Artist Interviews 2021
By Laura Siebold
Vickie Chiang is a tattoo artist at Earth Altar Studio in Los Angeles, and, recently, a designer for the clothes brand SheIn. Growing up in Taiwan, she only discovered tattoo art when she moved to California. She finds joy in working with her clients on tattoos that are inspired by nature and is constantly learning from her client interactions. While creating her botanical art, Vickie is guided by energy. In her interview, she stresses the importance of tattoos as permanent art and of being the right artist to fulfill a client’s idea. Since becoming Justine Serebrin’s (founder of Earth Altar Studio and the intuitive artist school The IAMCODE; more about Justine Serebrin in this issue) apprentice, Vickie has found new self-confidence through her tattoo art and a deep awareness of tattoos being a therapeutic experience that helps people to be comfortable and feel beautiful in their own skin.
You are a tattoo artist at Earth Altar Studio in Los Angeles, CA. How and when did you first get into contact with tattoo art? What is special about the studio that you chose to work there?
Until this day, I still sometimes feel surprised that I am a tattoo artist. I have always been doing art since I can remember. I grew up in Taiwan and I didn’t know a single person who had a tattoo, so the idea of the art form was not implanted in my head. I have always had a passion for making decorative art, and I studied illustration in college. I did stationery and textile surface pattern design before I moved to Los Angeles from the San Francisco Bay Area about 6 years ago. After living in the lively city for two years I had a chance to get to know Justine Serebrin who is the owner of Earth Altar Studio. She offered me to be her apprentice and that totally changed my life. I have never paid any attention to tattoos before meeting Justine and not in a million year[s] would I [have] imagine[d] being a tattoo artist. Having her as my mentor, she guides me to find tattooing as my medium. I found tattooing is something I am born to do, but I just never knew! Earth Altar Studio feels like home to me. Everyone there supports each other in many ways and the vibe is super warm. I always feel excited going to work and find working and being around my clients and the Earth Altar team joyful; I think that shows, this is where I belong.
Many of the tattoos showcased on Instagram (@tattoist_inkandbloom) have floral elements and small, natural living creatures like birds and butterflies. When did you discover and adopt florals and botanical design as your unique style?
I appreciated and got inspired by nature a lot. The seasonal changes of nature are like gems to my eyes. I think the elements and shapes of botanical designs are so organic, so they really feel natural and graceful on skin. It is also timeless and classic. Adding butterflies or birds creates movement to the design. I get a lot of requests for tattoos with specific flowers that have special meanings to the clients. It opens my eyes and knowledge on botanical things. I feel very thankful that people like my botanical art, so I get to make more and more of it.
Where do you make the drawings that lead to the final tattoo? Is there a specific place or music that inspires you?
I usually make my tattoo designs at home with pencil and paper or on an iPad. While creating art, I like to listen to classical music, old jazz, and some indies. These genres make me feel calm and focused.
How much does energy influence the outcome of your art? How do you decide if you would like to take on a client’s tattoo design idea? Please tell us a little about the whole process from the idea to the finished product. How does it feel to see your art come alive on somebody’s skin?
Energy is very important to all artists I think. I do believe energy between me and clients are mutual. I am very lucky to meet so many awesome people with my job. Seeing my tattoo coming alive on somebody’s skin is so awesome. My process is gathering details and references for a client’s idea from email communications first. I usually design pretty close to the actual tattoo day, so the idea is fresh and up to date. We will review the design together at the beginning of the session and there will be time to take their feedback and make adjustments. I am so grateful for my clients’ trust in me. It is truly an honor for an artist to put an art permanently on someone’s skin. Most of the time when I see a client's idea, I try to visualize it in my head first. Sometimes, people have too many ideas to add into one tattoo. For cases like that, I will try to communicate with the client and help them to narrow down the elements. I respect everyone’s idea, because when someone wants a lot in one tattoo, all the details are important to them. However, I think less is more. There is no need to have too many meanings shown too literally in one tattoo. It should be like a beautiful piece of art and please don’t treat it like scrapbooking. If an idea is too much and I don’t think [it is] aesthetically going to look great, I will not tattoo it. Tattoos are permanent. I won’t tattoo it on you if I am not confident about it. I also will suggest people who want something [that is] not my style to find an artist who is good at it. Because even though I am not the right fit, there must be some other amazing artists who can make your idea come alive.
Have there ever been drawbacks in your career? Have you ever found yourself stuck as an artist? If yes, how did you manage to reignite your passion and inspiration?
I felt very stuck for many many years after I graduated from art school even though I was working as an artist and designer. I love traditional mediums and it is not so easy to build a career with it nowadays. Back to my years in the San Francisco Bay Area, I was constantly searching for what I can do. I doubted myself, maybe I am not an artist. Maybe I just know how to draw, and I am actually not good at all. I didn’t have much self-confidence. After I got into contact with tattoo art, I found that I am a stronger woman than I thought. I found tattooing as my medium and I can connect to the world with it. 2021 is my fourth year of tattooing, I am not in the industry for that long yet. I am still learning and trying to improve every day. I will never stop evolving.
You recently designed some clothing for the brand SheIn. How did this collaboration come to life?
SHEIN invited me for the collaboration. It was a very fun experience! I am not a fashion designer, but I love that I can combine my botanical designs with my old textile pattern skills and make a collection. It is pretty cool to think people around the world are wearing the clothes that I designed.
In your opinion – is there “the right place” for a specific tattoo on somebody’s body or can the right tattoo for the right person never be in the wrong place?
I think most of the time the placement client chooses is where they are comfortable with and it should be the right place. When I receive a client’s idea, I will ask them what the placement is. I will design based on the body part they choose. For example, I will design the layout to be more of a long shape for arm or leg tattoo and it can be more of a wider layout if on the shoulder blade. I like to have my tattoo to wrap on people’s bodies with good flow. Only time I will strongly suggest a client change the placement is when they choose to have a tattoo on the side of their foot or on the inside of their fingers and palms. Tattoos on these places mostly are going to fade or look patchy and blurry.
How are cover-ups different from new tattoos? Is your artistic influence more limited when doing a cover-up instead of a new tattoo?
I do enjoy making cover-ups and it is very satisfying to see how happy clients are when they get something they love instead of the old unwanted tattoos. However, cover-ups have a lot of limitations. I cannot turn something bold, big, and dark into something dainty and delicate. The new design has to be much larger than the old one. This way I can create new focal points and cover the old tattoos with some minor elements. Sometimes I have to say no to some cover up requests, and I can tell some people are upset and disappointed. Usually, I know if I am capable of covering the existing tattoo beautifully or not at the moment, I see it. If I am not confident about it, I won’t do it. I wish people wouldn't take the rejection personally. I need to be honest and feel 100% right to put a permanent art on your skin. Especially since it is going to be a cover-up already, you don't want to mess up an unwanted tattoo even more.
We love learning about future projects. What are you currently working on?
Right now, I am focusing on tattooing only. The pandemic stopped us from tattooing for so long. Me and clients are so excited to be back and bring their ideas to life. In the near future, I am planning to design some products and create an online store.
Elaborate. Can a tattoo change someone’s life?
Totally. A lot of times I heard clients tell me that they feel they have some flaws on their body (even though I think they are beautiful) and adding beautiful art on top of it makes them love their body more. Sometimes tattoos cover scars, which helps people focusing on something beautiful and not being reminded of an unpleasant memory when they see the scars every day. I think getting a tattoo can be a therapeutic experience and brings positive images to people. Also, most people have a story behind their tattoos, I think it helps them to remind themselves of the connections with family, loved ones, or their passions.