Opening February 1, 2020, Body of Work: Tattoo Culture explores the rich history and modern artistry of tattooing as a dynamic, ever-evolving artform whose mainstream acceptance has been driven by popular culture. The exhibition features large-scale, original works of art created by Northwest-based artists who demonstrate the wide range of styles possible in tattoo art.
One of those artists is Alena Chun, a Bay-Area native who moved to Portland in 2002 and started tattooing in 2007, first inking the individual who taught her how to tattoo.
“When you first do it, you have no idea of what the feeling of doing it right is,” she recalls. “It feels really bizarre to try to do it. It feels like there’s a lot of pressure because it’s obviously permanent and everything like that. I think I was pretty freakin’ nervous, pretty stressed-out.”
Years later, Alena’s nerves have calmed. After initially working in a more illustrative, botanical style, her focus now lies with evolving the iconic American Traditional tattoo genre.
“I think that when you have a lot of tattoos it’s like you’re celebrating this way of personal expression that is fun or meaningful to you or whatever you take from it,” she says.
What was your initial art background?
Alena: I don’t have an art background. I was always interested in creative stuff. I never went to art school or anything like that. Tattooing was kind of my first delve into really dedicating myself to something like that. I sort of evolved with tattooing. I don’t have the ability to do fine art things like some people do. I don’t have a whole side painting career or something like that. A lot of tattoo artists are amazing painters outside of the tattoo style. I’m not someone who has a background like that.
What was your first tattoo?
Alena: It was really small. It’s a little spiral shape. It’s very small. I definitely just kind of dipped my toe in the water the first time. It’s kind of funny to think about your young mind. You almost don’t remember what it felt like to be that person. I don’t remember how I really thought about things. I think I just chose it because I thought it was cool. I think a lot of people choose tattoos just based on that.
How did you develop your tattoo style?
Alena: I really enjoy working in the classic American traditional style. I try to put that influence into a lot of the tattoos that I do. I started out kind of on a different path. I used to do a lot more illustrative-style stuff like more floral kind of things. Then I got really interested in classic American traditional maybe seven or eight years ago. I really don’t know why. I don’t know if I can give you an answer to that. I think it’s just like anything else. Sometimes you evolve and your taste and your preferences change. The way I wanted to tattoo changed. I really love the history behind that style. I love the imagery. It’s a big part of the foundation of tattooing, which is really interesting to me. Style-wise, it’s based on a kind of bold aesthetic. It’s kind of simple and not super multidimensional. It often has bolder lines and dark shading and more simple color schemes, not a lot of crazy colors. I would say there are some people who work in the style who can effectively bend those boundaries. Classically, it’s based on a very simple color palette. A lot of the designs are sort of based on the military and things like that that were going on when a lot of sailors were getting tattoos. It’s got a lot of simplicity to it. I really like that about it.
Do you have a memorable experience as a tattoo artist?
Alena: I think the experience of working with many people is kind of what stands out as a tattoo artist, because you’re in this fortunate position of getting to talk with so many people. I think that’s more special than one specific project or something like that. The collection of what you do and having the opportunity to develop your style because people like it and want to come to you is really cool. I think it can be a really fun experience to work a lot with one person if they want you to do their arm or their back. You really get to develop a space; that is a really fun experience. I would say as a whole, the experience of being able to have a collection and to work in a style and to feel like people like that and want you to work in that style is really fun.
What’s one thing about tattoos that gets misrepresented in popular culture?
Alena: I really dislike when people say that tattoos are an addiction. I feel like it’s a really common thing that gets said a lot. I personally think it’s a strange use of that word. I think that when you have a lot of tattoos it’s like you’re celebrating this way of personal expression that is fun or meaningful to you or whatever you take from it. But I don’t think of it as something that you physically can’t stop yourself from doing. Sometimes popular thought is that if you have a lot, you’re just like, you know, have a certain relationship with pain or something like that. I just don’t think that’s true for most people who collect. I think most people who collect tattoos like the way it looks genuinely on their body and the imagery.
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