Prior to China’s Great Leap Forward and the 1959 Tibetan Rebellion, Tibet was home to one of the richest artistic traditions in the world, but due to the deaths of hundreds of thousands Tibetans, destruction of their monasteries, and their widespread displacement, the art form has suffered. Now what we commonly think of as Tibetan art is a shadow of what it once was. Compositions by masters of the style used to be revered as sacred, but most of the paintings and drawings seen today are cheap facsimiles. Yoni Zilber has dedicated the last decade of his life fighting to preserve the art form by translating it into tattoos.
“The first time I started looking at books about the style, I was in Switzerland, getting tattooed by Filip Leu, and his apprentice at the time, Rinzing, was Tibetan,” Zilber recalls. “We started tattooing at the same time, and when I would stay with him, he always had lots of references and would paint and draw them. I always admired them and remember thinking ‘this is perfect for tattooing. Why isn’t anyone else doing this?’” Zilber immediately recognized the similarity between Tibetan art and tattoos — how the linework and color schemes are akin to those in traditional Japanese tattoos — and this inspired him to experiment with bridging the two mediums.
The painter that ridiculed him that day was Pema Rinzin — a modern master of the Tibetan style and Zilber’s teacher for 10 years and counting. He told Zilber that if he wanted to see some “real Tibetan art” to come to his apartment. “He only lived two blocks away from my house in Brooklyn, so I went over to his place, and I was blown away,” Zilber continues. “I thought to myself, ‘I’ll do anything to have this guy teach me,’ so I asked him if he would, and he said that if I’d give up on going to Nepal, he’d take me on as his student.”
To see more of Zilber’s tattoos inspired by Tibetan art, make you way to his Instagram or website. He works at New York Adorned in NYC and can be reached at email@example.com if you desire a sleeve with cranes soaring through mist or a back-piece of Tibetan dragon for yourself.