Lizard Milk and Harpy Stew: Interview With Tattoo Artist Nomi Chi

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Lizard Milk and Harpy Stew: Interview With Tattoo Artist Nomi Chi

In this interview with Nomi Chi we talk gender politics, queer community, and the multi faceted thing called life.

The serpent tiger swallows the harpy whole, only to have her slice a blade through its belly. Third eye ablaze, she stands above it but with it, nurturing the hybrid's corpse with her soft feathers. There are stars in the ethereal violet sky; lichen and moss creep carefully across the sinew of an extraterrestrial landscape. Bodies meld fluidly like crystal jelly creating anthropomorphic forms, the corporeal embracing duality. Everything is graceful but visceral, beautiful but brutal. 

This is the work of Nomi Chi. Their multi media discipline is continually enchanting; their work evokes fairy tales, ancient stories stitched together with folkloric fibers, alien residues that will forever reside within your imagination. It is playful, but balanced with heavy blackwork lines and a confident, quiet strength. 

From what I gather you were apprenticing/tattooing while also going to Emily Carr University of Art & Design for your BFA, which sounds daunting and exhausting to say the least. How did you get into tattooing and why were you drawn to the art form?

By the time I started art school I was actually a few years into my tattoo practice! Juggling a tattoo career while also being a student definitely took a few years off my life, but on good days I’d say I have no regrets.

My apprenticeship began shortly after I turned 15. Tattoos weren’t a corporeal presence in my life at the time, but as a child of self-described hippie/anarchist counter-culture enthusiast parents, I was drawn to the idea of transgressive art practices. My understanding of tattooing was formed from sparse sources and spoke to a seductive mix of subversion, illustration, and science. My mom introduced me to my tattoo mentor, who at the time was working out of his apartment in my neighborhood. This should have been a red flag, but I was an over-eager baby! During the apprenticeship - and I use that term lightly - I was tasked with setting up my mentor’s tattoo space, taught about blood-borne pathogens and how to maintain a sterile field, as well as some very basic fundamental techniques, many of which are no longer applicable to my practice. Otherwise, he gave very little direction or instruction, I was mostly left to my own devices, and he would eventually become my boyfriend. A drawn-out, emotionally abusive relationship would follow. My learning was fraught: strangely enough, tattoo clients are hard to come by when you’re like 16 years old and working out of a scary man’s apartment, but I scratched on and did some ‘interesting’ work before before turning 18 and proceeding, with wobbly tattoo-baby legs, to work in a Real Tattoo Shop. My tattoo work didn't stand out until I began to travel and work in different tattoo studios many years later, with varying wonderful folks who taught me how to be a better artist and a whole person. My formative apprentice memories are steeped in ambivalence: few people have the opportunity to start tattooing at such a young age, and as gross as things were, my mentor helped me get my foot in the door of an industry notorious for its ironclad gatekeeping. I’m happy to be where I am now, but the experience is a scar on my psyche and I often wish things had gone differently. The silver lining is that I have an extremely thick skin and coping mechanisms that mesh well with workaholism. 

What are your thoughts on ignorant tattooing and the DIY tattoo scene?

I think it’s so fascinating! It’s like, there's a pattern: a practice, or a moment in art history, reaches a culmination of sorts, before it is headily challenged by an aesthetic/philosophy that aspires to reject traditional cannons in a search for a more authentic experience. The rise and fall of these narratives are the inhale and exhale of visual culture (in the West specifically), it’s been going on forever so it’s always funny to me when these topics are brought up as contemporary issues only. I am mostly interested in DIY tattooing when it is cross-disciplinary, for example if/when it contains elements of performance, takes an an interest in ritual, queerness, bodily autonomy, is used in conjunction with other mediums, and so on. It’s usually anemic and obvious when the work is simply mimicking an aesthetic, not that there’s anything abhorrent about that either. Lots of my now-favourite tattooers are those whose work I once came across and didn’t find at all palatable - but they did the work to challenge what I think are good, necessary tropes in tattooing, and my world is now made richer through the work they do. Also, DIY tattooing seems to make people irrationally angry, which is super funny to me. 

