An artistic eco-warrior, Hellen Zumbi offers humankind her poignant perspective on the natural world. Her pieces have a poetic movement, an inherited energy produced by the high-contrast aesthetic of Hellen's personal style. Aware of the responsibility artists have to their audiences, Hellen shows a reverence for nature that is endowed to each and every creation on skin, paper, or photograph. Whether it be a beetle flitting across the nape of a neck or an orchid gracefully adorning a clavicle, Hellen uses her innate love for Earth to make delicate but empowered designs. Resilience and fragility meeting in a cathartic collaboration between artist and client.
In this interview, Hellen Zumbi talks about the power of Planet Earth, her experience as a black female tattoo artist in an inherently racist system, and the deep connection she has to photography.
How did you get into tattooing and were there any childhood moments that hinted at the artist you would become?
I started tattooing under the influence of two very special friends. I dedicated myself a lot and learned the basics on the internet and studying self-taught drawing. I always loved to draw more, I had no knowledge of drawing techniques.
What artists or art movements inspire your work?
My biggest artistic reference comes from the nature of the plants and flowers that we have in abundance here in Brazil. I've always loved flowers.
I’d love to know more about Casa Aquario and the Brazilian tattoo community. What has your experience been like as an artist? What do you love about tattooing?
When I started tattooing I didn't know any black tattoo artist or black person who tattooed. My inspiration comes from black leaders and black artists who started something that no one had ever done. Being a black woman and tattoo artist is still very complicated. Mainly due to the structural issue we live in, it is very complicated to buy the best materials and it is in a homework space when it is black here in Brazil; structural racism harms us a lot.
Casa Aquario is a truly incredible space, created to make customers feel at home.
You’re also an insanely talented photographer. Can you talk about what drew you to photography? Does it inform any of your tattoo work or is it totally separate?
I love it when I see my happy patients with high self-esteem for having a beautiful tattoo. And being able to put an element of Nature on the skin to make this eternal art through tattooing as a human mark and modification. My relationship with photography comes from tattooing more as something that makes me relax and think better. The two works are contemplated.
I love books of botanical illustrations and medicinal herbs. They inspire me. I have always loved plants, animals, air, land, sea and for me to put these elements in my work is very important. I believe that nature is God. And if you look at it we can live here very well for many generations. We are destroying this sacred treasure for something that will destroy us. We need to teach the next generations to respect and care for Nature.
The Black Lives Matter movement has taken the industry by storm, which is awesome. In your opinion, how can tattoo studios, blogs, platforms, artists, and further, be more mindfully diverse and accepting? What tools/books/resources, etc. do you think work best for self-education? How can people support help beyond just listening and learning?
I thought MOVIMENTO BLACK LIVES MATTER was very important. But I was sad that so many deaths and mistreatments of black people were still so natural across America. I really wanted this awareness to exist no longer out of pain but out of love for life. The support of large platforms for black artists is very important. Because it is very complicated to earn money and appreciate our work in a world as racist as the one we live in. Consumption and social inequality are directly linked to RACISM. Therefore, promoting art and work by black people is essential. Nowadays influencing platforms and social networks play a very important role in educating people. I think it's important to talk about it on social networks.
What advice do you have for young artists who are trying to find their voice and place in the tattoo industry? What is the best advice you ever received?
The advice I would give to a young black man who wants to be a tattoo artist is that he trusts himself, as it is a path of few friends and a lot of competition. I was lucky to have many tattoo artists and LGBT tattoo artists who hugged me and are friends because on the male side always criticism and negative notes. IT IS NECESSARY TO BE STRONG ON THIS WAY!
Almost a year ago I thought about giving up being a tattoo artist, because I received so many criticisms about my work and because I didn't have the money to pay for some platforms and buy expensive materials; I was tired. I talked to my mother and she told me that an eagle never loses or gives up on its path and that was the best advice I received.
Beyond creating art, what are you passionate about?
Besides the tattoo I love to photograph! I love to photograph birds and animals in their habitat that makes me very happy. I also love to watch the stars and the moon and connect with this sacred nature.
Any projects, collaborations, or goals coming up in the future that you’d like to share?
Future projects: I still have the desire to create a support network for black tattoo artists in the future.