Opening February 1, 2020, Body of Work: Tattoo Culture explores the rich history and modern artistry of tattooing as a dynamic, ever-evolving artform whose mainstream acceptance has been driven by popular culture. The exhibition features large-scale, original works of art created by Northwest-based artists who demonstrate the wide range of styles possible in tattoo art.
One of those artists is Kirsten Holliday, a Portland-based professional tattoo artist who, at age 16, was inspired to join the tattoo world. After earning a degree in Rhetoric and Writing from the University of Texas at Austin, Holliday began her tattoo apprenticeship, where she developed an appreciation for botanical art and nature illustration which she incorporates in her American traditional tattoo style.
“I was always kind of a weird kid,” Holliday says. “And I was always an artist. I took all the art classes I could in high school. I did not want to do art on a computer. I knew that I didn’t want to be a graphic designer. I like weird people. And I wanted to draw on paper. So, it seemed like a good fit. That was about it.”
Why were you attracted to tattooing at a young age?
Kirsten: Like I said, I was always kind of a weird kid. And I always wanted to sort of express myself through my outward aesthetic. I dressed really weird in high school. I wore some outfits. I don’t think anybody who knew me in high school would be surprised that I would end up being a tattooed person. I have learned how to dress myself as an appropriately dressed adult person. I think getting tattoos is another way that you express yourself. I don’t really have a good answer for why. I do feel like every tattoo I get, I feel more like myself. I never have been like ‘oh, no, I wish I hadn’t done that.’
How would you describe your tattoo style?
Kirsten: I would say I do illustrative tattoos. My personal roots are in American traditional. I feel like I’ve taken to American traditional — I really love it. I still love doing traditional tattoos. I don’t get asked to do them very often. I’ve done them, especially on coworkers. I feel like that aesthetic is something that is really important to me and really dear to my heart. I try to bring that to the illustrative work that I’m doing now.
How did your tattoo style evolve?
Kirsten: I’ve always loved flowers. I think most people love flowers. It’s a human thing. I love nature. I think that was what I was originally drawn to from the beginning. I’ve really fallen in love with traditional tattoos and sort of found my way back to botanical work. Honestly, you could be busy tattooing two roses on a forearm for literally eternity. There is an unlimited supply of people who would like that tattoo. There’s partially a lot of demand for botanical tattoos. I obviously have a passion for them. I love doing them. I think they suit people well. I do a lot of birds and snakes and stuff too. I like any natural elements in a tattoo. I think that and vintage illustrations like traditional tattoos are really classic, so people can carry them for their whole lives without it being totally obvious that they definitely got that tattoo in exactly 2014, or whatever.
Do you have any advice for anyone who wants to be a tattoo artist?
Kirsten: I think that people want it badly enough that they’re going to do it regardless of what I say. If something that I’m going to say is going to affect whether or not you decide to be a tattooer, you probably shouldn’t because it’s a really specific industry. It’s a very specific job. And, if it’s your best job, it’ll be the best job in the world. But, if it’s not, you’re going to hate it. It’s a ton of work. The hours are weird. You’ll never have good health insurance. There are so many things about it that are great if they’re the right thing for you. And, if they’re not the right thing for you — if you’re not willing to basically give up most of your life to it, it’s not going to be great.
Is there one thing about the tattoo industry you feel gets misrepresented?
Kirsten: I think sometimes in pop culture heavily tattooed, especially women … get represented as damaged goods or a person with a darkness. I feel that really rubs a lot of people that are heavily tattooed the wrong way. I think it encourages people to play out this kind of bizarre, fetishy underworld part of it — that certainly is a part of tattoo history, but it’s not very many people’s daily experience of living in the world as a tattooed person, or especially living as a person who's made the choice to be tattooed. … That stereotype can be really harmful for women a lot of the time, especially heavily tattooed women. I could not count for you the number of times that I have been asked or that my friends have been asked if we like pain, by mostly men, which is a totally inappropriate question to ask anybody. But it happens. I think that kind of stuff in pop culture really encourages people to think of tattooed women as people they can approach that way or people that have a dark secret, which in my experience, not at all true. We’re just people with jobs. I go home and play with my dog. I have no dark secrets.
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