That said, a lot of new tattooers, especially those more likely to enter tattooing through the side door, can often be so eager to start working on skin that the more important health/safety and consent aspect of tattooing is glossed over. Traditional apprenticeships don’t necessarily guarantee safety standards but at least it’s there on the cover letter. I’m so not here for any art practice that brings people into harm - like, blood borne pathogen harm! - without their knowing and explicit, informed consent. 

The connection between animal and human within your work is very thought provoking and often emotionally charged. Where do your ethereal creatures come from...do they stem from an interest in primitivism, earth conscience art or other magical witchery? 

That’s an interesting question as I’m a considerably secular person! Spirituality is an extremely private element of my life and I wouldn’t think that it intersects with my tattoo work. Historically and continually, the notion of primitivism in visual art often entails borrowing from cultures or practices that one has no place borrowing from, so when I do borrow I try to tread extremely carefully and cover my tracks. Additionally, the idea of ritual and manifesting intent through means outside of conventional understanding is fascinating to me, but I don’t consider myself invested enough in its practice to claim its language... I also maintain a stringent of side-eye for practices - like witchcraft - when they are unsurprisingly taken up as an aesthetic or stand-in for purchaseable authenticity by tastemakers in conjunction with capitalist interests.

A handful of formative contexts shaped the way I approach figuration and choose the subjects I draw. Before wanting to pursue the arts, I wanted to be many kinds of scientist and biologist, to study animals and be in environments uninhabited by people, or worlds too small for human senses to perceive organically. Being born overwhelmingly anxious and mostly afraid of other people, the practice of secular knowledge was a way to make sense of my surroundings and introduce some semblance of agency to my personhood. My family also owned bookstores for most of my upbringing, predictably I was keenly into anything involving talking animals, death, sex and inter-species friendships, and being gestated in such a world spurred a lifelong affinity for toying with narrative tropes involving animals as amplifiers for emotional states and metaphors for the human condition. Currently, as someone taking an interest in identity and community, my aim is to turn these motifs in my hand, to reflect and tinker with assumed realities regarding social structures and personal relationships. This is all a fancy way of saying that I’m cripplingly shy and that being a big nerd and drawing animals to make people like me has literally been a lifelong praxis. 

I’m sorry, I’m scared too, and I don’t have the answers, but here I am and you’re not alone.

Do you consider your work as a catalyst for political or philosophical change? 

In some ways, yes, possibly? Although my work comes from a political place, I can’t say if I would want it to be read through a political lens alone. If there is any mobilizing potential behind the work I do, it is there as an unintended artifact, it isn’t why I’m making the stuff I am making. 

Tattooing is a space where political ideas can become present in tangible, visceral means as I/we interact with clients, compose physical and social workspaces, treat ourselves, talk about the work, disseminate the work, think about bodies, help mark and designate in-groups and out-groups, etc. Sometimes, inklings of these thoughts surface in my tattoo drawings, but when using my tattoo practice to empower or direct kindness to marginalized folks, I have more of these material actions in mind. Additionally, I work within a fairly traditional paradigm of tattooing as a craft/trade. There are far more radical models out there, and folks otherwise working with more heavy-handed, overt, important messages. My current mode of working allows space for me to support - financially, and with my labour -  political undertakings parallel to, but often outside of, my actual tattoo projects. In tandem with those thoughts, I’ve been drawing a lot of, like, beasts and monster-femmes and gay stuff as a response to my environment. Maybe I’m subconsciously saying to my other freaks: I’m sorry, I’m scared too, and I don’t have the answers, but here I am and you’re not alone. 

Your work is incredibly inspiring, as is your personal philosophy and how openly you embrace your identity. What has your experience been like as a queer, femme-bodied bi-racial person in the tattoo industry? How do you think people can help cultivate better understanding and support for/within/around the LGBTQIA+ community?

