Oracle Ink on Paper Skin: Interview with Shantel Liao

Oracle Ink on Paper Skin: Interview with Shantel Liao

In this interview with photographer, painter, and tattoo artist Shantel Liao, she talks about the power of text & the calligraphic process.

Nestled in a quiet corner of Berlin, near the Landwehr Canal, is the private studio of Shantel Liao. Brimming with sunlight, books, and art supplies, Shantel is a multimedia artist whose work consistently bridges the gap between the ephemeral and the eternal. A believer in the dynamic efficacy of the written language, her calligraphy tattoos are much more than graceful lace-like poetry; they are symbols of inspiration, motivation, and the hidden worlds within us. Her process is poignant; the care and thought given to each subject is of a quiet and contemplative singularity.

Kind enough to sit with me for a chat, Shantel Liao spoke about her creative motivations, the intellectualism behind classic calligraphy, as well as her hopes for future plans.

Can you talk about why you decided to have a private studio, rather than work at a traditional shop?

Yes. So, basically, this is where I live, where I work. I was thinking I should work in a professional studio, or a proper place, but for the past ten years I’ve been always moving. Since I’m always renewing my Artist’s Visa or Working Visa, I don’t know where I will be in one or two years. And if I do work in a proper place it will be much less flexible. And I enjoy working in Berlin for awhile, sometimes in Taipei, or other cities, and I enjoy that. 

I’m actually relocating to Asia at the end of the year. I want to open a more proper private studio in Taipei. It will be bigger than this space, because places are a bit cheaper there than here. I’d like it to be larger so that I can do photography, painting, bigger projects. Like more of an art studio. I even want to have a room where I can host friends, like traveling artists, and they can work there, or we can have a public exhibition or salon. I want to do that for, maybe, one or two years and then I’ll see if I want to come back to Europe or North America or something like that.

How do you decide which city to settle in? Like, why Berlin?

Well, I went to school in London for art school; I studied theatre. Then I started doing photography, so I never worked in theatre, but I liked the way how when I was studying theatre, backstage I was making things. I like the way how I put all these things together, like stage design and everything. I went back to Asia to work as a photographer, then I went to Japan, then to New York for a bit, then I decided to come back to Europe for a Masters. I went to Paris for a Photography Masters, then I came to Berlin for a short visit. One day I realized I didn’t have anywhere to go for Christmas, so I decided to go to Berlin just by myself. So, I came to Berlin, I went to some parties, I met some people, and I thought, yeah, I like this better than Paris actually. It fits me better. The industrial part of the city and the attitude of people on street reminded me home… It’s not fancy, but it’s real. So, after my studies, I moved to Berlin. 

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How did the calligraphy project begin? 

Of course, in the beginning, I was struggling a bit. I was doing photos, then I started picking up calligraphy again, because I’ve always liked Chinese characters. If I hadn’t come to Europe to study, I would have probably studied Chinese back home since I like history stuff. So, I was doing calligraphy a bit, and by then I had a friend staying with me. I thought...why don’t I just try this on your skin? It’s going to be cool! But at that point I was just doing it for photos. I was doing it more and more...The models were mostly dancers, and they have such beautiful bodies. The awareness they have for their own bodies makes them beautiful. I enjoy doing the paintings, and looking at beautiful moments that people create...

…I was happy with it, until the day a friend told me, “Hey, next time you’re in town, I’d like to get a tattoo from your writing so maybe you can write something down for me?” And I was like...that sounds right. But…what if I can do it myself? I guess everyone who does art is a little bit of a control freak. Sometimes it’s good, in this case. So, that’s how it started. And then I started doing the research like, is it possible for me to learn tattooing other than spending five years in a studio learning? Since I probably wouldn’t be able to afford it by any means. It would also make it very difficult with my Visa situation. Eventually, I found a place where I could directly learn it and I went to Bangkok. 

Were you learning it from a tattooist?

Yeah, I was learning it from a studio in Bangkok. They were doing traditional tattoos.

Like Sak Yant?

Yeah, but they were teaching both hand poke and machine. But from the beginning I knew, all I wanted to do was calligraphy. This is all I wanted to do. I don’t want to do anything else, because I know what I could be good at and, concentrating on one thing is probably the only way to achieve something when you’re already starting late. So, I talked to a few friends who were tattooing, and they said you should go with a machine, since, for what I want to do, machine would work best. So, that’s how I started. I went there a few times and did workshops. Eventually I started giving tattoos to friends, and they brought their friends…

Why do you think you’re so drawn to the graceful cursive of calligraphy, and what about it do you think works well as a tattoo?

