It’s a warm summer evening in Seoul. Parents line up for food trucks while the kids run around the park, chasing each other and playing tag. Their laughter rings louder than the band. Young couples gather, looking for a place to sit. It is still bright out but the fireworks are about to begin. Before COVID, a summer fair meant music, celebration, and spending time with loved ones.
One could always expect to find Mello at these fairs. While studying art in college, Mello took on a volunteer opportunity to paint children’s faces at an event like this. It was perfect for her. She loved children and her art, which she describes with three simple words—Smile, Happy, and Me—was beloved by children. While her volunteer work has been put to a halt since, Mello continues her work as a tattoo artist. “It’s difficult to say which I love more,” she laughs.
Mello now works in Seongsu, an Eastern district of Seoul, where many artists and businesses have relocated as gentrification renders Hongdae increasingly unaffordable. With old-factories-turned-cafés and small shops where generations of master shoemakers still work on their bespoke shoes, Seongsu represents both the old and new of Seoul—some compare its energy to that of Brooklyn in New York.
“Every day, I wake up in the morning and tell myself, 'I am a happy person.'” she begins. For those who do not know Mello yet, this alone should give a good sense of what her art is like. Her crayon doodles, which are easily mistaken for a child’s drawing, make it clear why she would describe her art with “Smile” and “Happy.” They reflect her optimism.
Although she majored in Asian Art in college, Mello came to focus on crayon doodles professionally because she wanted to create art that was more approachable and reflect her personality better. “I think art allows us to travel back to our youth, when we were so innocently happy,” she says. “Drawing was all I can remember doing growing up because it filled me with joy. I hoped to share that feeling with others.”
Unsurprisingly, for Mello, the most meaningful part of the job is when people use her art to make themselves feel better. In fact, many of her clients reach out to her to cover up the remnants of self-harm. “Covering up scars means so much to me,” she says. “You get to overwrite your bad memories. The tattoo doesn’t get rid of it entirely, of course, but now when you look at it, it allows you to remember that the bad days are over.”
Still, one should think deeply before getting a tattoo, Mello warns. “Getting a tattoo to make yourself feel better or just because it’s pretty, that’s all good. But still, it lasts forever, and you should think about it intentionally,” she says. “I’ve had clients who didn’t even know where they wanted to get their tattoos and wanted me to pick for them. I am very hesitant to work with such clients.”
Such hesitance stems from her belief that tattoo is an art form which is as much created by the artist as the client. As a tattoo ages, it is layered with new memories and never stops growing with the person. “Your tattoo, when you get it, and 10 years later, is the same, but also different,” she says. In fact, Mello believes that is also why people are drawn to doodle tattoos—because we all have those happy childhood memories within us that we hope to cherish forever. “It’s not necessarily a sophisticated art form but still very intuitive. We are all children inside.”
It was clear that “Smile” and “Happy” were important elements in Mello’s art from her stories. She, however, points out that “Me” is just as important. While everyone may have had similar childhood experiences that are associated with common themes, each memory, ultimately, is unique. That is why Mello emphasizes the importance of tailoring each tattoo for the client. “I suppose it is different for each city but in Seoul, and for me, the one-person-one-design rule is customary. Most of my clients consider tattoos as something very intimate and personal.” Mello explains. “That’s why copying someone else’s design hurts not only the artist but also the client,” she adds.
While she initially believed that she would no longer be able to volunteer with children due to the pandemic, Mello admits that she was wrong; the new moms comprise one of her quickest growing clientele bases and often bring their children to the studio. “There was a young mom who brought her little baby who had just learned how to walk,” she notes. “She got a full sleeve from me and was picking out the designs—my studio walls are full of them—with her child. All of her tattoos were related to her baby. Like her favorite toy, flower, name, and stuff like that. They were laughing the whole time,” she says. Despite the pandemic, Mello is now only grateful that she gets to continue working with children in unexpected ways. “This is exactly why I wanted to volunteer at fairs and why I continue my work through tattoos. To share the joy. I really do feel happy every day as an artist,” she smiles.