Butterfly Dance, Burn With The Sun: Interview With Nina Chwelos

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Butterfly Dance, Burn With The Sun: Interview With Nina Chwelos

In this interview with tattoo artist Nina Chwelos, we talk about the value of fleeting moments, and the power of creating community spaces.

As a writer, and a kid of old punk rock scenes, I adore anyone who puts together zines, books, and other ephemeral paper objects. When I came across the first issue of Scratch, I was enthralled by the power of this particular piece. The aesthetic, the voices and words, the mission of Scratch was visceral...as is Nina Chwelo's passion for turning the temporal into shareable means. Thoughts, moments, emotions...these are all captured from the abstract atmosphere and made physical. 

Creator of Scratch, and a tattooer herself, Nina spoke more about the process of illustrating on skin, the future goals of the publication, and the importance of supporting those whose experiences and perspectives are so often overlooked.

What is your artistic background and how did you get into tattooing?

I’ve always been attached to materials and creation. When I was a baby I wouldn’t play with baby toys I just ripped up paper. When I was young I was always making things, like patterns of flowers on the sidewalk outside my childhood home or fairy houses in the woods. I always had a knack for drawing but I think that’s because I’ve had so much practice. Making art was a way I could engage with and understand my surroundings. As I’ve said to my mother, it was never really a choice; it’s intrinsic. I can’t imagine my life without tattooing or art. I bought a shitty tattoo kit when I was 18 and learned as I went. I’m forever indebted to my friends and acquaintances who have trusted and supported me.

I’ve noticed that butterflies are a reoccuring theme in your tattooing...why are you attracted to those beautiful little ephemeral creatures, and what other design motifs are you drawn to? What or who inspires you?

Whenever I see a butterfly I stop dead in my tracks and watch until it floats out of eyesight. In some mythologies they represent a messenger from the spirit world. They have this, indeed, ephemeral quality that is so specific to them and their lore. Butterflies oscillate between dreadful and beautiful. They represent metamorphosis, those fleeting moments. I find with lots of tattoos it's a desire to freeze that moment, and have a little piece forever.

I’m drawn most to these sorts of symbols, the ones entrenched in meaning. Like, a self-referential cobweb. Catholic imagery is a huge one for me. The things that people ascribe meaning to is such a fascinating subject, exploring the weight of things. I’m also very inspired by special objects like jewelry. I like the way tattoos can briefly immortalize things, make them stay a bit longer.

Can you tell us more about your project “Scratch” and why you were drawn to creating a zine that celebrates/supports self-taught and marginalized artists?

It seemed there was a gap in the print material being produced. There are so many fantastic self taught and lesser known artists, and there should be a platform for our community to come together. It was also a new challenge, a way for me to start exploring a more curatorial position: to look at many moving parts and try to make some sort of meaning out of it. I really enjoyed the process and it’s something I want to do for the rest of my life.

Scratch is a place for artists to examine either their tattoo practice or other things that are important to them. There is no fixed subject matter, and use of different materials and processes is definitely encouraged. Every issue Scratch will change mediums.

There is still some examining I need to do around Scratch. As a cis white female I benefit greatly from my privilege, and white people curating art work done by pocs or marginalized groups is often problematic. My aim with Scratch is to share it. After issue 3 I will be passing it on to other editors, people with different perspectives.

While I am editing Scratch, like the last issue, half of all proceeds from sales go to an Indigenous cause. Proceeds this time were donated to the resurgence of Indigenous tattooing movement, their fundrazr is here if you'd like to donate https://fundrazr.com/tattoo.gathering?ref=ab_2JFY8rL3maE2JFY8rL3maE

We’re all human. We’re all fragile. We’re all beautiful.

The first issue of Scratch, to me, felt extremely powerful, philosophical, and politically imbued in more ways than one...but what would you say, if you had to...in this world of uncertain times...are the topics closest to your heart? What is the most important thing you want to say to the world?

The ways in which we experience our lives is very important to me, and trying to understand these nuances. If we could all understand each other it wouldn’t feel so special when you deeply connect with someone. Creating space for connection is very dear to my heart.

Jasna Guy, a very dear family friend and artist, once told me that I could evoke emotion with my work and make a positive change. I suppose I’d like to say to the world that everything is going to be okay, but that might not be true. I think we’ve all felt lonely and not good enough and different and wrong, and making space for the outcast, as backwards as that sounds, I think, is very important.

I love that you asked artists in Issue 1 of Scratch what they are most afraid of, and who their heroes are. Usually I’m dying to know, but too awkward to ask. What are you most afraid of? Who are your heroes? Why did you feel the inclination to ask those specific questions?

I’m afraid of a lot of things. Of failure, of my parents dying, of disappointing the people I love. My friends and family are my heroes. They’re the ones that love and care for me and they’re the ones who inspire me to be a better person. If I could have dinner with one person though, it would be Frida Kahlo. I asked those questions because I think it’s inspiring when someone is vulnerable, and honesty is so important when coming from a place of celebrity. I’m so grateful Framacho was so brutally honest. We’re all human. We’re all fragile. We’re all beautiful.

Instead of making “New Years Resolutions” I usually just make goals for myself when I feel the need to grow (aka all the time)….What are your personal goals for 2018? How do you hope to grow this year?

I want to get better at doing things I’m not good at. I tried really hard to succeed at something recently and when I didn’t it almost broke me, so I really want to work on being friendlier to myself and giving myself the room to try my hardest and still fail. I’m feeling the chip on my shoulder slowly flake off but it’s very hard for me I think, as a woman, to feel weak. I often forget I am soft.

I’m currently collecting submissions for the second edition of Scratch, if you’re so inclined please get in touch. The deadline is December 1st, 2018. I’m looking to build and tailor projects with the artists involved to create new work, I’m accepting old work, your grocery list from last week, a nice leaf you found. Anything. This issue of Scratch is largely about those ephemeral moments, the stories we have, the jewelry passed down from our grandparents. Other topics I’ll be focusing on are safe spaces, monetizing activism, and how the internet is shaping the way we work.

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