Created in a distinct, super delicate style, Jess Chen’s tattoos are so confidently precise that it’s very hard to believe she’s only been doing this for a year and a half. “I know, I’m super fresh,” she admits. Chen got started as an apprentice at the small Toronto studio Tattoo People just over one year ago, and she’s now a full-time tattoo artist with over 45k followers on Instagram.
It’s easy to see why Chen’s work appeals to so many people. Coming from a graphic design background, Chen has something of an outsider perspective as a tattoo artist. She’s become known for her plant tattoos, which are incredibly detailed and carefully realized. Fine line work like Chen’s tends to attract first timers, since it looks like less commitment than the heavy lines of traditional tattoos. Talking to Chen also makes getting inked seem so easy—she has an enthusiasm for tattooing that’s kind of infectious.
The rising popularity of fine line tattoos coincides with a new wave of female tattoo artists working in fresh styles. It’s historically been male-dominated, but traditional tattooing has always featured motifs that are actually pretty feminine: birds, flowers, and of course female bodies. Artists like Chen are reclaiming these themes, reimagining them from a contemporary, female perspective.
In Berlin and New York, the new wave includes artists like Mirja Fenris, doing intricate line work, Jenna Bouma, specializing in traditionally-influenced hand pokes, and Daisy Watson, whose work has a 1980s, cartoon feel. In Toronto, Chen’s in the company of artists like Helen Xu and Lindsay April, who also tend towards finely detailed, organic pieces.
We dropped by Tattoo People to check out Chen’s studio space and find out more about her work. As expected, there were a lot of plants.
Photos by Zhamak Fullad
Format: Hey, Jess! So even though you’ve only been tattooing for a short time, you already have a big Instagram following. How did that come about?
Jess Chen: Over time it just happened! I have no idea what I specifically did to do that. There are a few things that I know helped. For example, if I tattooed someone who has a ton of followers, and then they post my photo, and that person’s followers will follow me. I recognize that makes a huge difference. I also do this thing where I tag the person I’ve tattooed, and then they see it, and their friends see it, and I guess that engages a lot of people. But overall it’s just natural.
Did you just start tattooing on your own? Were you stick and poking?
I wasn’t stick and poking, I was a little too nervous to do that. I was doing graphic design for about two years, and I was getting just a little bit bored of it, so I was looking for something new. I saw a posting about an apprenticeship at Tattoo People. It was a pretty new shop. I applied just to try something new.
It was a really difficult transition, because obviously it’s a completely different medium. But technically, it was easy because I know how to draw, and I know composition, and color, and all of that stuff.
How does your graphic design background influence your tattooing?
I find that I’m able to assess the body and see what fits the body really well. My graphic design eye kind of helps me with that. Also dealing with clients, which I did on a daily basis with my design work, that’s super helpful.
That’s interesting, because I feel like people wouldn’t connect those two areas, but they’re similar.
Very, very, very similar. Also the ability to use Photoshop and Illustrator and all of that.
Do you often use Photoshop to design tattoos?
Yeah, totally. Let’s say you came to me and you were like, ‘I want this floral sleeve, and I want tropical flowers.’ I’m going to pick out all of these tropical flowers and reference photos, and I’d probably just cut and paste them into Photoshop to see how it looks, and then I’d draw it.
What’s the process of becoming a tattoo artist like, as an apprentice?
When you start, you’re basically just helping out the shop. You’re helping at the front desk, you’re doing emails, you’re doing the phone calls, just seeing how the shop works. You’re also even helping with some designs, setting up, taking down, cleaning up, all of that stuff. So the first few months are dedicated to that only. Obviously it differs per shop, but here that was my experience.
Then you start to do stencilling, making sure that you know how to trace properly, because that’s really important. Then you practice on rubber—it’s like a fake skin. Which is nothing like real skin! It’s super flat, it’s really tight, and everything is perfect. Then you find your first guinea pig. Which was my brother. He was like, ‘Yo, just do it on me, it’ll just be memories, love you forever!’ And I’m like, ‘Okay, thank you.’ So I did it on my brother. Literally the most terrifying experience ever.
What was the tattoo?
It was just two crossing branches. I figured, it’s an organic thing, I can’t really mess it up? If it’s shaky, then it kind of goes with what it is. That turned out fine, and then I started doing free tattoos on my friends, and after that I did half price tattoos on strangers, and then once I was good enough, I charged full price.
I feel like all the tattoo artists I’ve met are literally covered in tattoos! Do people ask you, like, why don’t you have full sleeves?
Yeah! So before I got this piece on my arm done, which is maybe about four months old now, everyone would be like, ‘Where are your tattoos? This is crazy!’ And I was like, ‘They’re all hidden under my clothes.’
I’m pretty new to this. I’m new to the culture, too. I only had one tattoo before I went into tattooing. And now I’m getting so into it, I’ve gotten so many this one year, and I just want to get more.
How many do you have?
I only have six. But all within one year.
Who did the piece on your arm?
Victor J. Webster, he’s at East River Tattoo in Brooklyn. I love it. I’m so happy with it.
Are you planning more?
Oh my god, yeah.
Are you thinking about full sleeves?
Yeah. Well, I have so much empty space. I’m going to just either get a whole back piece, or a whole leg piece. I think that’s what I want to do now, just find this amazing artist and give them all this space to work with.