Thank you! It’s been weird and fun. Starting to tattoo as a *very young*, visibly east-Asian girl was a most glorious trifecta of fetishization and trauma. As a response, I made myself extremely quiet and small, becoming as close to invisible as possible. I am also selectively stubborn as shit, and the petty idea of quietly, slowly outliving these people got me through many a rough week. Otherwise, like a lot of anime-dorks of my generation, I retreated online to find my community and suss out a clientele while slowly padding my tender ego. The Great Social Media Boom introduced empowering tools for a lot of us socially stunted folks to grow artistically, find our places in the world, etc. As a personal byproduct, online spaces facilitated my coming to terms with being gay, not a girl, and also not the only bi-racial person in the world.

The caveat to building communities on social media is that it can feel self-tokenizing and cloistered, often. I’ve been contacted by many fellow QTPOC prospective clients, and felt the mark was missed somewhat re: the kind of person I am, the kind of work I do, based on the little #QTTR hashtag on my profile. Of course these folks aren’t at fault for our misunderstandings! The experiences of any two or more QTPOC of similar orientation, racial background, and identity are drastically different, and this isn’t an idea well-supported by social media; the way it channels and categorizes people, interactions, taste. There is a vast nebulousness within similar communities, my hope is that future conversations facilitate these extremely delicate, necessary ambivalences, but I’m not holding my breath.

Putting queerness at the forefront of my online identity isn’t my ideal arrangement, honestly: it’s a personal, private practice, but I’ll begrudgingly admit that visibility has made things somewhat easier for me to find lovely tattooers/tattoo spaces and clients to work with. These days I am mostly unaware of my differences and -isms in my workspaces, which is a delicious luxury. It’s also great to see so many articles regarding queer tattooing come into public view, but a cursory glimpse at the comments sections reminds us that there is still a monolithic amount of work to do, that the gears turn excruciatingly slowly, if at all. I do not have the antidote for this! I wish there was a way for the beautiful voices of my friends to extend beyond their respective echo chambers, I wish publications would allow more nuance in their coverage of queer projects, I wish someone would moderate the comments sections on these things, I wish I wish I wish.

From mural to sculpture to tattoos and prints, your aesthetic is beautifully honed and easily recognizable. What advice do you have for others trying to find their voice or style within their artwork? How do you define success?

I struggle so much with these kinds of questions haha, I think in visual arts especially, everyone’s path is different, what works for me is specific to my needs, boundaries and energy. So, I guess take this with a fistful of salt. 

My advice is mostly contradictory. I think an art practice is primarily honed by just doing the work, that is, actively making without being too cerebral about the process, accessing joy just by turning not-somethings into somethings.  At the same time, it is necessary to step back and do gentle, rigorous interrogation of the work. Otherwise, at least for myself, it’s very easy to meander aimlessly without parsing some kind of pattern to adhere to. It’s really cheesy to say follow your gut, but honestly the most contentious moments I’ve had with my work occurred when I was trying to force a proverbial triangle into a square-shaped socket. It has helped me to think of the work as a separate entity from me - there is my work, autonomous, and there is me, making demands of it. So listen when something is telling you to switch gears. Sometimes the voice will come as a whisper and sometimes you’ll hear it with every cell of your body. I’d also suggest juggling lots of different mediums but I crave fragmentation and need to juggle a million things to stay energized, so.  

I’m happy when I’m excited about my work, when it connects with my community and my peers. I’d like to say that I’m divorced from ego and above assigning myself value based on social media but, well! I’m not! However, as I get older I appreciate reciprocal work/life interactions with those close to me, with whom I have a material rapport, rather than distant heroes separated by social and industry leverage.

What does 2018 look like for you? Any collaborations, travel, or new materials you hope to work with?

Barring any catastrophes I’ll be doing some collaborations with other tattooers in far away places, including my cool pal Noel’le Longhaul! Travel is always up in the air, soooo I’ll avoid any text-based commitments in that area. I’m getting married, having some art shows, gonna pet some dogs I think. Otherwise I’m laying low and percolating. 

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