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 Nomi Chi, a Vancouver, Canada-based tattoo artist whose start in the industry came at age 15 as a "bratty little teenager who was interested in visual art," Nomi says.
Nomi's artwork explores gender, sexuality, ritual, and the search for identity. Their work is comprised of fantastically-constructed animal-human hybrids, using images to tell personal stories and exemplify constantly shifting interpretations of self and other.
Where did your initial interest in tattooing come from?
Nomi: I do remember as a little kid seeing my siblings’ tattoos and being really astonished by them, and astonished by the idea that you could have a picture on your body forever. As somebody who had always been interested in drawing, that was really fascinating to me. And the idea of there being needles involved somehow... I've been, since I was a kid, really interested in gore and shock. So I think I just had all these elements within my environment that set me up to be a tattoo artist.
How did you develop your tattoo style?
Nomi: My tattoo style started to become most recognizable when I was in the middle of going to art school. I took a sabbatical and it was part of the exchange program with my art school. They sent me to Europe for a semester. So I was in Europe and not tattooing for about six months. That break from working full time gave me the space to think about what I wanted to bring into my tattoo practice. When I got home from that, I was really interested in just exploring mark making and tattooing, exploring experimental mark making and how to break down images into really basic shapes. That's where my sketchy tattoo style began to develop.
Since then, a lot has happened. I came out as a trans person in the past couple of years, and have been thinking around representing the body. I'm also thinking about gender nonconforming mythologies, and how gender nonconforming creatures and people can be scapegoated within particular cultures. I'm thinking around the feminine as monstrous particularly, which is why I have such a focus on things like heartbeats and mermaids and Gorgons and stuff like that. So I'm sinking my teeth into that and delving into chimeric images and thinking of the self as fragmented and a hodgepodge of all these different monstrous parts.
Are there any artists that have influenced or inspired you?
Nomi: I take a lot of inspiration more from the actual people and cultures around me that are a lot more proximal rather than famous or of-note artists. I'm really heavily inspired by my community and the people who I went to school with. … I've been really inspired by printmakers, like Aubrey Beardsley, and obviously Japanese block prints made by... [Katsushika] Hokusai is an obvious one.
How has popular culture influenced your style or changed the way you worked?
Nomi: Popular culture and the rise of tattoo popularity has definitely helped me. It's given me a lot of freedom in the work that I do. I feel like because of social media especially, I can go just about anywhere in the world and find work, and my introduction into tattooing, as I've said earlier, was me pretty much riding this boom of tattooing out of counter-culture and into popular culture. Which is funny because I would like to think of myself as somebody who works subversively, and works against, to more popularized ideas of things. However, my entry into tattooing was informed by that. So, it's this whole cyclical thing. It's like ouroboros of culture.
What advice would you give other artists or creatives interested in entering the tattoo field?
Nomi: I would say to anybody who is interested in getting involved in tattooing or flirting with the idea of tattooing, I think it's great and I have your back, but tattooing is known for it's iron-clad gatekeeping. Getting involved in tattooing through traditional venues is almost impossible. It's really, really, really hard and I think even taking the more subversive backdoor route into tattooing is also really, really difficult. My advice would be to emphasize the idea of taking care of people and the responsibility involved in tattooing, and I'm not just talking about making good pictures on people. I'm talking more about taking care of people's bodies and the mental space that you hold when you're hurting somebody. I would prioritize learning about bloodborne pathogens and learning about sterility and learning about how to keep your area clean and not make people sick. I would also advise to ask yourself and to learn about how to talk to people going through stressful bodily and mental situations, and how to counsel people through that, while you're also putting them in a position in which they are being hurt.
Learn more about MoPOP’s ‘Body of Work: Tattoo Culture’ + for contests, the latest news, and behind-the-scenes content, be sure to follow us on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.