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Tender Queer: Tattoo Interview with Cee Burgundy

Tender Queer: Tattoo Interview with Cee Burgundy

Tattoo Artists13 min Read

In this interview, Cee Burgundy talks about queer tattooing, the beauty of abstraction, and awesome tattoo community initiatives.

The beauty of tattooing, and truly art in general, is that there is a visual language in existence for everyone, no matter how diverse. And, even further, if you need, a philosophical undertow that supports an environment you may crave. For me, and many others, this is part of what Cee Burgundy represents: the new wave of contemporary tattooers who are evolving the art form of tattooing to embrace new heights of aestheticism and existence. What this means for identity is that choosing an artist who understands the deep emotional tides that flow beneath your surface of physicality is becoming so much more accessible, more visible. Your choices for artists and art now mirror the vast landscape of intricacies that make up the unique being you happen to be.

Cee Burgundy not only fully understands that tattooing is a powerful physical transformation, they are also completely aware of the psychology behind such a metamorphosis. Few art forms have the potential to help body or gender dysmorphia, to heal trauma's, or to endow confidence quite like tattoos. And this is a huge part of Cee's process. But it's not only Cee's personal life experience that informs their work, it's also their particular style: each piece is a poetic mark built specifically for a body. These works are, at their core, saturated with energy, fluidity, and compassion for how special each human is, inside and out.

An absolutely integral and important part of this exciting modern age of tattooing, Cee Burgundy is a representative of tattooing being what it should have been from the start: inclusive.

First, the one everyone wants to know and always ask,) how did you get into tattooing, and why was it something you were drawn to?

I had been interested in tattooing long before I started my apprenticeship, but I thought the work I made wasn’t tattoo-able, I was convinced my art had to be much more illustrative than the paintings I was making at the time. That’s obviously before I knew about all the contemporary tattooing options! 
My friend Alex was already tattooing at The Ink Society at the time and when they moved to Sweden the shop’s owner decided to look for an apprentice instead of an established artist. I was extremely lucky to get the apprenticeship. Rosie and Wietske had confidence in me before I even drew anything that looked like a tattoo in the traditional sense of the word. Rosie and Wietske gave me the room to develop my style, while I hung around the shop, learning about hygiene and tattooing techniques and just observing how the artists worked. That was three years ago now and I’m still very grateful for the opportunity I was given!

Before I ever got tattooed, I knew I would either cover my whole body with tattoos or not get any at all. Obviously I ended up on the very decorated side of things. For many marginalized people, for instance queer and trans folks like myself, but also for disabled individuals and people of color, tattoos are a way to reclaim their body from society’s norms, like those of beauty and gender. Getting tattooed is usually something you do first and foremostly for yourself, but it also allows you to define – to an extent – how others perceive you. The idea of permanently adorning my body feels really powerful, providing this great sense of agency over my body.

Tattoos also really help me with my gender dysphoria. The more tattooed I got, the more I realized how disconnected I was from my body before I got tattoos. Now I feel like my body is mine, instead of just a random collection of bones, flesh and organs that my spirit happens to reside in. Clients often tell me they have similar experiences. Once a friend texted me after I gave her a new tattoo: ’I love my whole body more now’ and that has to be one of the best things about tattooing for me. Of course it’s also super special that someone likes your work so much that they want to carry it with them for the rest of their life. I will always be amazed by that! I also find the physical aspect of tattooing very fascinating; putting ink under someone’s skin to create a permanent, indelible mark, that’s wild really when you think about it, isn’t it?

How do you think your background or upbringing has supported your artistic output?

I was quite an outsider while growing up and I was also bullied. I did have some friends, usually people who also didn’t really fit in and together we would draw and make up our own fantasy world. Luckily, my parents also like art and they took me and my siblings to museums and art classes when we were kids. Drawing and painting became something I can come back to and find shelter in for the rest of my life.

When I was in high school I couldn’t wait to go to art school and I often drew during class instead of paying attention. Being the alternative gay kid isn’t easy when you are 16 and making art was definitely a survival strategy, it kept me sane.

I have also always been expressive and experimental in how I dress and express myself, I didn’t fit in anyway, so I just did my own thing. Tattoos feel like a logical continuation of that expressive form of presentation. Since starting to get tattooed, I’ve started dressing less loudly, because all the patterns are already there, on my body.

Can you talk about your style and how it has evolved over the years? Who are your artistic heroes or inspirations?

Before I started tattooing I hardly ever made abstract work, because I thought it was something I wasn’t good at, being – as I am – predominantly trained in life drawing and naturalistic painting. After graduating art school, I felt I had to unlearn a lot about what ‘good art’ is and break free from all the art rules I had been taught. Tattooing has definitely been a great tool in that unlearning process. The medium had a major impact on my artistic perspective, which now balances between abstract and figurative.

