Tattooing is more than just a job for Jess Chen. It's sacred. The Toronto-based artist has made a name for herself for pushing the possibilities of tattooing with her artistic take on playing with shapes, lines and colors, and making her subjects' bodies as much a part of the tattoo as the tattoo itself.
Read on to get to know Jess, her favorite places to go in the Six, and why she'd prefer it if you came alone to get a tattoo from her.
How did you come to be a tattoo artist?
I was working as a graphic designer for two years prior to tattooing, working at a firm which specialized in hotel signage and collateral. I was quite unhappy, as I was working digitally and being confined to a 9-5 job. It wasn’t me. I missed being creative on my own terms and working with my hands. After finally realizing that I wasn’t fulfilled, I quickly looked into alternative career paths. I stumbled into the idea of tattooing and pursued it entirely.
I lucked out because a brand new studio just opened and was looking for new apprentices. I emailed them and that day they requested for me to come in for an interview. A few days later, I still had received no response, and at that point, I knew I couldn’t take no for an answer. I followed up again and again and finally, they got back to me. I am forever grateful for Tattoo People for taking a chance on me. Thank you, guys.
Placing your artwork on someone else’s body is pretty special. Would you say that tattooing is an intimate profession/experience?
Oh definitely. I actually prefer if my clients don’t bring guests to their appointments because tattooing is such a connective experience between the client and artist. There is such an intense physical intimacy that comes from tattooing, and sometimes it can become an emotional journey. There have been times, especially when working on larger pieces, where I have become so connected with a specific body part. I begin to learn how it moves, stretches, bulges or reacts to my movements. The body is literally evolving into a canvas in these moments.
How did you come to arrive at your nature-centric painting-like style?
Growing up as a child, I use to paint a lot of florals for my mom. She loved hanging them up around the house. As a teenager, I delved into figures and portraits. For my undergraduate program at OCADU, I explored a lot of minimal geometric abstraction. It wasn’t until I started tattooing where I found a new voice in illustrating nature. I suppose I fell in love with how plants curve with the body and how timeless they could be. There are so types of textures, shapes, colors, and dimension of plants, and every aspect has been a never-ending source of inspiration. I feel like I’ve only just touched the surface of how nature can be translated into tattoos, and it’s been really exciting exploring this theme.
Tell us about your first tattoo and what that experience was like…
Oh man, my first tattoo… sweaty and shaky. Luckily my brother volunteered and he would have been satisfied with anything. He just wanted the memory of my first tattoo, so we could share the moment together.
I did two crossing branches, purely because it’s one of the easiest drawings to tattoo. If it’s shaky, it looks organic, like a branch would. I practiced endlessly on synthetic skin (which by the way, is nothing like real skin). But nonetheless, it was far more difficult than I could have ever expected. The skin is weird, you don’t know how deep to go, or how fast you should tattoo your lines. It’s honestly a huge game of trial and error and learning from your experiences.
"I fell in love with how plants curve with the body and how timeless they could be."
What are some do’s and don’ts when getting a tattoo?
I think the most important “do” is to research artists and actually follow their Instagram before getting a tattoo. Literally, watch their stories, and keep up with their portfolio. See how they work and determine if they are the perfect fit for you. Another important one is how to properly communicate with your artist of choice. When you’re ready for a tattoo, write a detailed and straightforward email to your artist. Clearly explain what you’re looking to get, you’re availability and attach reference photos that aren’t just tattoos. Be clear and concise.
Don’t copy other people’s work. I understand that sometimes you see something and you can’t imagine it any other way. But at the end of the day, that design was created for someone, not you. Make it your own by altering it or asking your artist to recreate it in their own style. Trust me, working with your own ideas is far more rewarding than copying someone else’s.
What do you love most about what you do?
Ahhh so many things I love about tattooing! I suppose if I had to pick one thing it would be that it allows for me to be a traveling artist. It’s now so common for tattoo artists to guest spot in different studios around the world and thanks to Instagram, it connects you to international clients.
I started guesting in studios only this year and it has taken me to London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Paris, Boston, Montreal and New York. I’m planning on heading to LA, San Fransisco, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan in 2018. My life is a dream right now.
What’s the most rewarding thing about what you do?
Seeing art on paper being translated onto the skin. It’s such a beautiful metamorphosis.
What are three of your favorite places in Toronto and why?
Toronto Island - By far my favorite place in Toronto. Only a 15-minute ferry ride from the city, which makes for the perfect day-getaway. Bring your bikes, sketchbooks and food for a picnic.
Allen Gardens - I use to come here a lot as a kid, I had drawing classes every Sunday at Allen Gardens. It’s a beautiful greenhouse which holds a collection of exotic plants, available all year round.
Woodbine Beaches - This place is more nostalgic than anything. It reminds me of my dad who use to take me out for ice-cream and rollerblading on the boardwalk. Obviously, this beach can’t compare to all the amazing beaches around the world, but it does have its charm.
What does MISSBISH mean to you?
MISSBISH is someone who is an authentic hustler.
Photographer: Nathalia Allen