides in Ohio outside of Columbus. Moschella and Wolf had worked with them on their own record and sought their help with the lyrics for the song.

"What is going on right now in the world around anti-trans legislation certainly has been very much a big part of my thoughts and struggles," said DillBilly, 41, who is trans, nonbinary, and queer.

From afar, DillBilly provided feedback about the song's melody and has been fleshing out the lyrics, which speak to the fact that trans and nonbinary people have long existed in the world.

"Some of what the project is saying is that I think the world has a short-term memory problem that queer, trans, nonbinary people are somehow new and some sort of fad. But we have always been here," Dillbilly told the B.A.R. in a recent phone interview. "This project lined up with what I live every day as a queer, trans, nonbinary person, and I wanted to be part of that."

The derogatory remarks trans people hear said about them can result in them feeling lost, noted Dillbilly. The song is a counterpoint to that discourse.

"I think the message of the song is trying to counter what the world is telling us over and over again, and reminding myself as the person singing the song, and hopefully others, there is already a home for us in our body," they said. "However we choose to express that, our identity as queer trans people is not new and is not going anywhere. We have always existed."

Dillbilly had put work on the song on hold for a little while due to the birth in July of their baby, Selah, with their partner, Blythe. On Labor Day the four local members of the song-producing team gathered at Bird & Egg to begin laying down the track for "Already Home." The final version of the music will then be sent to DillBilly so they can record the lead lyrics for the song, with the aim to release the finished version this fall.

It is a mashup of both folk music and rock spirituals with some of Cash's punk rock sensibilities rolled in. Asked to define the musical genre it falls into, Wolf gave it a brand new name of "pansy."

Cash told the B.A.R. they are already thinking about doing a punk version of "Already Home" and perhaps their own song in honor of the pansy initiative. Meanwhile, Csillagi has been talking to their trans nephew who is a musician and lives in Texas about creating his own song.

"Maybe we will make an album. I don't know," said Csillagi.

They are still trying to figure out when and how the song will be released and how it could also be used to raise funds for the TKO Society.

"People are going to be so blown away. It is really special," said Csillagi.

An art show related to the pansy tattoo initiative is also in the works at a venue in Daly City. In the spring a student of one of Csillagi's clients did a class project about the initiative. They also helped raise money for it by selling buttons of the pansy tattoo design at school and their father's Awaken Cafe & Roasting in downtown Oakland.

"Little sweet things are happening," said Csillagi, adding that they find the collective activism to be "so beautiful."

While Dillbilly has yet to get a pansy tattoo, the four locals behind the song each got a pansy tattoo on the same day this summer. Randle's is on her right leg calf; Wolf had hers put on her right bicep; and Moschella opted for the back of his right arm.

Cash's pansy tattoo is on her right elbow so that it is visible when she is playing guitar. It has already prompted discussions among people who have noticed it and asked about it.

"I look forward to seeing people out in the world I don't know that have it," said Cash, noting being part of such a club is important for a touring musician like herself who travels to places less friendly of LGBTQ people. "I travel throughout the U.S. to a lot of places that are not safe and you can feel that, so it is definitely a cool thing, I think, in that respect."

To mark the tattoo initiative's first anniversary Csillagi is planning to host a party in October and invite everyone who has gotten the pansy to attend in order to take a group photo. Alas, their hope to ink actor Elliot Page, who released in June "Pageboy: A Memoir" about their coming out as a trans man, has yet to come to pass.

"I have gotten no response around that," said Csillagi. "Thank you so much for putting that out there. I am sure he is busy with his book out."

To learn more about the pansy tattoo initiative and receive emailed updates about upcoming appointments to be inked with one, visit its website or Instagram page

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