When I realized that any type of drawing can look interesting on the body, especially when placement and flow are taken into account, I found so much more freedom in what I could make. My current work is partly the result of all those years of studying and teaching art, mixed with some anti-High Art ‘every brushstroke can become interesting and the making itself is the meaning’ sentiments. I also discovered a love of drawing directly on the skin. The body’s shape and how it moves is inspiring in and of itself.

I used to paint in rather a laborious fashion. I made my own paint and I would work for months on a single canvas. Now my focus has shifted to a much faster way of working. I love work that arises from a single gesture and I most enjoy drawing when I don’t focus on the outcome. My method is quite intuitive; the composition arises in the moment. To battle my fear of failure, I usually make a ton of sketches and take it from there, so things don’t all depend on a single drawing that has to be perfect straight off. I often use a combination of analog drawing and digital techniques. I scan parts of the drawings, then play with them until I think it works. In the end, something has to feel right, a composition has to have balance or be intentionally imbalanced. It is also important to me for the drawing to have space, so you can see the skin beneath.

Key elements in my current work are organic shapes, textures, gesture drawings and expressive abstraction. I really like seeing the hand of the artist in the work and that’s why even my parallel line pieces look really drawn on and organic. I love the challenge of translating a drawing that has a certain movement and texture into a tattoo. I think I still draw and tattoo as a painter, if that makes any sense.

My inspiration comes from art history, queerness and old photographs, but also from simple snippets of daily life; noticing a door that has a beautiful color or watching trees arch in the wind. Naturally, work by other artists also fires my imagination. Artists I keep coming back to include: Louise Bourgeois, Ana Mendieta, Claude Cahun, Francesca Woodman, Berlinde de Bruyckere and Jenny Saville. I’m very drawn to artists who take the human body as their subject (often their own), which probably comes from years of teaching life drawing. I’m fascinated by how people inject meaning into (an image of) the body.

Finding communities of queer tattoo artists online has also been very inspiring. Following contemporary queer and often self-taught artists’ social media has shown me that tattoos can look nothing like the traditional stuff and that almost anything is possible. I got tattooed by Caro Ley a few months into my apprenticeship and that was quite a (trans)forming experience. Both her way of working as well as getting to wear her work every day. After that session I was much more visibly tattooed than before, including areas such as my hands that are impossible to hide. So, to me, this tattoo also marks my committing to the craft of tattooing.

Why do you think abstract expressionism is gaining so much traction in modern tattooing?

I think people are interested in getting tattoos that are not just images copied onto their flesh, but something made on and for their body, that works significantly differently on a body than it does on paper. A tattoo that flows with the tissue and muscles, follows the body’s movement. A new layer of your visual presentation, that looks part of the body.

Another aspect is the idea that a tattoo doesn’t have to represent anything outside of the body. It can just be what it is: ink on skin creating an image, working with colors, shapes with positive and negative space. An expressive abstract tattoo can still represent a concept or feeling, but that’s not necessarily something that comes from the existing visual world and it also doesn’t have to be readable. The tattoo can still have a visual reference outside the body, but it doesn’t have to be a reproduction. I think these aspects also make tattoos much more timeless.

Artwork by Cee Burgundy #CeeBurgundy

Do you have an artistic philosophy? Why do you feel the impetus to create?

I like making art that is ambiguous and open to interpretation. I often combine seemingly contrasting elements in my work: abstract/figurative, man/woman, body/mind and open/closed. I used to be way more focused on communicating specific ideas in my work (thanks art education!), but since I’ve started tattooing I have pretty much let that go. Even though art can be a place to process ideas or feelings for me, the viewer doesn’t have to recognize the exact ideas.

I love the deep focus I get into while drawing, painting or tattooing, that feeling of working with full concentration while constantly responding to what happens in the process. Getting into that zone generally takes a great deal of effort for me, so my artistic process is often both a struggle and a joy. When painting or designing a tattoo, I constantly flip back and forth between ’this sucks’ and ‘this is going to be great’. And that element of art making is actually quite addictive, because you always keep going until you get the feeling you are on your way to making something amazing! Making something come into existence out of nothing is a great feeling, especially if you surprise yourself in the process.

Does being queer inform your artistic output or affect your experience in the tattoo industry/culture? How do you think others can be more sensitive to the LGBTQIA+ community within the tattoo industry?

Yes, being queer and non-binary is a major influence on my experience as a tattooer! If it wasn’t for shops like the Ink Society, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into tattooing. Making your (LGBTQIA+) colleagues or clients feel safer is about much more than asking pronouns and being mindful about people’s experiences of their bodies. It’s also about not making assumptions, it’s about speaking up against a sexist, homophobic, fatphobic, ableist or racist ‘jokes’ or acts. It’s about being clear about pricing and considering the budget. It’s about being aware of how your body moves through the world and how other bodies might move in a different way. I’m white, thin and able-bodied so I definitely have my blind spots and I still learn about these kinds of topics on a daily basis. For example, from pages like Ink the Diaspora. I also love initiatives like FATTTISM, featuring fat tattooed bodies. Because every type of body and skin is a good home for a tattoo!

