We were first introduced to Toronto-based tattoo artist Jess Chen through her graphic design work for musicians Tei Shi and VERITÉ, where she illustrated killer cover art for their debut albums. She started tattooing almost by accident, and since then her intricate and detailed signature style has gained her legions of fans. From delicately sculpted flowers to renditions of classic art, Jess’s work is a tattoo-minimalist’s wet-dream, and each design is unique. The process of creating the work creates close bonds with her clients, which no doubt is a big part of her big social media following.
We sat down with Jess to discuss how she got her start, the elements of her art, and points of inspiration. Read the full Q&A after the jump!
Were you always interested in art?
I was pretty much forced into drawing classes when I was a kid. My family had me taking classes for ballet, drawing, violin and piano and other arts, but I gravitated to drawing. I was taking drawing classes every week since I was 6, until I dropped it in middle school. It was not until high school that I picked it back up again. I was taking advanced science, biology, and math, and I needed art as relief from those. My original plan was to apply to McGill [Univerrsity in Montreal] for life sciences, and it was my actually my dad who convinced me to go to OCADU for drawing and painting. After OCADU, I spent a year at Parsons for graphic design.
And how did you get into tattooing?
I saw an ad on Kijiji for a brand new shop looking for apprentices. Tattooing was not in the plan at all, but I decided to go for it! I wanted to try something new and learn a new artform. For the first few months, apprenticeship duties consist of simple shop work and stenciling without even touching a machine. When your mentor feels that you are ready, you pick up a machine and begin practicing on synthetic or pig’s skin, and after some practice, you go and find your “guinea pigs.”
With your guinea pigs, did you have to provide any warning, like a disclaimer (first time artist here)?
Oh yeah! You have to sit them down and be like, “Listen, this is going to look like shit.” My first tattoo was on my brother, but then I continued by tattooing some of my best friends. I found it very nerve-wracking once I started doing walk-ins… It was like, “Do they know that I am a beginner?” When I started my career, there were times where I would sit in the back sweating profusely before doing a tattoo. The client was waiting, everything was sketched, yet I was sitting there and second-guessing myself. I found that no matter what, you’re never going to feel ready, but you need to overcome your fear and learn from your mistakes.
When did you begin the stick-and-poke technique?
I started after about a year-and-a half. I pursued hand poking further because of the experience when tattooing someone. It is much more personal, and you’re tattooing them without relying on a machine or electricity.
How has your style progressed since you first started tattooing?
I have always had my own aesthetic, which was very minimal, simple, and clean. For me, I would do whatever I was feeling, but I started to try and educate myself on art movements and other artists in order to pull from those techniques. I am really into Japanese traditional, and I try to pull from the pieces and try to translate it into my art.
When sketching, what inspires you?
All of my sketched collages are incredibly close to my heart. I start to sketch when I am sick of custom work and want to do my own thing. There isn’t really a process. I typically turn on music and look at a blank canvas, and I just create whatever.
You have a strong social media following. How has that affected your business?
Social media is literally my business. I don’t even know what I would do without Instagram… It seems that Instagram is the tattoo business nowadays. You don’t really need a website or facebook at this point, my business is straight off of Instagram. The amazing thing about working through social media is that you can connect with people all over the world.
Which artists in your industry have influenced you?
My coworker right now, Tattoo Peixe (@TattooPeixe): his work is so unreal. He is a true artist and is always looking to make the best design possible for each client. Working with the body, he makes sure that everything flows, and his drawing and technical abilities are insane. Working alongside someone like that inspires me to be better and to push myself.
Why do you not typically do the same designs twice?
My relationship with my client is important and I want my art to be special for them. I want my art to fit a particular person, and it feels wrong to do the same image twice! I feel like the design is for them and them only.
Follow Jess on Instagram @__jesschen__
— Q&A and portrait of Jess by Kyle Mack