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Talking Tattoo Culture & Identity with Rising Toronto Artist, Jess Chen

Talking Tattoo Culture & Identity with Rising Toronto Artist, Jess Chen

By Kat Thompson

Jess Chen is not your average, every day tattoo artist. “I find that when a lot of my customers come to see me, they’re just shocked by the way that I look because I’m just this tiny little Asian girl. And, you know, I have a half-sleeve,” she tells me over the phone between laughs. I can hear a knowing smile in her voice—to me, it’s an understanding that she is someone defying industry standards.

Tattoo culture has always been a bit of a boys’ club. Throw in the fact that Jess comes from an Asian-Canadian background and suddenly it’s supposed to make sense that her clients are a bit taken aback when they see her, poised with a needle and ready to go. Why is that?

We live in a world steeped with stereotypes—with boxes people are meant to fit into and checklists that determine one’s place in the world. Jess isn’t interested in the expectations set for her, though. The Toronto born-and-raised artist is focused is solely on her craft—one that has led to thousands of devoted followers, months of booked appointments, and unbridled craze for her sporadic flash days. Jess is tackling her newfound spotlight head on, redefining what it means to be a tattoo artist in 2016. “I kind of just went for it and it turned out to be the most amazing opportunity. It was so much more than I thought it would be.”

Read about Jess’s experience being a woman in the tattoo industry (there’s a girl’s day at her shop!), the influence social media has had in her line of work, and what you can find her doing when she’s not holding a needle (spoiler alert: she loves ultimate frisbee).

KAT THOMPSON: So how did you actually get into tattooing? I know you’ve been doing it for like the past year and some.

JESS CHEN: It was actually really spontaneous. I went to school for drawing and painting and then I did two years in graphic design, and then I was so sick of being on a computer all day and doing digital art. It’s just so out of my element. So I looked into tattooing and I found an apprenticeship at this new shop, Tattoo People, which is where I’m still working at. They were a brand new shop at that point and they were looking for apprentices and I kind of just went for it. I loved tattoos from a long time ago, but I would never expect myself to be tattooing. So I kind of just went for it and it turned out to be the most amazing opportunity. It was so much more than I thought it would be and I’m super grateful that they gave me that opportunity and that I went for it. It was definitely not planned. It’s pretty crazy actually.

Jess Chen.

Did you always know you were going to work in an artistic environment or a creative field?

Yeah, I mean, I went to OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design). Obviously, being a painter—it’s not unrealistic, but it’s really hard. But that’s initially what I wanted to do: just paint for the rest of my life and travel and paint whatever comes and get a studio and just be in art shows and all of that. But that’s a really, really hard career. And that’s why I went into graphic design. I just wanted to be creative at all times and I guess this is just another outlet for me. In the future, I don’t necessarily see myself tattooing only. I kind of want to dabble into other creative fields as well, and tattoo on the side and I don’t know, do pottery or continue painting or go into textiles. I don’t know—I just kind of want to try everything.

That’s awesome! It’s very apparent that you have a gift in the arts. Do you think the skills you learned going to art school and in graphic design translated well in your tattooing career?

Oh yeah, absolutely. So, design and painting, obviously it’s the technical skill that really helps me. I mean, I’ve been drawing at a pretty young age so I was good at my technical skills because I’ve been practicing this for a very long time. So that definitely helps with tattooing because you’re commissioned to draw pretty much anything—things that I’ve never even drawn before, I have to draw now. If I didn’t have those technical skills, that would definitely be a struggle. So that’s where the fine arts background helps. And the graphic design honestly helps so much, it’s insane. I know how to use all the programs, like Illustrator, Photoshop, and all of that stuff. I know how to work with clients. I know how to design for specific space—so looking at negative space is super important on the body and also super important for graphic design. If you’re designing a poster, you have to figure out your elements and see if it fits in the space. And that’s pretty much the same as tattooing; it honestly helps so much. It’s crazy. I definitely did not expect that either.

Can you tell me a little bit about tattoo culture in Toronto?

