Tattoos have been diversifying since people started putting ink on their skin, but the past decade has seen rapid-fire expansion in terms of both style and representation. Whether as a marker of self-individuation or a symbol of belonging, tattooing has something for everybody. And while there are still issues of exclusion and bias, the next generation of tattoo artists is working to make it a more body-inclusive, multicultural celebration of all types of skin.
Adolescent spoke with these six LA-based tattoo artists about the changing dynamics of the art form, their individual practices, and statements of identity.
Sam Ng, 23
What’s your background?
I grew up in Hong Kong, but I went to school in Rhode Island. I was discouraged from pursuing art as a profession growing up, and discouraged from tattooing when I started looking for apprenticeships, but I ended up doing it anyway. I met my friend Mia, who’s a printmaker and tattoo artist, and she showed me the basics.
You’ve taken this consistent attitude of gambling on yourself.
I just want to do it so bad. I could go a safer route and get a 9-5, but I know my soul would die. I’ve consistently relied on expressing myself through drawings, and I don’t think I’ll ever stop.
In your work you utilize a lot of traditional images, but your style is non-traditional and very unique to you. How do you balance tradition and invention?
I’m attracted to things that are unconventional and kind of taboo, but I really do look up to all the beautiful traditions that I grew up with. I want to embrace them, but not in a way that’s confining.
Liz Kim, 28
How did you start tattooing?
I started tattooing in Vancouver, about six years ago. I started out with an apprenticeship, but the guy I was learning from was really toxic. I left, ended up tattooing out of my kitchen, and then in different studios—always DIY spaces. Eventually I ended up moving here and starting Jelly.
You bring up empathy burnout on social media, which is a topic I find a lot of contemporary tattoo artists addressing. Can you talk about empathy in tattoos?
Part of the job is to make people feel very comfortable. A lot of that is just through talking to them and having that communication, but sometimes people share really sensitive or traumatic stories without realizing the effect that can have on the artist. I enjoy having those deep connections with people, but I’m being mindful of that, and limiting how many people I have those talks with to reduce the risk of burning out.
Jayna Won, 23
How’d you get your start in tattooing?
I was working out of my house in Silver Lake and I met another artist (@fairybitchtattoos) through a trade. I was so impressed by not only her work, but how she carried herself as a person, and we ended up getting a studio together. We’re planning to open a new space that’s more community-driven. I don’t know of any other Black-owned tattoo shops in LA, so we might not be supported—who knows? We’ll still support those around us.
Can you talk about your experience as a Black woman tattooing in LA, and on your plans to open what may be the only Black-owned contemporary studio in the city?
Growing up Black, we’re told that tattoos aren’t for us. I was told tattoos wouldn’t look good on my skin; I’ve had clients who come in apologizing for how dark their skin is. If you’re sitting there thinking “I can’t even have them,” why would you go out and make them?
Our space is going to be a Black-owned, queer-owned shop, and we want to teach everyone how to tattoo Black and brown skin, how to be a queer ally in the workspace, how to work closely and intimately with people across a spectrum of needs. There’s a lot missing in the tattoo world, a lot of respect that needs to be mandatory, and I’d love for my space to be one that addresses those needs.
How did you start tattooing professionally?
I spent a year in London at Central Saint Martins while getting my degree in Fine Art. There was basically no direction—you’re just told that you have to decide what you want to make, and how you want to go about doing it. I’d been tattooing since I was a freshman, and I reached out to a tattoo studio to see if I could work there. It wasn’t what I expected, but I found the support system and education I’d been looking for.
On your social media you talk about living with the effects of Marfan’s Syndrome. How has that informed your understanding of tattooing and body art?
Marfan’s is a connective tissue disorder. It’s what makes me 6’4”, and there are heart, bone, and joint complications. Because I was diagnosed with it so early, it became a crucial part of my identity. Tattoos have been a way for me to not see those parts of my body: I see the tattoos instead. I’d always been battling with trying to make my body feel like home, and after my experience in London I knew I felt comfortable in my own skin.
Do you see tattooing as a way to reclaim agency?
So many of us are told we should be okay with not being in charge of our own bodies. Tattooing can be so effective in fighting that, because it’s a really intense process centered on consent. It forces you to feel your body, and you get to produce an image that you choose and feel connected to.
Leandy Wu, 29
Tell me about your background in tattooing!
I knew I wanted to tattoo when I got my first one at 18. I did an apprenticeship when I was 20 which didn’t work out, and that threw me off. I tried another apprenticeship that didn’t work out either, but after that I told myself I was going to do it on my own. It forced me to turn inward and self-teach. It became this obsessive thing that took over my free time until I was able to do it full-time.
What’s the value of being self-taught and operating with a community mindset instead of a linear hierarchy of learning?
Tattoo apprenticeships can be pretty toxic. Especially being Asian, or a woman, or queer, it’s super hard to be taken seriously in the tattoo industry. You start to feel less human when you’re not treated equally. I was sure there was a community out there where everyone who was like me could feel safe, have a space safe in tattooing, and be able to flourish. Over time I found that community, which is something I think we can all build for each other. I personally would love to help anyone trying to tattoo.
When did tattooing become a serious practice for you?
People started to trust me with quite emotionally significant tattoos. People would come to me for tattoos about Asian diaspora, or queerness, and these stories made me take myself seriously. It’s not just a career, it’s kind of a therapy that I’m offering.
Can you speak more on that?
I talk about tattoo as a therapeutic medium because it really is a way to reclaim agency over our skin. Especially for queer and trans bodies, we’re dealing with dysphoria or dysmorphia in a very hostile social environment, and tattooing is a way of armoring ourselves. I think for queer and trans bodies it’s a process or evolution to grow into ourselves.
How do you feel about your role as the artist in this process?
I like seeing myself as a delivery person. I like hearing people tell me their story, what they want to do, where they want to relieve their dysphoria. I see myself as a person who can make something fluid and formless into something with form, which is how I handle my tattoos.