I’m a language nerd...so, for example, in the beginning you have some of the oldest lines in history, like Oracle Bone Script. It’s basically a simple symbol for something and, over time, it changed into an easier form of writing. It evolves so that you can tell all the symbols apart, and it’s easier to write. There are more than 30,000 Chinese characters...but you only need 3,000 to survive. Some of these characters went over to Japan, those are part of one of their three writing systems. I speak Japanese so sometimes I also write in Japanese. I like combining them too. 

I feel like the words, because they are based on ancient symbols or philosophies, are like telling stories. Visual stories. And, for me, a tattoo is people having different thoughts, or they are memorizing something, or they have an expectation for the future...that’s why they put it into an image they can wear. For me, those are the visual stories...and it’s a little bit like...when I was a kid, I enjoyed reading. I enjoy reading probably more than watching films. Because if you read in a book, “I just met the most beautiful girl.” then, of course, everyone will have their own idea of what that beautiful girl looks like...but if you have an actress playing the most beautiful girl, well, maybe you wouldn’t agree! So..for me...text has the same function. It’s a filter directly to the idea, but then everyone has their own perspective of what it could mean. 

I also feel, after ten years of living outside of Asia, this is also my own way of connecting to my roots, and where I’ve been, and all the languages I’ve tried to learn or speak. Of course, I also give tattoos to people who don’t speak Chinese.

I was actually going to ask about that...of course, a lot of people try not to appropriate culture, so as an Asian artist, how do you feel about people, say,  getting a Japanese tattoo? Are people getting calligraphy from you who are not Asian?

Well, for a traditional Japanese tattoo...of course, everyone can appreciate the artistic style so, for me...I feel that it’s just one of the many styles you can choose. It’s interesting to me that people will ask “Why are you getting a Japanese tattoo if you’re not Japanese?” but no one asks an Asian hipster, “Why are you getting medieval or Traditional tattoos?” I feel like it’s the same...it’s visual. If they appreciate it, or think it’s beautiful, I think it’s okay. It may be a superficial story behind the tattoo, but everyone has their own explanation. If you can connect it to your own culture, I have no problem at all. 

With text...it’s a little bit more complicated. In general, I’m against people having a random language they don’t speak on them. For me, if you don’t know what it says, it’s kind of a joke. For me, text is more powerful because it’s direct. It’s more powerful than visual, because everyone can see the visual. But...then text...it’s kind of a code. And if you’re wearing a code, and you don’t even know what it is, it’s kind of tricky. I am not sure how other people deal with it, if a customer approaches you with something they just printed out with Google Translation...maybe someone else would just tattoo it because it’s the customers responsibility to choose what they want. But I like to see it as a project that we do together, like a language or culture exchange. So, I would explain the history, how language developed, because this is how I function, this is how I do all of my fundamental thinking. 

What is the process like in getting a tattoo from you?

Usually what I do when the person I’m working with doesn’t speak Chinese, or they don’t pay attention to the language they’re using, I ask them what do you want to wear on your skin? What do you care about? What are you seeing? I get some ideas from them. It could be rough key words...like one friend who wanted something with nature, something with water or wings, and they wanted it peaceful, not aggressive. Or some people, like another friend, have a more particular idea...they wanted a reminder that they have choices in their life. So, then, I’ll do research. I do a lot of my research based on Chinese philosophy, literature, or Buddhist classics. I’m not religious, but I find the text and imagery quite beautiful. I’ll try and find a proper English translation from academic people, but if not, I will try to explain myself. I try my best...and then I usually will provide three to five options. Then I’ll write it in calligraphy, because even if they can’t read it, they have to see if they like the shapes. Then I’ll pronounce it to them, and explain to them the individual characters, what it means in general, and where it comes from...what the whole story is. And then, they’ll pick one that sounds right to them. 

Then, since I do freehand, I paint directly on their skin with a calligraphy brush and normal ink. Then I remark with a stencil, and then I tattoo it. So, I always tell people to take their time...no rush. Some people are okay with the first design, some people it will take them two hours to decide. But I tell them to take their time, because you’re going to wear it for quite a long while! It’s a beautiful process where we are talking to each other and we’re making a connection if we both agree, then that’s the moment. We’re choosing that moment. 

I used to do Japanese tea ceremony and I had a teacher tell me, every time when you’re presenting the tea to your guest, when you’re making the tea, you should always present it, feel it, touch it, as if this is the only time. You’re always saying goodbye. You’re saying goodbye to this moment..because even if you have the same guest, the same tea, next time, the tea leaves will be different. Days are different. Weather is different. Moods are different. Everything is different. So, you’re always saying goodbye. I was really touched by that, so I’m trying to recreate that with tattoos. I think there’s more intimacy than tea, obviously, and, of course, over time the tattoo will change, as any other tattoo. But even the meaning may change, if you’re in a different life stage.

