Articulating Transformation: Interview with Tattoo Artist Sabrina Drescher

Articulating Transformation: Interview with Tattoo Artist Sabrina Drescher

In this interview with tattoo artist Sabrina Drescher, she talks about the power of tattooing to provide intense transformation and expression.

Knowing intrinsically how important the role of transformation is within the art of tattooing, Sabrina Drescher brings her personal experiences to her work with compassionate attention. Speaking and creating with deliberate intention, her creations speak on the difficult body issues many of us are born with, as well as anxieties that are amassed during our lifetime. Whether physical or deeply emotional, Sabrina points out that these are very often connected, and that body modification can be a way for many people to embrace adversity and evolve beyond it.

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How did you get into tattooing and why was it something you were drawn to?

I got into tattooing the same way I feel that so many people do. Wanting ink, being broke, being curious. I think curiosity was a big reason. I have also always been interested in body art- constantly drawing on myself (that kid in elementary school that everyone told was going to get ink poisoning, that was me).

I got my first tattoo as soon as I turned 18. It was this “symbol of recovery” for the National Eating Disorder Association surrounded by cabbage looking leaves that I drew all the time back then. I got it after a year of being “recovered” (as far as I thought) from an eating disorder. I think I got it with the thought that if I permanently put it there on my skin, it would hold me accountable to not relapse, boy was I wrong. It’s now a reminder to continue to work towards recovery.

Another funny story of the beginning of tattooing for me: I was sitting in a high school class, and this girl I knew liked my drawings, and wanted me to design a tattoo for her. I drew a rough outline of it, kind of like a first draft, and showed it to her as a brainstorm with every intention of doing it again and cleaning it up, changing things etc. A few hours later I was shopping and she sent me a photo. She had just gotten the drawing tattooed on her entire rib cage. The tattoo artist was so good that he perfectly copied every single flaw in that drawing. This was my first experience of permanently marking someone’s body, and honestly what a rush hahah.

I was in an art class when I was 18, and our professor made us cover this huge sheet of mixed media paper with different stippled hyper realistic objects. I was obsessed with that, the slow and tedious way of bringing shapes to life. Later I thought “I wonder if I can do this on skin.” I was very lucky to be ignorant and naive, and to also be in school. I didn’t know anything about tattoo styling and technical “rules” and I was the only person I knew near me who liked stick and poke tattoos as an art form, rather than just a fun rebellious thing. It wasn’t long before I got very into translating my sketchbook drawings into tattoos. I had a community of students who trusted me to learn and experiment on. I learned so much on my own through trial and error. I later moved to London for a few months, where I was incredibly lucky to have met other tattooers who taught, supported, trusted, encouraged and pushed me to create better work.

I think an element that really got me fascinated was the volume at which tattooing speaks through the body. I had always felt that my physical appearance overshadowed other elements of my identity, and tattooing allowed me to better dictate the focus of people looking at me, and unite the physical things that I couldn’t control with this more “me” bit. I don’t know, something about treating your body like a home and decorating the walls.

Can you talk about your style and how it’s evolved over the years? Who or what are your inspirations? Who are the little creatures that you illustrate? 

At the core, I consider myself a painter and illustrator. The figures evolved slowly, I am obsessed with the body. In every way. I am also deeply influenced by my relationship with my body, which has been a site of personal contestation. I have a genetic connective tissue disorder called Marfan Syndrome. It affects most of my body in subtle ways. I have an aortic aneurysm, and my ligaments and tendons basically have no elasticity. Kind of like a super old and torn/thin rubber band. I am 6’4 as a woman and have been since I was about 13 years old. I dislocated my knee first at 10, and It has become a normal thing, especially in recent years. I also have hyper-mobility and am very bendy and double-jointed, but that also comes with pain and fragility. My body has always been different, has never felt very feminine or masculine. I have always been told by doctors examining me, exactly how “abnormal” my body is as a form of measurement. So those wiggly figures, I believe are pretty influenced by that mode of hyper-mobility and dislocation. I also have severe body dysmorphia, so these kind of oddly shaped, constantly moving and kind of weird blobs have sort of organically arrived out of the way I perceive myself in this fluid and sculptural manner.

My style has always been pretty literal/illustrative, and it used to be quite dark, explicit and grotesque. Bur as my mental health has evolved, the way I work has too. The process of making has become integral to my survival, and I've been working on allowing things to be flawed, spontaneous, and improvisational. Trusting those instincts and letting go a bit. I am a perfectionist that I will often overwork things, or overthink, pushing things too far. Allowing things to be flawed, messy, and seem unfinished has become something i’ve learned to emphasize. The movement, and evolution of the process has become more important. My work will probably always be centered around the body, whether it is as a canvas, or on a canvas. I’m also drawn to fantasies, and all things magical. I have a 5-year-old sister, and the idea of child's play and make-believe is something that I am trying to preserve within myself. I used to try and verbalize what I wanted to make visually, then try to translate words and ideas to a visual, but when began art therapy, I started reversing that process, working in automatic movements and gestures, then translating the image into thoughts. It’s less stressful to me work that way, and I find that I am less precious.

