Like most traditional tattooists, Valerie Vargas creates tattoos of classic motifs like lady heads, bald eagles, pinups, and more, but her work breaks the mold because of how she instills heartfelt emotion in her figures. Her work is so spirited that looking at one of her sleeves or back-pieces feels more like reading a story or watching an animated film than admiring a tattoo. Whether it’s the intricate details of her black and grey work or the energetic vibe of her color compositions, her creations represent just how expressive traditional tattoos can be.
Vargas fondly recalls her mother teaching her how to draw and how comics and cartoons sparked her creativity when she was younger. Spurred by her childhood passion, Vargas studied for a career making her own cartoons, but eventually decided to go into the more hands-on profession of tattooing. “I just didn’t want to deal with computers,” says Vargas. “3D was beginning to get real big when I was studying animation, and my strength lies in drawing, not computers, to go with a feeling not a formula, so it was natural for me to find another path.”
Since taking up a tattoo machine nearly a decade ago, Vargas has expounded on her appreciation of animation to develop an auteur take on traditional tattooing. Her characterized spin on the style has become so popular that she’s in extremely high demand (even Rihanna got a piece from Vargas not too long ago). Most of the body art she produces these days is on the bigger end of the spectrum. She specializes in designs that can be weaved into larger compositions with a simultaneously classic and modern feeling to them.
“The first few tattooers who really made an impact in how I approach my work would have to be Scott Sylvia, Ed Hardy, and Bob Roberts,” says Vargas. “I love the strength in their work, the vitality and boldness most of all; that’s what I try to consciously impart in my work.” Vargas is obviously in touch with her roots, but the way she imbues her figures with a sense of personality makes her work truly one-of-a-kind.
“I’ve never liked it as much when a character just had a dead stare. A little wink or slight smile was much more fun to look at. Same for pieces with a sadness attached to it or a hard scowl,” Vargas elaborates. “When I think about the piece as it starts to come together, I imagine what’s happening around it, and that is what gives me idea for their look, pose and/or the accessories they might be holding."
By intuiting the feeling of each piece she creates, Vargas’ illustrates the expressive potential of the traditional style. Her tattoos are more than just exciting illustrations on bodies, they communicate the stirring emotions — fear, desire, love, hate, happiness, sorrow, etc. — that define the human experience and make it so beautiful to be alive.