...you’re driving yourself as a boat, in life as an ocean.

Walking boat is a good example...Recently I had someone tell me she wanted a reminder that she is always in control, like in my own life, I’m always finding my own direction. So...I struggled a bit at first. Because, obviously, the direction you’re looking for is always changing...depending on how old you are, what your priority is in the moment. After some research, I gave up on looking through classic literature, and I found this visual: that you’re driving yourself as a boat, in life as an ocean. And you can turn the direction when you need it...so I suggested to her two characters: “walking”, or “to travel”, or in a very old classic term “to boat”, basically just moving some stuff...and the second one is “boat”...I think it’s interesting because it will go on the leg, and you’re turning yourself into the boat. Every time you take a step, you’re literally moving it, so you’re turning a boat in an abstract way, but physically as well. So, I try to do this for each person. I will show the choices, and then make an audio clip as well. 

So, I tend to see this as an exchange between me and the person who is getting the tattoo. So, I can only do one tattoo a day...I try not to make my schedule too full because I also have other things that take a lot of time. Painting, calligraphy, clothes, photography. I also do a lot of reading because I think it’s important. With calligraphy, it’s just an output and it’s more about the foundation, knowledge and everything. So, instead of putting all the time in the skill, of course skills are important, but it’s also intellectual. So, I need time to do the research for my customers so they can have a good story.

I was actually going to ask about that...I could tell that you take your time with your tattoos, I could just feel that from your work. I assumed you may only do one a day...but what else do you do creatively or for work?

I do photos, so occasionally I can earn from fine art prints, as any other fine art photographer; it can be difficult and it’s impossible to survive on that. Of course, you can show in a gallery, or photo festival...those things are good things for you as an artist, but you can’t eat from it. So I do some commercial work, but I am doing less and less. That’s the thing I do besides tattooing for work, but I’m trying to find a balance between photos. But my focus is still calligraphy, so that sort of feeds into the tattoo work. Tattoos are permanent, the photos are more temporary, but they are basically part of the same. 

Who are the artists that you like?

Shoko Kanazawa, who was born with down syndrome. Her mother is a calligrapher, so her mother was teaching it to her…and she appeared to be a genius. She peels off all the complicated elements that we give to things, or people, or human relationships. To me, it’s beautiful because she’s seeing things to the core, and her calligraphy, it’s very touching. 

I wasn’t ever trained classically, so maybe people who are classically trained think what I’m doing is bullshit...because I don’t follow specific styles or forms from a great master of the past. For me, the more I read...the more research I do...I feel less and less confident. I feel like I don’t know anything. It could require more than ten years to learn...and now, it’s probably too late to train calligraphy with a master. Instead, I do more and more readings. I want to know more. So, I’m trying to connect my work more with who I am, and what I have experienced. Everything I’ve learned and thought about ever since I left Asia. It’s kind of sad for me, for what I’ve missed…but I believe there is something only I can deliver. This is how I connect with it.   

What advice do you have for other artists?

I think you just have to be honest about who you are and what you care about. You can’t pretend you’re something else, or that you’re interested in something that you’re not interested in. Even if everyone else likes it...because even if they like it...you’ll never do it as well as the others who are actually into it. Just be honest. 

...Berlin is an island within the country.

Can you maybe talk a bit about the art community here in Berlin?

Well, this neighborhood, Kreuzberg, is very artistic and politically sensitive, definitely. And I’m sure you will be interviewing some German artists during your time here who could tell you more about the history. But, for me, Berlin is not really like Germany...Berlin is an island within the country. Because there are so many expats living here, it’s really easy to connect with people, and people are really chill and open to things. Even though I’m not really a party person, I might go to five parties in one year, I don’t drink, smoke, take anything...I don’t even have tattoos myself! I keep myself basic…to host everything colorful around me. 

You’re a blank canvas! That way you can change it all the time. 

That’s a good way of putting it! So, the way I see it...everyone is doing a project in Berlin. No matter who you meet, everyone is doing a project. A lot of the time...they aren’t doing anything, maybe a little something. But I like that people are chill with it, so it’s a place where things could happen. Of course, in a way, I’m talking about art...not that much about tattoo community since I only know a limited amount of people from that community...but Berlin, I feel that it’s more an extension of art school, in a positive way. You meet people, and you talk about things you like, and things you can do..and you can make that exchange. Exchange of ideas about art, politics or anything. It’s the best place where young artists can develop their work. I feel like Berlin is full of possibilities.

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