For tattooing, I work in circles on the skin, like constantly rotating around the composition in very light layers. There was once a tattoo that I did when I was starting out, where the stencil completely came off before I had the design down, so I panicked and had to just eyeball the whole thing. Because of that, I went super lightly, dot here, dot there all across the design, i needed to keep the entire holistic image in my head with each dot, because if I lost it, the tattoo was going to look like a grey blob. I was so happy with the final pièce and how it evolved. To this day its one of my favorites, so out of panic and disaster my method became way more organic and holistic. Honestly, the tattoos when I start and have no idea what the fuck I’m doing, are the ones that I grow from and product the work that I am most proud of.

Why do you prefer hand poke to machine? Do you feel it has a more intimate ethos, and is this part of your tattoo mission or philosophy?

With hand poke I feel like I have a lot more control, and it’s gentle. I feel like I’m a decently gentle person in general, so it sticks. Its forgiving, its patient, quiet, and allows for a slower evolution of the work, which I like. The time it takes is a different kind of satisfaction compared to machine. There are also going to be these inevitably very “human” flaws, showing that “handmade” quality. They always heal a little differently, maybe have some fuzzes or bumps, but you can really see each mark that’s made, dot by dot, and you know that the person wearing it also sat through that. It’s so intimate, and I love it. It’s so easy for me to fall into a world that’s just making art alone. drawing on paper, and practicing art in general tends to be quite lonely.

Tattoos are transformation incarnate. How does transformation inform your tattoo work or the tattoos you get yourself?

I love to get tattoos during transformative times in my life, which I feel like is why I have gotten so many more recently. I am also working on my thesis around tattoos, transformation and body agency. There is something profound about your skin at one point being blank and then all of a sudden there’s an articulate and bold line or dot or whatever that will be there forever. There’s a distinct physical transformation that can serve as a specific symbol of much greater or longer transformation. Bodies as homes. People whose body ownership has been denied or taken away and/or erased. People who have dealt with physical trauma, and bear the scars. People whose bodies have changed. People whose bodies do not fit into our structured categories, and therefore are denied ownership and validation. There are then ways that people have come to own their bodies, reclaim bodies, steal bodies and share bodies. All of the previous questions contribute to this, and there are ways that the visual image can establish this ownership. How does body art contribute to this conversation, how does body art establish ownership?

For me, tattoos that I have help to keep me grounded in my body because with body dysmorphia, it’s hard to always recognize my body. Imagery and tattoos are very tangibly and visually mine, and they remind me of the sensations I felt when I got the tattoos. My body genetically doesn’t fit a norm, as I’m 6’4 with a genetic disorder called Marfan Syndrome, I have scarring from injuries, chronic pain, and stretch marks, all related to Marfan’s. My bone structure and connective tissue is all identified medically as “abnormal and mutated” and that’s not something I can control (and believe me I have tried), but I can at least make my body deviate from the norm in a way that is in my own consent and agency. I can be different on my own terms, and not the terms that doctors give. I also get the chance to very visually and loudly express my style, identity, and personality, that for so long felt overshadowed by my physical appearance. I feel much more whole with body art and modifications.

What do you think is an artist's responsibility? Is the body political? Do you think your art is political?

The body will always be political, and the responsibility of an artist is something that I grapple with often. What happens to the tattoos after a client leaves? What happens to the photos that I take? And do I own them? Do I own the tattoos, and therefore the person? There were points in tattoo history when the artist couldn’t photograph their work, and it then leaves to go on existing as a part of another human, that’s absolutely bonkers to me. 
I don’t see my art as political on a direct or explicit basis. It’s definitely much more personally driven. Rather than be political with my work, I can try my best to contribute expanded or alternative point of view. By creating things that are uncomfortable or unusual, I hope that imagery can raise questions about how we view mental and physical health, body norms, mutation, and ability.

How do you feel about the current landscape of tattoo culture? How can we do better to be inclusive and diverse? What do you hope the future of tattooing looks like?

 I am very curious to see just the sheer density of artists that begin tattooing in the next few years, as it is this DIY skill that anyone can technically learn and promote, and with social media, artists don’t need an institutional stamp of approval. Before social media, the work to get approved and legitimized as an artist was a big deterrent to people seeking careers as tattooers. Now it’s become a way that artists can support themselves financially. Because of job scarcity and anxieties around becoming the “starving artist” that your parents warned you about when you dared utter the possibility of pursuing a career in the arts, we’ve all learned to commodify ourselves to some degree, out of necessity. The artists who have moved to tattooing have been people from all different creative and technical backgrounds, and overall the quality is super diverse and I see so many absolute genius artists who are doing work on skin that is truly insane and beautiful and innovative. People who want to get tattoos have so, so many choices

I think there will also always be the need for shitty self-done tattoos and continuation of that fabulous anti-elitist, counter-culture tattooing. Tattooing as a form of deviance and protest is important and integral to the history of tattooing. Its use for labeling, identification, power, and ownership is something that can be used as well as it can be abused.
Another thing I think a lot about is quality control, trust, and legitimacy on social media. People place a tremendous amount of trust in me based off of a single image. I feel like I don’t have a stamp of approval beyond these weird digital measurements and how the client leaves after a session. There was never an exam or apprenticeship that I powered through and have the ability to say that I “passed” and that I’m now a “real” tattoo artist. All I have is this collection of iPhone images that I've stared at and picked apart endlessly, and the occasional person that I run into who has my work.