Tattoo culture in Toronto is definitely growing. I am pretty fresh into this culture because I just started a year and a half ago, but just purely based on this year and a half, I’ve noticed that everybody wants tattoos now. Before, tattoos weren’t necessarily as accessible. I think because people are kind of developing their own style and playing around with new things and needle sizes—pretty much anything goes right now. You can just make your own art for tattoos; it’s not just American traditional or Japanese traditional. It’s definitely reaching out to other types of design and art, like the fine line needle is getting so big right now. And it’s definitely more acceptable to other people whereas before, bolder lines, bold color—it doesn’t necessarily cater to everyone’s style. Now, there’s so much available. It’s definitely growing and there’s so many different styles coming out.

How would you describe your own style of tattooing?

I find that so hard! I like trying out different things, but in general, just my art style and aesthetic is minimal. I like things to be simple; I like white space aka negative space. Just minimal, simple, big composition. It’s hard to describe because I’ve been trying to figure out what I want to get into… but I guess for now it would just be minimal.

Also since you’re so new to tattooing there’s a lot of room for experimentation and growth. Where do you draw your inspiration from for tattooing? I’ve seen a lot of fine art references, definitely a lot of florals…

Most of my stuff is customized so people come in, we do a consultation, we talk about your idea, and then I pretty much draw something for you. The ideas stem from my customer, but the inspiration is from looking online, through books… if it’s a floral piece, for example, like a bundle of roses or lilies or wildflowers and all of that stuff, I just go on gather so many images of roses and lilies and all of that stuff… I definitely don’t like using other tattoos as other references. I stay away from that. I have a ton of old gardening books and those are super awesome… For my flash work, it mostly stems from—like I’m obsessed with art history. My favorite thing to do is art history and I just love obviously Picasso and Matisse, Gaugin. The paintings are incredible but I’m super into their sketches right now. I feel like they also translate better as tattoos as well. That’s kind of what I’m doing right now.

I actually wanted to talk to you a little bit about identity. I’ve sometimes noticed that there’s a huge stigma within Asian communities about tattoos… did you ever experience that? Was your family really supportive of your endeavors?

Yeah, so I guess I understand that stigma. I find that when a lot of my customers come to see me, they’re just shocked by the way that I look because I’m just this tiny little Asian girl. And, you know, I have a half-sleeve. Not to say that that’s anything too different, but they’re definitely taken aback a little bit. But yeah, and the thing with like onsens in Japan—I heard you can’t go in them at all or you need to find a private onsen because tattoos are so heavily associated with the Yakuza and gangs and all of that… but I think it is slowly changing.

I don’t know, I’ve been so fortunate because my parents are not your “typical” strict Asian parents. I think they knew at a young age that I was just going to be different than what they had expected me to be. Like obviously they wanted me to go into medical school and all of that, and I was trying to be that in high school. I wanted to go to McGill for sciences—that was my path. And it was actually my dad who brought it up. He was like, “Why don’t you go to OCAD? Why don’t you foster your artistic ability because I think that’s what you’re best at?” He was the one who actually pushed me into going into the arts. They’ve just been so supportive and they both want tattoos from me… Like, when I first showed my mom my first tattoo I was freaking out because I thought she would, you know, freak out. But she was cool about it. She was like, “Oh, that’s so pretty!” I’ve been really lucky.

Speaking of identity in general, I also noticed that there’s a lot of women that work at your tattoo shop. What does that kind of do for the environment? I feel like tattooing in the past was very much a boys club. Actually, even fine arts is a boys club—how women are always viewed as the subject matter rather than the creator. Do you think things are changing?

Oh yeah, absolutely. This is very interesting because I actually was just having this conversation with this moderator on Reddit. She used to be in the tattoo industry and she was telling me about how she got out of it immediately because she felt she was targeted just because she was a female. She just felt so uncomfortable tattooing because it is so heavily dominated by males. That experience is so interesting because it’s the complete opposite of what I’m going through right now. On a daily basis, I am just surrounded by female tattoo artists and it’s been incredible just seeing and supporting female artists in Toronto. It’s insane. It’s been a really amazing experience. And obviously we do have male artists in our shop and they’re incredible, they’re amazing. And we do have this day where it’s just females and it’s not anything intentional—our schedules just happen to be that way. We call it girls day and we take photos for fun. I just love it.

I’m so happy to hear your experience is like that!

Yeah, it’s been awesome. I don’t think it was intentionally done, but regardless of if it was intentional or not, it’s an incredible space.

