Jess Chen‘s tattoos are the kind even your mom would approve. Using fine lines and floral imagery, the Toronto-based artist inks delicate and minimalist designs. A far cry from the tribal tats and Sailor Jerry sparrows everyone’s come to hate—I mean, associate with the tattoo world—Chen brings elegance and artfulness to all of her work. Through her hand-poked pieces, she crafts uncannily realistic nature-scapes and nude portraits that look more like a watercolor than any tattoo. And while ink isn’t exactly known for its female empowerment, Chen injects her own brand of confident femininity that reimagines the scene.
BULLETT caught up with the artist to talk foliage, flowers and “feminizing” tattoos.
Name: Jess Chen
Favorite Song to Tattoo To: “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” Radiohead
How did you get into tattooing?
It was quite spontaneous, actually. I was bored of being on the computer all day as a graphic designer and wanted a new career path. I came across an apprenticeship at Tattoo People and got the job.
When did you get your first tattoo?
I got my first tattoo in 2015, a couple months before I started thinking about tattooing as a career. It’s a floral piece based on a Japanese woodblock print by Kono Bairei.
How did you go from liking tattoos to becoming an actual tattoo artist?
To be honest, I didn’t realize or understand what it meant to be a tattoo artist until I was already well into my apprenticeship. Initially, I thought of tattooing as just another medium—I didn’t respect the culture or history in any aspect. I was pretty blind and naive. But after watching endless documentaries, reading textbooks, meeting artists and engaging myself in tattooing culture for the last two years, I really began to realize how special this practice is. I mean, people have been tattooing for thousands of years and there is so much meaning rooted in the art of it.
What’s the hardest piece you’ve ever had to do?
Hands down, a simple circle outline. I can’t even draw a perfect circle on paper—imagine tattooing it on the skin. And since it’s just an outline, you can’t correct your mistakes with a fill or shading.
Obviously, you have a large online following. What role has social media played in shaping your career?
Instagram is 100% of my business—it’s how a find my clients, showcase my portfolio, announce guest spots and communicate with artists from all over the world. But I think more importantly, Instagram has changed who I am as an artist. That sounds lame, but it really pushes me to put forth only my best work, because I’m so heavily connected to so many viewers. I’m not sure I’d have that drive to create the way I do now if I didn’t have such an interconnected platform.
How do you come up with your designs?
I collect a lot of books and that is my main source of inspiration. Mostly Japanese traditional but also art history, scientific botanical, Chinese ink paintings, landscape photography, National Geographic, wildflower guides, etc. I also try my best to go to as many exhibitions and art shows as possible. Confronting yourself with other forms of art is an amazing way to discover new ideas or inspiration.
Do you consider your work minimalist?
All of my paintings, collages or drawings have no background—I love negative space and minimalism. I’m drawn to a simplicity that is loud and powerful and every element on the canvas has a purpose in creating that impact.
You use a lot of floral imagery. Why?
I just love how foliage and florals fall on the body—it’s so organic and elegant and I find it hard to navigate away from this type of imagery. It’s such a timeless piece, which is important for work that will be on the body permanently.
How’d you develop your style?
I was a painter before I became a tattoo artist, so I suppose I’m just trying to replicate my paintings and drawings into tattoos. It’s a lot harder than it seems, though—the skin is awfully difficult to work with. But the reason why my work looks more painterly is that I tend to omit a black outline. My intention isn’t to purposely reject traditional tattoo work, but more so to replicate what I naturally paint.
You also ink a lot of traditionally ‘feminine’ motifs. Is that intentional?
Definitely. I love working with concepts that are labeled feminine—I find this idea really intriguing because it categorizes my style as if only females are meant to get my types of tattoos. It’s so silly—I’ve been told numerous times that men shouldn’t get florals because it’s ‘not masculine enough.’ One of my favorite things is to see is a burly man with the daintiest little floral ink—it’s time to change these stereotypes and labels. But I also draw a lot of gestural nudes and female portraits because what is more beautiful than the female body? It’s one of my favorite things to sketch—the curvatures, elegance, and flow makes for beautiful designs.
Do you approach drawing differently than when you’re designing a tattoo?
Yes! The first thing I do when designing for tattoos is think about where it’s going on the body—How can I make it flow seamlessly? What type of skin or skin color does my client have? There are so many different factors to consider when designing a tattooing. But for drawing and painting, I just grab a canvas or piece of paper and go.
What do you want people to take away from your work?
I want people to see my work and understand the importance of balancing negative space. The skin is one of my favorite parts about tattooing—the contrast between the tattoo and the skin is truly beautiful. I’m also hoping to change the perception of what’s called a ‘sleeve,’ ‘back piece’ or ‘body suit.’ Again, respecting the skin and integrating it into large-scale tattoos.