You’re also a multimedia artist who works with paint, photography, and more. Why do you think multiple art practices are important for you? How do you choose which medium is best for each expression? Do they cross-pollinate? 

Ah! My favorite thing to do is mix mediums! I feel like painting and photography, tattooing, and illustration are all constantly feeding off of each other. I think of it as being a lot like fitness cross training, working each muscle differently keeps my work from becoming too homogeneous. It allows me to break away, tackling ideas, and techniques from new angles. I study a lot about documentation and film production, and have been involved with a lot of collaborative film projects. I have worked in photography, freelance illustration, graphic design, and post production and love how many different ways there are to tell a story, or share an idea. I have been getting really into materials and tangibility lately as well, as I've really begun to embrace the “craft” of things like tattooing and sculpture. The use of tools and gadgets and just getting super immersed in the process is something I hadn’t focused on before, and has added more meaning to what I use, and how I use it. For more thought out projects, I like to think about the importance of the medium, for example, I created a work that was a self portrait that I then recorded via stop-motion, the process of it being covered up with a layer of plain paint. I then projected that video over the freshly covered canvas. I love how adding new mediums or juxtaposing processes can enhance the meaning of work, even if it is quite subtle.

As a working artist, the pressure can be immense to not only have a social media presence but to constantly produce work while also balancing business needs. How do you self care and do you have any advice for younger artists struggling to do the same? 

It’s wild because I am still in school finishing my undergrad degree in fine art and media studies. I started tattooing while I was in school, so I have always been splitting my time. I have had a horrible work ethic most of my life, and have adhd + anxiety, but cannot take medication due to my heart condition. Tattooing has actually helped me improve my time management and scheduling since there are clients holding me accountable, who need times and places to show up. The practice of tattooing, for me at least, is very physically and emotionally draining. I often get hyper focused and will tattoo for hours straight, forgetting to stay hydrated, take breaks, and stretch. I’m thankful here for the clients that ask for breaks and bring the humanness back to the moment. I’m very tall with bad circulation, tendonitis, and a connective tissue disorder (that I like to pretend isn’t there so often) so sitting for long periods hunched over in chairs and on tables that are too short has really fucked my back and neck up. What I try to do now is regularly go to yoga and meditation for the emotional and physical recovery. Now that I’m done traveling as well, I can have physical therapy appointments lined up and use a regular schedule. The chiropractor has absolutely saved my life. Getting forms of therapy, though, has always been something that was hard to access, and demands a lot of labor as well, but the labor of self care can be a form of empowerment and resistance.

In terms of self-management and the pressure of social media to always be present and responsive, I have learned that toll it takes the hard way. Designating time where I cant be on my phone, posting or responding to messages has helped a ton. I like taking fitness classes that require undivided attention for a while, and with being in school, I also need to make sure that I am studying, reading, doing homework and meeting deadlines. I know that the more structured my times is the less stressed and anxious I am. With the 24/7 work mentality of social media, we like to forget that there was a time before when the workweek ended at 5 pm, and when you left an office, you didn’t have to respond to emails, you slept, and did things that were for you. There was a designated moment of separation between work and leisure. That line is completely erased now, especially for people that have turned their fun passions into their “work.” I am learning the benefits of self-care and proper mental and physical rest. I have learned through mistakes that the more I deprive myself of comfort and health, the worse the quality of work I produce is.

Any time that I don’t listen to my body, or ignore it’s limits, it’s not only my body and mind that take the toll, but also the work that I’m doing. Everything that goes wrong is often due to fatigue and overworking. Caring for the self is something I have begun to also embrace fully, as it is an act of self preservation for many. And if you do not have access to a support system, that self care is even more important.

Do you have any goals, travel plans, projects, hopes, dreams, collabs, and stuff that you’d like to share for 2020?

I’ll be graduating from college in May! Until then, I am working on a thesis about tattooing and it’s relationship to power and body agency. Both how it can be used and abused. The way tattooing has helped me transform my own presence in my body is something I am deeply fascinated by and want to explore in the work that I make. So, I am working on a project that is inspired by that. I am also hoping to travel some more and return to London to tattoo for a bit. After graduating, my “real” life is supposed to start, and I’m super unsure of what that looks like but I would love to find some sort of stability in 2020, haha!

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