When she learned that Mahlkönig had a tattoo artist in their booth at Expo this year, Kat Padlan, operations manager at Lucky’s Coffee Roasters, immediately signed up.

It was past due time and seemed like a sign from the universe. “I thought, ‘Well damn, if there isn’t a better time to get a coffee tattoo in the coffee city of Portland, at the biggest coffee convention in the world, I don’t know what better timing it is,’” she told me. She explains that her new tattoo of the coffee plant rests on her right forearm because it has scars from when she suffered from severe depression. “Coffee has really been the one thing that I have enjoyed and experienced a ton of growth in my life, so it made sense to have the tattoo there.”

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Kat Padlan receives a tattoo.

Hosting a tattoo artist in the booth was a first for Hemro, the parent company of the Mahlkönig brand. I asked Lena Frick, Head of Global Marketing at Hemro International, to explain their decision. “Generally, I believe in the power of disruptive activations at events for brands as they truly add value and excite the audience.” says Frick. “Many attendees expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to witness two seemingly disparate worlds come together in such a harmonious way.” Eleven flash coffee tattoos—three of which were brand-inspired (the Mahlkönig EK43 was the most popular)—were created by Portland tattoo artist Briana.

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In the US—outside of indigenous cultures whose art have deep cultural meanings—tattoos have been seen as risk-taking behavior and a proverbial spit in the face of corporate “professionalism.” A 2023 Pew Research Center survey found that even with 80% of Americans agreeing that society has been more accepting of people with tattoos over the last two decades, 29% still have a more negative than positive impression when they see a tattoo on someone. There’s certainly a generational shift here to acceptance—almost one-third of American adults and 62% of millennial parents have at least one tattoo—hopefully, this shift reflects in hiring practices as the older generations retire.

But that’s a corporate environment. In a coffee industry filled with small businesses, it feels rare not to have any tattoos.

For many of the current or past coffee professionals I talked to, their coffee tattoos symbolized rites of passage in the industry: cementation that they were committed to a coffee career. Others used the tattoos to mark significant changes in their career path. Across all the interviewees who work or worked in coffee, industry experience totaled 161 years (the full range was 9-24 years). The idea of blending coffee and tattoos is a natural one within the community, a word that frequently surfaced during the interviews. Some of the more ubiquitous coffee tattoos out there are of the plant, which makes sense since nature transcends time and trends.

Career markers

Alex Egan, head roaster at Nirvana Soul Coffee, has the coffee branch and a coffee trier inked on them. “The trier I got because I had been roasting for a few years and felt that I found my niche in the community,” says Egan. “There is also a sense of something being a part of something bigger. There is community in every part of the chain and once you find your way in it, it can be a beautiful thing to mark yourself with.”

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A coffee tryer tattoo on Alex Egen.

Jen Hurd, West Coast sales manager for Genuine Origin, has three coffee tattoos: coffee flowers, cherries, and beans. The flowers served to remind her of her love for the industry and marked a turning point for her: she had applied to grad school for social work and was waitlisted, so she instead decided to commit to coffee fully. Even more kismet was that the artist was a former barista and coworker. Hurd says, “I had watched her go from barista to tattooing and owning her own shop; it felt like the universe was lining this up for me.” And the coffee beans tattoo was free, courtesy of a company holiday party. She recalls, “They had booked a tattoo artist—you had to sign up ahead of time, no getting tipsy and deciding to get a tattoo!”

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Erica Chadé Jackson, communications team member at Onyx Coffee Lab, met her tattooist Aubrey Rohlfing while sitting at the bar of Blip Roasters in Kansas City. It turned out that Rohlfing was a former coffee worker and was eager to create a coffee tattoo, Jackson says. Their tattoo features a dark unicorn with a Knight of Cups aesthetic: the result of her one and only tarot reading. The reading’s context was about Jackson’s upcoming move to Portland, and it felt perfectly timed, she says: “The Knight of Cups represents creative energy and new romantic encounters. The Unicorn represents who I am becoming—more gay, magical, and protective. The coffee flowers, cherries, and leaves represent the blooming of the coffee trees at Tio Conejo that occurred just two days after my visit there.”

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A Chemex tattoo on Olivia Morris.

For Olivia Morris, who manages sales and quality control at Balzac Brothers, their tattoos were markers of roadblocks in their career. “For me, it started as a way to close the chapter on my time in coffee, which obviously didn’t happen,” they said. “It slowly became a way for me to commemorate why I still work in the industry.” Their half-sleeve hosts a coffee cup, coffee plant, portafilter, and a Chemex.

Branded tattoos

Morris is not the only one tattooed with a coffee product. Ben Lytle, a former coffee professional of 12 years, inked a Hario V60 02 carafe with a coffee plant bursting out the top when they had just dropped out of college to manage a cafe. “There was a slight ‘It’s not just a phase, Mom’ angst to it and a desire to be respected by guests as a professional,” says Lytle, whose tattooist, Tristan Brandshaw, was a regular at their cafe.“Coffee has so much beauty intertwined in it both naturally and in the tools we use, so it makes sense to incorporate them.”