Are most of the pieces you have kind of in that traditional style, like Victor J. Webster?
Yeah, I would say most of my stuff is very similar to this. I don’t have anything on my body that I would necessarily do, which I find is very interesting. On myself, I love how this style looks, I feel like it matches my aesthetic.
What’s your favorite kind of tattoo to do?
Tattoos that are very much like drawings and sketches, things that are very organic, not really following the stencil. It’s there, but just as a placeholder. So I’m kind of just going with the flow. I’ve done mountains and some flowers that are in that style, and I love how they heal too, which is super important.
I’ve also done some geometric collage-y flower work, which I really like. I do a lot of collage work, so anything referencing that is probably my favorite.
You use a lot of pencil in your drawings, right? So it must be hard to translate to tattoo, because it’s so sketchy and free…
Oh my god, so hard. I’ve tried to translate some of my collage work to tattooing, and I find that my technical skill isn’t quite there yet. Because I find that my collage work has to be really refined. Like, if I’m doing a geometric element, it has to be so sharp. I feel like once I develop more of that technical skill I’ll try that out a bit more. But for now, I’m just going to stick with what I’m good at. I’ll start experimenting a little bit later.
Have you ever started doing a tattoo, and then you’re like, ‘This isn’t working…’ Has that happened?
Definitely when I’m starting out the tattoo, some things just don’t really work out. Sometimes it’s the skin, or the part of the body, the fine line isn’t really working as a fine line—but I always eventually fix it somehow, while I’m doing it. There have been times where I’m panicking at the beginning, because I’m like, ‘This is not going as planned.’
But I find that as a tattoo artist, I’m learning that so much of it is problem-solving while you’re tattooing. Because if something goes wrong, you have to fix it. And you have to do it in an elegant way—it can’t be obvious. I’m definitely learning how to do that.
Is it different, tattooing on different people’s skin? I would never have realized that.
Yeah. Even different parts of the body, for example your inner forearm versus your thigh, that’s two completely different areas. The thigh, the skin is a little bit tougher sometimes. Obviously it’s different for everyone as well, so you really have to assess what you’re working with first. But yeah, you can tattoo something on your outer arm, or something on your foot, and honestly the experience for the tattoo artist can be completely different. You just have to problem solve how you’re going to do it.
Are there certain parts of the body you find the hardest to tattoo? I guess feet are hard.
Yeah, feet are hard. The skin is quite thin, so it’s easy to tattoo, but you have to be really gentle, because you don’t want to go in too deep because it is so thin.
I would say honestly the ribs, because you put on the stencil, and then in order to tattoo it you need to get them to lie down, and when they lie down it literally stretches the stencil! So it’s like double the size, it’s distorted, if you have a portrait the face is all fucked up. It’s crazy. So you really have to trust the stencil, you have to trust your own judgement. It’s really difficult.
I hear ribs are pretty painful, too. Have you tattooed anybody who was really freaking out because it hurts? What do you do when that happens?
Yeah. I do a lot of first timers, and I feel like sometimes they don’t mentally prepare themselves, they just jump right into it. So they’re squirming, and they’re moaning, it’s really hard to work with someone like that. I just tell them, ‘Just take a breather, you’re moving too much.’ I just let them know they’re moving too much, and after that they’re okay.
I feel like reassuring people that way would be one of the hardest parts of tattooing.
When I was first starting out, I felt so bad for people who were crying, I’d be like, ‘Oh my god, I’m inflicting so much pain on these people!’ And then my coworker was like, ‘You need to not give a shit about that, because you need to finish what you started.’ So I’m trying to do that a little more.
What are the challenges of translating your fine art to tattooing? And do tattoos influence your drawings? How do you create a whole practice around that?
It’s pretty difficult, at least for me, because I find that things that I draw naturally, I don’t necessarily want to tattoo yet. I’m obsessed with flowers, or anything organic really, I just find it flows with the body really well. So what I usually do is kind of look at an area of the body, see what flower, what leaf, anything, would look good in that spot. And then just brainstorm, research, and kind of go from there. I mostly work with plants.
Are there any other subjects you want to explore?
I don’t want to do portraits, because it’s terrifying, because it’s so easy to mess up… but I’m hoping to get into that one day. I don’t know, hopefully someone will be willing to do that for me.
Definitely, portraits are so interesting. Do you ever have people who want a certain tattoo idea, and you tell them, ‘I don’t think it’ll look good,’ and they want it anyway?
Every time someone comes to me and is like, ‘I want this idea,’ and I just feel like I’m not the person to do it, I tell them up front. Because they need to go to someone who specializes in that, because I want them to have the best of what they can get, and I am not that person. I usually do that for lettering, I am not a lettering girl. Words are my enemy.
Who are your favorite artists?
There is an artist in Portland, her name is Alice Carrier. She does a lot of floral, botanical stuff. I’ve wanted a tattoo from her for about two years now, and every time I’ve applied to her booking things, she never replies. I’m assuming because she gets so many, and my idea’s so generic, it’s just like, ‘I want roses!’ She probably gets a million of that, which I totally understand.
Victor, who did my arm, he’s definitely one of my favorites, so I’m super stoked that I got one from him. I’ve wanted one from Brody Polinsky as well, I’ve been following him for a while.