What has been your most unforgettable experience you’ve had tattooing so far since you’ve started?

Honestly, it’s probably the relationships I’ve built while tattooing. So much of tattooing, in the culture and its history even, is about the relationship between you and the person you’re tattooing. I feel like that is forgotten a little bit, especially now when things are so quick and easy. There’s walk-ins and I don’t know—I feel like all of that is lost a little bit. All the clients I’ve actually built strong relationships with, they’ve been so incredible. That’s definitely not something that I thought about when I first went into this profession. It’s been incredible just meeting all these types of people and bonding with them and working on stuff with them and them letting me do crazy things on them or experimenting on them, coming up with beautiful pieces together. It’s been really rewarding.

And speaking of that, you’re right. We’re kind of in this new era where social media runs a lot of our world and it’s so easy for people to see things and have things get kind of saturated. What have you noticed about social media in terms of influence on tattooing?

That’s a really important question. For me at least, social media has been just a huge part of my career. I don’t even know how I got all these followers—it just happened so naturally. I was just posting photos that I took; I wasn’t using any program or app or hashtags, anything like that. I was just posting my art essentially and it just naturally happened. In terms of social media in the tattooing culture… basically, tattooing culture, I would say, is mostly on Instagram now. You don’t really even need your own website. You can just have your portfolio on Instagram and that’s sufficient enough. It’s just so heavily on Instagram and it’s amazing because it’s so accessible to other people, people are tagging their friends, you’re tagging other artists. It’s just this whole community that’s building on Instagram and it’s incredible for a tattoo artist, especially if you’re just starting out. You can get your name out there, you can get your tattoos out there.

But the downside of social media, and this is kind of related to what we were just talking about, is that people see a lot of things on Instagram or even Pinterest and they just want that one tattoo or they just want to essentially copy that tattoo. And they would just go into a shop and be like, “Hi, I just want something like this.” I know there are tattoo artists that will do that and just copy it and make the money. That’s the side of Instagram I don’t love; it fosters that a lot. We do have a ton of people coming to our shop being like, “Oh, I saw this on Instagram, can I get the same thing?” In our shop, we don’t like to do that. We like to do custom pieces. It takes away from the art of tattooing… What I really love is meeting a customer, and we build a relationship, and we can continue that relationship. I mean, ideally, it would be in person, but we can continue it on Instagram and we can tag each other. We can do all these things. It’s awesome to see my customers around.

You said that you don’t like to look at other tattoos as references. Why is it so important as a tattoo artist to have your own style—like something that is distinctly “Jess Chen”?

Well first of all, I just don’t want to even reference someone else’s tattoo and stuff because that’s their art. They spent that time designing it for that client and it’s special for that person. For me to use it as a reference for my customer just feels so wrong. And second of all, it’s just more original!

What is your favorite thing to tattoo? Is there something that time and time again you love to do?

I mean, I really, truly love florals. I think they’re just so timeless and they look so beautiful on the body, wherever you put it. I mean, you have to put it somewhere where it goes with the body but it just goes so perfectly. But I also really love using a thin needle and doing sketchy work. I find that that style is very natural to me and therefore the tattoos turn out exactly how I want them. So sketchy work can reference mountains, florals, Picasso sketches—pretty much anything.

When you’re not tattooing, what can people find you doing?

I’m mostly working, but if I’m not working, I’m probably drawing. And if I’m not drawing, I love playing sports. This is kind of embarrassing, but ultimate Frisbee—it’s kind of nerdy.

That’s not embarrassing at all!

I was really into that in college and now I just play it for fun… Now when I tell people, they’re either like, “Oh, that’s awesome!” or “I have no idea what that is but it sounds hilarious.” I also like playing video games, hiking, being outdoors!

Can people expect you to be guest tattooing at places other than Toronto anytime soon?

Yeah! So I actually just booked my tickets for Europe. I’m going to be in Paris, London, Berlin, Hamburg, and Amsterdam. I’m not sure if I’m going to be tattooing in every city but that’s where I’m going at least. I’m going to be tattooing ideally in frames, so April/May is when I’m going. It’s all in the works, but it’s going to happen.

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You can follow Jess Chen on Instagram @__jesschen__ and keep up to date with her work at jessica-chen.com.

Photos by Zhamak Fullad.

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