Seamlessly blending inspirations from religious iconography with 90's tattoo mainstays, Sarah Schor creates tattoos that touch on the surreal and the sublime. Bent swords stabbing the cloaked saints of old, pearlescent tears and drops of blood, crowns of thorns and crystals upon the heads of old school lady heads...all of it in fine tones of beautiful black and grey. In this interview, Sarah articulately speaks about the philosophies behind the visuals.
You started to be interested in tattooing in 2006, but what were you doing beforehand, and why did you decide to make the switch? How has your background supported who/what you do now?
I was working as an artist after graduating from art college in Edinburgh where I did fine art. A tattoo shop opened up right across the road from me. I became more and more curious about it and decided to go in one day to speak about collaborative work with the guys there. Long story short, I eventually became the apprentice! It was an unexpected turn but one I never looked back from. I definitely didn't approach it from an informed place but was lucky enough to be schooled by the guys at the shop.
I suppose this fine art background feeds into my work now as I do reference a lot of traditional painting but I take influence from my childhood too. My parents were both scientists so I've always derived a lot of influence from scientific imagery too. I love the big ol subject of 'human mortality'. My work always seems to come back around to it haha.
A lot of your portraits of women make me feel very empowered. How do you build these portraits to make them seem like such real personalities? How do you balance making the client happy, and creating something you’re proud of?
Well that's really awesome to know! I like that! I guess I've put in the work regarding the technical side of how to construct a face. Which means this aspect becomes almost second nature which allows the expression and character to be what I concentrate on. Like Jme said, got to put in that work, haha. I also just love faces...emotion, expression. I think I study people a lot without realizing it. Human emotion is so interesting to me. I'd probably be a psychologist if I wasn't a tattooer haha. I don't think that balance is a conscious process. I just try to keep inspired but don't lose sight of the customer's request. After so many years doing this you start judging what customers are going to be more open to suggestion etc. My goal is to make sure the customer leaves happy.
You’re an incredibly talented artist in many mediums, so it’s no surprise that your apprenticeship was not the usual 4 year long experience. What advice do you have for others who are trying to get into this industry that can often be competitive and exclusive?
Why thank you. Yeah my apprenticeship was around 9 months but I did tattoo a shit load in that time, worked till 6 at the shop at the desk then would tattoo every night, for free obviously.
Ha, things have changed so much since I started that I feel my advice might be out of date. My natural advice would be to put in the work, go to a shop IN PERSON and don't lazily send out DMs on insta. Go and get tattooed, become a familiar face at the shop. Ask if you can show them your drawings (which you should be constantly working on, and not necessarily tattoo designs) and ask advice on what you should do to improve these drawings. Even offer to do some unpaid work at the shop such as cleaning or running errands. That's where I would start.
However the reality now is that less and less experienced tattooers are opening up their own shops/private studios and instagram has leveled the playing field in good but also bad ways. The public are being drawn to the 'online persona' over the substance of the sometimes questionable work out there.
I would advise not to be seduced by 'insta-fame' and concentrate on substance. I feel there is more longevity and integrity in this approach.
There are times when I’m more, or less, positive about issues such as gender equality, and you’ve spoken before about what it’s like being a woman in a, generally, male dominated industry. How have your views evolved over time? Do you think of yourself as a catalyst for change?
Yeah it's an interesting subject. And I think my views have definitely changed since I started. After all it's all about personal perspective and experience.
My overall view is still a positive one though. I started off in Edinburgh at an all male shop and didn't encounter any negative attitudes towards me being a woman. When I worked in the US I definitely noticed the "bro" culture more than in Europe/UK but I wouldn't go so far as to say I was ever discriminated.
I will say this though: just because this is my own experience does NOT mean that women out there, especially older generations but even younger, haven't experienced their fair share of bullshit and unacceptable behavior at the hands of men in the industry.
I don't particularly see myself as a catalyst for any change. I'm just trying to navigate the whole thing in my own changing life situations.
Since I've become a mother I definitely have felt the differences between the sexes and how this effects out careers as women. That's a different subject but an extremely important and often overlooked one.
Many artists have very defined philosophies about the purpose of tattooing, including the rules that go along with the art form. How do you feel about the “rules” of tattooing? Do you have a philosophy about tattooing as well, and if so, what is it?
Aaah the rules. I feel like a bit of a loner in tattooing. I identify with some groups up to a point but never feel completely part of them. However, the benefit to that is the clarity it can afford. I feel I can be a bit more measured and subjective than if I were immersed entirely in one camp.
My personal philosophy....you have to show respect to the trade you're in by gaining knowledge about its past. That's number one. Learn about and study who have come before you. Second: you can't approach tattooing in a 'what can I get out of this' way. Smash and grab. Which is what I think a lot of the old school tattooers hate about the new wave of part timers who do other things.
Thirdly: it's a craft first and foremost. You treat it purely as an extension of your 'artistic vision' and you're falling into the 'smash and grab' territory. I personally don't see any more or less merit between an artistically minded tattooer with +100k followers on instagram and a street shop tattooer who does walk ins from flash all day and doesn't entertain social media. If anything, the later is a purer version of the original tattooer and will probably last longer through the peaks and troughs of popularity in our future.
Social media is changing the landscape of all arts industries, including tattooing. Many galleries don’t even have actual storefronts, just like many artists only have private studios of their own. How do you feel social media has or hasn’t supported/changed your career? What are your thoughts on platforms like Instagram in general?
It's easy to bash social media and I have been guilty of doing so. However I feel like the benefits are still huge; the exposure alone is amazing and we, as tattooers, are able to communicate with each other so well through it. Set up guest spots, collabs etc. It's awesome. I'm just not always the best at self promotion.
I think there are two types of tattooers emerging: those that use social media as a tool and those that live through it. Personally, I try to use it but keep a detached pragmatic approach. I don't want to ever link my 'worth' to it.
Platforms like Instagram are also part of the wider change in social dynamic. We've created a very disposable and fast paced culture where we "swipe left/right" as the next best thing is sure to come along. Images appear on our phones every day in abundance, so naturally the effects that filter down to tattooers are that our careers are more disposable. One minute you're on top, the next you've been inundated by the new wave of the more self-promotion savvy.
I feel substance will outlive style though. When tattooing goes back underground again, which it will....no one is going to give a shit about tattooers who are only famous for their social lives.
Conventions, constant travel, the stress of going through emails and making clients happy...how do you keep yourself healthy and sane within your personal life with such a demanding work life? What do you do when you’re not working?
I try to make an effort to see friends and get out to see art shows, et cetera, but to be honest I don't feel like I can rest easy at the minute. Like any single mother out there I want to feel I can provide a stable future for my child. My personal time is a work in progress haha.
What are your hopes for 2018? Any travel plans, guest spots, collabs or other stuff you’d like to share that we can look forward to?
High hopes. I want to get back on track with my work. Life has a knack of getting complicated but I'm hoping this year is going to be calmer for me. I'm looking forward to concentrating on my own career again and giving it the focus it needs and deserves.
My next guest spot is at Temple in Oakland, which I'm hugely looking forward to, then back to my Kings Ave in NYC where I used to work.
Aside from that I plan to get back into my Thinking of You clothing with some interesting collaborative work alongside some other collab flash hopefully coming up soon! Baby....I'm back.