Prior to China’s Great Leap Forward and the 1959 Tibetan Rebellion, Tibet was home to one of the richest artistic traditions in the world, but due to the deaths of hundreds of thousands Tibetans, destruction of their monasteries, and their widespread displacement, the art form has suffered. Now what we commonly think of as Tibetan art is a shadow of what it once was. Compositions by masters of the style used to be revered as sacred, but most of the paintings and drawings seen today are cheap facsimiles. Yoni Zilber has dedicated the last decade of his life fighting to preserve the art form by translating it into tattoos.
“The first time I started looking at books about the style, I was in Switzerland, getting tattooed by Filip Leu, and his apprentice at the time, Rinzing, was Tibetan,” Zilber recalls. “We started tattooing at the same time, and when I would stay with him, he always had lots of references and would paint and draw them. I always admired them and remember thinking ‘this is perfect for tattooing. Why isn’t anyone else doing this?’” Zilber immediately recognized the similarity between Tibetan art and tattoos — how the linework and color schemes are akin to those in traditional Japanese tattoos — and this inspired him to experiment with bridging the two mediums.
Zilber admits that he is not the first tattooist to attempt to translate Tibetan art in tattoos. He cites the work of Bob Roberts and Eddy Deutsch from the late ‘80s and ‘90s, in which they recreated images found in Robert Beer’s famous The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs, as setting a precedent. Though Zilber started out working from the same book, he soon grew dissatisfied with using with source material so divorced from its origins, so he choose to do something drastic.
“There’s only so far you can go without studying. You can look at books, copy, and trace, but you’ll get to a point when you run out of images because it’s all from that same book, and I didn’t want to build my career based on someone else’s designs,” Zilber explains. “So, I decided that I would learn how to draw Tibetan art properly. I started doing research, and everything lead to Nepal. So I bought a plane ticket, quite my job at Adorned, broke up with my girlfriend, sold my car gave everything away, and said, ‘I’m moving to Nepal.’”
“About two weeks before I left on that trip, my friend Jondix came to New York, and because we’re both interested in Tibetan art, we went to The Rubin Museum,” Zilber continues. “While were were walking around, there was this guy working on a huge painting. We started talking to him, and I told him that I was moving to Nepal to learn the art from, and he started laughing at me, like I was a little kid, saying, ‘You’re not going to learn anything. You’ll just waste money. All the masters are dead.’”
The painter that ridiculed him that day was Pema Rinzin — a modern master of the Tibetan style and Zilber’s teacher for 10 years and counting. He told Zilber that if he wanted to see some “real Tibetan art” to come to his apartment. “He only lived two blocks away from my house in Brooklyn, so I went over to his place, and I was blown away,” Zilber continues. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ll do anything to have this guy teach me,’ so I asked him if he would, and he said that if I’d give up on going to Nepal, he’d take me on as his student.”
Since agreeing to become Rinzin’s pupil, Zilber has become well versed in Tibetan art though he knows that he still has a lifetime of learning ahead of him if he hopes to ever truly master it. As a steward of this fading iconography and a veteran tattooist, he occupies a fascinating liminal space in the world of visual art. Due to most Tibetans’ aversion to tattoos, it would have been considered obscene to depict figures like the Buddha, but given that the art form is in such disrepair, it now stands the chance to be revitalized by body art.
“I was in India at the Dalai Lama house, and I asked him if it was okay that I was translating my knowledge of Tibetan art into tattoos when it goes against so many things the Buddhists believe,” Zilber recalls. “And he told me, ‘You’re actually doing Tibetan art a service, because you’re bringing it to an audience that would otherwise never know about it.’”