Valencia Miller was 15 years old when she decided to become a tattoo artist. At the time, she was a student at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, having grown up in a military family in diverse locales, ranging from Hanau, Germany, to Fort Benin, Georgia. When she went with her mother to get her first body piercing, an artist in the shop recognized Miller from the prestigious arts school and invited her to join him as an apprentice.
“I had been trying to find different ways to make money doing what I love, even at that age,” she says. “I was studying automotive muraling, airbrushing, doing things that were considered counterculture or alternative at the time, and he was like, why don’t you just hang out at the shop? From that moment, I knew tattooing was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
As time went on, Miller would forge a distinct path that mixed this early passion with her talent and interest in fine art. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in painting from Saint Louis University, where she also minored in Mandarin, studying abroad in Beijing for a year. Later, she started a master’s degree in fine arts at Washington University in St. Louis. Perhaps most importantly, she trained under Anna Funk and Winona “Noni” Martin at the oldest tattoo shop in Hawaii, Skin Deep Tattoos, completing another apprenticeship of sorts.
With her latest venture, Onyx Dagger — the first Black woman-owned tattoo shop in St. Louis and the state of Missouri, located in the city’s Lafayette Square neighborhood — Miller continues to explore the intersection of body art and gallery art.
The front of the space displays rotating work by local artists, available for purchase on site. Since its opening in the spring of 2022, Onyx Dagger has featured the work of Phil Jarvis, a fellow Wash U. graduate known locally for his large-scale paintings and murals; Amy Bautz, the program director of studio art at Saint Louis University and a painter who focuses on surreal imagery; and most recently, Gabriel Bonfili, another local artist who specializes in hand-framed portraits.
In the back, Miller and her colleague Dean Schultz perform custom tattoos, by appointment only, serving clients from across the country. “Roughly 50% of my clients are from out of town,” says Miller. “They’ve heard about me from the places where I regularly work as a guest artist, including South Philly, New York City and Hawaii, and overseas working with Virgin Voyages as a contractor on the world’s first tattoo shop on the sea.”
Miller’s experience as a guest artist for Virgin Voyages has reinforced one of her favorite aspects of tattooing: building camaraderie with clients and hearing their incredible stories. During her most recent cruise trip, she heard the story of a California attorney who had recently advocated on behalf of three death-row inmates. She also formed a bond with an emergency room doctor whose life had been utterly transformed by the coronavirus pandemic, for whom getting a tattoo was a form of catharsis. “She was like, ‘you know what, I’ve worked so many hours and it’s been so crazy; Valencia, let’s tattoo my whole leg,’” Miller recalls.
Back home, a typical workday for Miller involves several hours of drawing in the morning, interspersed with client consultations, and a maximum of two tattoo sessions in the afternoon, each lasting three to four hours. Her personal favorite designs at the moment feature “sacred geometry,” drawing on spiritual traditions from across the world, including Africa and East Asia. She also loves tattooing large portraits.
“One of my favorites is a realistic black and gray Frida Kahlo piece,” she says. “And there’s an Edgar Allen Poe piece I did on another local shop owner that I love to this day. Currently, I’m working on a tattoo of Medusa for a local musician in St. Louis, and I’m really excited to finish it.”
She and Schultz are both adept at fine-line gray and black designs, and Schultz also excels at beautiful, bold color. Highly skilled at tattooing all skin tones, the pair uses mostly vegan inks, lotions and recovery products.
It hasn’t been easy to blaze a trail in an industry that skews so heavily White and male, but Miller says the field is gradually becoming more diverse. “Information is more prevalent, so the scene has changed in many ways,” she says. “Things started to change drastically with the advent of tattooing TV shows and also more tattoo education. Artists of all colors are recognizing the fallacies about what people of color can get tattooed and what it takes to tattoo them properly.”
At the local level, gaining acceptance in the Lafayette Square community also required Miller to educate her neighbors about the artistry of tattooing and counteract some of their negative stereotypes. However, once they got to know Miller, their support soared.
“My neighbors’ reception has been more supportive than I could have anticipated,” she says. “I am so grateful. Lafayette Square is one of the first places I lived when I moved to St. Louis from Hawaii nearly nine years ago. I already had a love for the area.”
Miller is excited to see how the industry further evolves, noting some other encouraging trends. “The idea of a body being a canvas is more openly recognized,” she says. As tattooing continues to gain recognition as an art form, Miller stays grounded in her gratitude for doing a job everyday that aligns with her personal passions.
“I’ve been an artist my whole life,” she says. “So it’s very important to me to emphasize the artistry of tattooing. In the end, though, I’m just grateful to be able to do what I love. I want to give back to show my gratitude.”
Miller does this best with her “onyx dagger” in hand.