Questioning Traditional Tattoo Culture: Interview with Rita Salt

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Questioning Traditional Tattoo Culture: Interview with Rita Salt

In this interview with Rita Salt, she talks about the importance of perspective, perseverance, and a supportive tattoo community.

You may or may not have seen her work but I'm sure once you've been introduced to it, you'll immediately have an opinion. Rita Salt is a well known self-taught tattooist who has been very vocal about the exclusivity of tattoo culture and community. Her aesthetic, as well as others who have followed suit, has been touted as illustrative, sketch, scratch, ignorant and more...Though the style may not resonate with everyone, it is clear that the power of her work is based firmly within the authenticity that her tattoos emote. There are aspects of empowerment, personal freedom, and transformative surreal magic that live within Rita Salt's pieces. The people who get these tattoos, and the people who give them, are looking for an alternative to traditional tattoo culture, and they are finding it by actively creating it themselves. 

First, the boring questions that everyone always wants us to ask/know. What is your artistic background? How did you get into tattooing?

I can’t remember a time that I wasn’t drawing or making things. I was an only child with a super mom who was constantly working to make ends meet, and I had a hard time making new friends when I was little. I was always inventing imaginary friends to keep me company, and creating projects for myself to keep my mind occupied. Making drawings, films and objects has been a way for me to prove that I deserve some space on the earth. I think many makers are like this.

Tattooing happened all by accident. A dear friend of mine gave me one of those amazon tattoo kits. I was vaguely interested in tattoo culture, but didn’t feel that I had a place in it. It is unlikely that I would have gotten myself a tattoo machine on my own. I was a freshman at art school, so everyone wanted free tattoos, even if they were bad. I started on myself. I hated tattooing other people because I didn’t know what I was doing. At the time, I didn’t know any self-taught tattooers. I didn’t really consider that it was possible to learn without a proper apprenticeship. I gave many horrible tattoos, I was wracked with guilt, but people would keep asking for them. I refused to do them for a while. I got tattooed by men in shops because I thought it was what I was supposed to do. It wasn’t until a couple years later that I got tattooed by Sally and Francisca Silva around the same time. My perspective on tattoo culture was turned upside-down. I received the encouragement, inspiration and guidance I needed to start tattooing again - only my drawings this time, right out of my sketchbook.

What was your experience like at Pratt Institute? How do you feel about art education? Is the student debt worth it?

I have mixed feelings about my experience at Pratt. The school is a corporate machine like any other, and I feel that the administration would, time and time again, prioritize budget concerns over humanity. Not only is it extraordinarily expensive, there is little to no consistency between the courses. The staff is wildly underpaid. Some professors were fantastic, some would make blatantly racist and sexist comments in the classroom (and face little to no repercussion), some would rarely show up.

On the other hand, I feel that certain peers and faculty that I met at Pratt are now the backbone of my success today. I feel eternally grateful to live in this vibrant city, and to have such a close knit family of creative, intelligent people. I am still paying student loans, though thanks to tattooing, and the massive art market in New York City, I am not drowning in debt like many students are.

Your style is super specific and immediately recognizable as your own. Can you tell us a little bit about what inspires you and how you became to work in the style that you do? What artists, tattooers or not, do you love?

I am most inspired by honesty and humanity. I am more interested in drawings by children than drawings by adults. Children are incredible artists, up until the age when they begin to compare themselves to their peers, and are told by adults that “art” should look a certain way. I would much rather look at art on the street than in the institution of a museum. I am not interested in perfection. I am not interested in perfect tattoos.

The idea of “perfect tattoos” feels like a bit of an oxymoron to me. Modern electric tattooing is maybe a century old, and tattoos are as old as the oldest human remains. American traditional flash is all pulled from imagery created by people in the military, prison, & circuses. The capitalist industry of tattooing is brand new. The growing community of self taught tattooers is honest and it is human. I am proud of this community for dismantling the structures which have kept the medium under-explored and inaccessible (except to straight, cisgender, white men) in the recent past.  There are far too many people to name, but here are a few: Mars Hobrecker (my wonderful studio mate) as well as Framacho, bitchinkworldwide, Auto Christ, Charline Bataille, Manuela Soto, Sanyu, Tato Coco, frogmagik, magictatty, Clay Gibson, Dadstabs, Carson Foley, S.William, Katie Jordan, DS 008, among many others.

As a well-known self-taught tattooers, I would love it if you could speak on what that experience was like...how has being female bodied, and self taught informed your experience?

Being “female-bodied” maybe discouraged me from approaching tattooing in a traditional way (because I didn’t really see any tattooers in shops who looked like me, or made drawings like me). Ultimately, I am very grateful for this. I gained a lot of attention during this current political moment in the US, where being “female-bodied” didn’t really hold me back from growing in popularity on social media. Despite frequent feelings of imposter syndrome and some criticism from the more traditional tattoo world, I had immense support from the self-taught community and my peers. If anything, people are eager to see more women, more women who don’t fill stereotypical gender roles or expectations, and non-gender conforming people in this field. Besides that, our sensitivity allows for what I believe is a much more comfortable space to get tattooed in. I understand what it’s like to have uncomfortable experiences getting tattooed, where tattooers abuse the power dynamic that comes with the job. I don’t want anyone to feel this way in my studio.

Your website “about” section states that you also are a sculptor, director, animator, installation artist, painter, and very part time poet. How do your other mediums interact with each other or support each other? Also, how the heck do you find time to do all that you do, and what keeps you motivated?

I’m a workaholic. I never feel like I can stop working, and I never feel like I have done enough at the end of the day. I make things in a quick and panicked way - I can rarely focus on longer-term projects.

I hope that my visual vocabulary and voice can transcend various media. The themes, ideas and messages tend to stay the same no matter what I’m working on. I want to have loads of conversations through my work. One of the most recurring themes is the way children are so frequently underestimated and talked down to. I am also interested in the way people, animals and the environment are marginalized in similar ways. I try to draw attention to the interconnectedness of social issues.

My work is largely motivated by a fear that nobody will remember that I ever existed, or maybe by a feeling of being undeserving of my success and comfort.

What do you do when you’re not tattooing? What is your favorite place on the planet?

I love to travel and I love to meet new people - I don’t think I’ve found my favorite place on the planet yet, and maybe never will. Nowhere feels like home.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received? What advice do you have for others trying to make the most out of this short, and totally strange, life?

You can only control your own thoughts and actions. Anger and stress is never constructive. Your mind is dangerously powerful - you can convince yourself of anything. Your friend’s success is your success. Healthy relationships, not winning every competition, will give your life purpose and meaning!

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