We’ve all seen those bad tattoos of “English names in Chinese” (spoiler alert…they’re not) or kanji characters for love, beauty, and harmony, that are, more likely than not, written incorrectly or mistranslated. Those tattoos tend to be made by artists who have no connection to Asian culture at all.
But a new wave of Asian artists are reclaiming and iterating on tattoos inspired by Asian culture, bringing more diversity into tattoo culture and designing body art that speaks directly to the members of the Asian diaspora and queer communities. Many of them happen to live in New York. They’re developing their own visual languages, and using their tattoo practices to engage in community building and support healing from trauma.
“I think the amount of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) artists, especially queer or generally non-cis males, discovering this world of creation is incredible,” artist Gabrielle Widjaja says. “I think it’s incredibly meaningful that there are people like me who can give and get tattoos from others we can identify with. It is also extremely empowering to see others also proudly tattooing things inspired by their cultures instead of seeing [non-Asian artists] taking these motifs they actually have little true understanding of.”
Here, meet six artists who are experimenting with tattoo styles while crushing old stereotypes about Asian culture. Their body art is fresh, innovative, poignant, cute, beautiful, and above all, cool. (No more badly-done 愛 tattoos, please.)
Gabrielle Widjaja, a graphic designer and illustrator of Chinese and Indonesian descent, and a cofounder of queer AAPI-run studio Long Time Tattoo, created their style from the visual language of Chinese cultural artifacts. They incorporate pattern work from objects like porcelain and traditional motifs such as peonies, as well as concepts such as “floating, disintegrating, solitude,” and gestural elements like clouds, wind, smoke, and water. Many of their designs feature Asian women and Asian bodies.
Widjaja offers their flash pieces only once, so each tattoo is one of a kind. Their personal experience getting tattooed has informed their approach and philosophy. “My Japanese traditional tattoo was done by a white man, and I’ll always remember that differently than if I had gotten it from a Japanese American artist who was on a journey to learn their own ancestral craft,” they say. “I want people to get that kind of intimate experience from getting a tattoo with me.”