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'Body of Work: Tattoo Culture' Featured Artist Profile: Sara Kay

'Body of Work: Tattoo Culture' Sara Kay

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 Sara Kay, whose style reflects her interest in fine art icons and in movements like Abstract Expressionism, color-block and color-field theory, and Post-Modernism. Using black line work to ground her imagery, Kay’s color overlays frequently stray outside the lines of the composition, creating gestural splashes of color unique to her original style.

“One of the coolest things I ever heard, truly, from a client post tattoo was, ‘It’s like it was always there, and now I can just see it,’" Kay says. "I was taken quite aback by that, but it’s true. It just was always there, and that was something special.”

How would you describe your tattoo style?

Sara: I would say a lot of the decisions that I make in my own personal work are very intuitive, very organic, very color oriented. There is a lot of intuition involved in the choices that I make, and it's very graphic, very illustrative. I went to art school mostly because I felt like that was an environment that I fit into the best, and then I left art school for a semester or two because I felt very much like a big fish in a small pond. Came back with a better idea of what direction I wanted to go in, and then by the time I graduated, felt like, ‘I don't want to do this professionally.’ I just wasn't quite ready to take the level of structure and then define that for a client, but here I am now, taking all that feedback from a client and creating a piece of art that truly defines that specific piece for them or a time and a place. That's what it's really all about, is you're creating a design for them, a page in the book of their life, I would say. But my style, it's colorful. The art that I make is illustrative. Strangely enough, I would never have thought this, but it's unmistakably me, unique to what I do, which is really cool.

Is there an art style that most inspires your tattoo design?

Sara: There's a lot of influence from figure art. Had I not really gotten into tattooing I probably would've gone back and tried to re-enter the art world and maybe teach a lot of figure drawing. It's of my favorite things. So, that's derivative, I believe, of a lot of Egon Schiele, a lot of old school illustrators, but it's tough to narrow it down to one. There's a lot of postmodern art. That's a huge influence. I work with a lot of color blocking and color fields. It’s a lot of figure anatomy and a lot of color. That would be where it all comes from.

What is your process like working with tattoo clients?

Sara: I've got a couple of different ways that I work. It's very fluid. There's a lot of movement, and I think that's what the client falls in love with. It keeps your eye moving throughout the design at all times. From in our actual consultation, we'll go into, ‘OK, here's preliminary drawings. Here's this.’ When it comes to color application, there’s a huge level of trust. I say at this point, ‘I kind of just paint on you, really.’ So, it's not only thrilling, but also a little bit foreign to them. But for me it just is very natural. I'll illustrate where I'm going to put color, but truly what happens, it just paints itself throughout our session. Start to finish, it's concrete, and at the end, it's very ‘Bam! Here's your painting.’ There is a very large level of trust on top of something that is very much already up in the air. Very organic, to be sure.

What’s one of the most memorable experiences you’ve had with a client?

Sara: A client had come to me asking for a sleeve, and it was essentially a collection of the prize-winning goats that they had raised and had gone. The level of animal husbandry was extremely respectable, but I had to somehow create a sleeve that was visually engaging, yet also giving a lot of credit to each. It was a family tree of goats. I imagined that if this client ever sees this interview, they will know exactly who they are, and they're wonderful. I was just flabbergasted by it. I'm like, ‘Wow, I had no idea. This is excellent. That's a lot of goats.’

What advice would you give to someone aspiring to enter the tattoo industry?

Sara: Always be drawing. Always be challenging yourself, yet know what makes you comfortable in terms of tattooing. Listen to that inner self, because that's where you're going to shine. … That's where you shine the most, is listening to that inner self, and you won't have to do anything. You just keep being that individual, and that resonates with your clients, truly. That’s about it.

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Body of Work: Tattoo Culture

About the author

Tony Drovetto is MoPOP's Content Marketing Manager.