Like Kat Padlan, Ren Doughty has only one tattoo and it’s quite a significant one. Doughty is a former coffee technician, who now works in outreach, customer care, and sales at Kaldi’s Coffee. During his technician years, he told me that he was responsible for maintaining a hundred La Marzocco Lineas. “I grew to love them, kind of like one loves a 1968 Cadillac,” he says. “One day, I saw ‘emblem’ as one of the parts you could order, so I ordered one and kept it in my office.” Tattoo artist Dustin Swinks recreated the silvery appearance with white highlights to mimic a light shining on the emblem. The life-sized reproduction is enshrined on his forearm. Doughty says, “I love going into coffee shops with Lineas and showing the baristas my tattoo. They always freak out in a good way.”

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Ren Doughty’s La Marzocco tattoo.

Getting a company logo tattooed on yourself is risky—you never know what that company will be like in the future—but it’s less so when it’s your own. OVA, owner of pop-up vegan cafe Rainbow Calypso, opted for a butterfly on her neck because it “represents growth of the business, the person, your experience visiting Rainbow Calypso, and growth in my personal development.” It also doubles as a conversation starter for her business. Besides the butterfly, she also has the chemical compound for caffeine, a 3D skull in a coffee pot by Iron Glacier, a portafilter, a coffee quote, and two coffee plants.

Travel souvenirs

Maya Crowley, owner of Uncommon Coffee, is a fan of the travel souvenir tattoo. Her skinny rosetta and skinny heart stack latte art accents are on her wrists, inked during a trip to New York City. “I like to get tattoos when I travel, and I wanted a coffee tattoo that wouldn’t be obviously a coffee tattoo,” she says. “It’s kind of silly, but it’s a sweet bonding moment to see people with similar tattoos and talk about nerdy coffee stuff.”

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Maya Crowley.

Sarah Posma, owner of Little Owl Cafe, agrees. One added benefit of a visible tattoo is that it’s easier to spot a fellow coffee pro “in the wild.” “You can meet someone on the street and see a portafilter or latte art on someone’s skin, and you can start a conversation and possibly a friendship right then and there,” she says. Posma has a coffee plant by Billie Harris on her right shoulder as “a travel souvenir, but also a celebration of leaving an unhealthy work environment.”

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Sarah Posma.

Coffee consultant Rachel Apple’s coffee plant tattoo by Brandilyn Dunning is also a result of a particularly memorable travel trip. She stayed at Selva Negra, a coffee estate, organic farm, and ecolodge in Nicaragua, and says seeing that the visit “made coffee as an agriculture crop resonate more deeply” with her. Apple is a sixth-generation Oklahoman and one generation off the farm, and has a “reverence for people who farm for a living by choice or by birthright.”

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Rachel Apple.

“I think coffee is something that really lends itself to being really interested in learning more,” says James Major, who does not work in coffee and sports a tattoo reminiscent of his cat surrounded by coffee plants. During a work trip to Japan, he fell in love with the coffee scene there and wanted something to remember it by. He says, “I spent a lot of time drinking canned coffee, roasts way darker than I usually do, and some really amazing espresso.”

Taking it one step further

What we haven’t touched on yet is the business crossover of specialty coffee and tattoos. There’s Supersweet Tattoo in Los Angeles, Cult Coffee and Tattoos in the UK, and Sacred Art Tattoo & Coffee Bar in Hawaii, among others.

In 2017, when longtime Miami tattoo artist Javier Betancourt couldn’t find any good coffee near his shop, Ocho Placas Tattoo Company, he set out to open White Rose Coffee, just two doors down. The pandemic affected both businesses and they reopened in 2021 in a fresh, combined space that is also home to The Betancourt Gallery. “Our space is a completely immersive experience,” says Joelle Maritza, owner of White Rose. “Guests can enjoy an impeccable cup of our specialty coffee while being surrounded by art that plays to all the senses.”

This tattoo-cafe business combination has paid off well for both of them, operating as an entry point to specialty coffee. “Every customer of the tattoo shop inherently becomes a customer of White Rose,” she says. They grab coffee because the cafe is conveniently located, but it’s also their first time trying specialty coffee. “More often than not, we get them to come back as regular coffee clients when they’re not getting tattooed simply because we offer the highest quality coffee in the area.”

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The new clientele goes in the other direction, too. “We do have walk-in clients that are already tattooed and just came for an iced latte but end up leaving with a little flash,” Maritza adds. “We have had a few people make appointments for their first after being coffee shop regulars and getting to know our shop and artists.” She’s also quick to emphasize that this combination has pushed them to the highest levels they can achieve in quality. Ocho Placas is a 22-year-old legacy business whose coffee partner must reflect that same commitment level. “We’ve put in years of hard work to create a product and a community that we are proud to share,” she says.

This sentiment and dedication to the craft reverberates throughout the coffee industry.

“We as an industry do have an absolute massive amount of work to do, but also, we function in ways that are unheard of in the vast majority of other industries,” concludes Apple. “One of my favorite of those ways is that I can absolutely rock up to a very important business meeting, or judge international coffee competitions with more tattooed skin than untattooed skin showing, and I simply do not think twice about it.”

Jenn Chen (@thejennchen) is an Editor At Large at Sprudge Media Network. Read more Jenn Chen on Sprudge.

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