The majority of my clients are queer and trans, and many of the people who contact me for a tattoo are friends of my friends. I think people feel much more comfortable being tattooed by someone who has a (partly) similar experience in life. This is also why I’m so visibly non-binary and queer on Instagram. Alongside the shared experience, I think my aesthetic also just resonates with queer folks!

Getting tattooed is such a vulnerable and intimate thing, and if I look at my tattoos I still think about the experience of getting them and the artists who made them. The process of getting tattooed can be just as meaningful to the client as the finished tattoo. So to me, it’s super important for clients to have a good experience. This also means ensuring various types of consent and creating enough space for the client to voice concerns or questions.

How can a tattooist make the switch to becoming a vegan artist? Which products that others think are vegan are not? Are there any supply companies that you love in particular?

Luckily a lot of people already did the work for you, a traipse around on the internet will provide you with lots of info! You can start with the basics: checking whether the tattoo ink, ointment, stencil transfer paper and soap you’re currently using are vegan. A lot of ink brands that are approved in the Netherlands are vegan including World Famous Ink, Eternal, Intenze, etc. Lists of brands that make vegan products are quite easy to find.

When it comes to the balm you use instead of Vaseline, it’s a matter of trying out which one works best for you. For instance, some tend to make the stencil disappear faster than you might be used to. Ones I’ve tried so far and liked are Balm Tattoo Dragons Blood Butter and Hustle Butter Deluxe. I don’t have a favorite yet and there are also many vegan alternatives that I haven’t tried yet. You can try out the various types of vegan aftercare cream available on your own body so you know what to recommend to clients. I’m still searching for the perfect vegan aftercare! You don’t have to work entirely vegan immediately, as long as you’re honest towards your clients. And always make sure to check with your clients if they have any allergies!

I’m currently looking into using different razors and trying to use less plastic. I learn a lot from other tattooers, for instance, I really like what Lee aka rat666tat is doing with Good Judy Eco-Tattoo Supplies! They manufacture plant-based, compostable & biodegradable products like barrier film, gloves and razors.

What is the Utrecht tattoo community like? What do you like about being an artist there?

There isn’t a Utrecht tattoo community as such, but there’s definitely a feeling of community at the shop I work at, The Ink Society. All the artists have their own style and so there’s no sense of competition. We lift each other up and I’m grateful to learn from my colleagues! There aren’t many contemporary tattoo studios in the Netherlands, so people travel from all over the country to get tattooed at the Ink Society. Utrecht is situated centrally in the country so you can get anywhere by train in a few hours. Utrecht has a beautiful, historic city center and is way less touristy than Amsterdam. So, if you’re looking for a place to visit in the Netherlands this is the place to be!

Beyond creating art, what are you really passionate about? What do you wish you had more time for?

When I’m not tattooing you can find me decorating faces with colors & glitters at queer parties or spot me in the audience at a performance night. I’ve also taken up bouldering recently. Other favorite pastimes include drinking coffee with friends, enjoying the sun in the garden and watching movies with my partner.

I wish I would take more time to read books, go for walks in the forest, grow my own veggies in the garden and paint without a purpose! I’ve been quite involved in feminist activism including trans rights and anti-racism, and I want to make more time to be involved in that again.

Illustration by Cee Burgundy for Inclusive Postcards project #CeeBurgundy #queertattooer #qttr #vegantattoo #vegantattooer #illustrative #abstract #abstractexpressionism

If you could only read one book, listen to one record, and watch one movie forever, which ones would you choose?

I wouldn’t be able to choose just one record, so I’d make a playlist featuring music from Angel Olsen, Perfume Genius, Weyes Blood and Sharon Van Etten instead! Even though I love movies I’d probably choose an extra book over a movie if that’s all I got for the rest of my life. I would go for some fiction by Haruki Murakami or Octavia E. Butler and when it comes to non-fiction I’d choose Testo Junkie by Paul B. Preciado because that book changed my life.

Any projects, travel plans, collabs, etc. coming up in the future that you'd like to promote?

I was planning to do a lot more guest-spots in 2020, but so far that has fallen through because of the coronavirus. I still hope to be able to visit Berlin, Bristol and Stockholm this year. In the meantime, I’ll probably make more flash, paintings, prints, t-shirts, etc.!

When the tattoo shops open again I hope to do some bigger projects and I would love to try out free machines (no stencil, no drawing) tattooing! I also want to learn more about the various types of tattoo machines as well as how to make my own needles.


Justine Morrow
Written byJustine Morrow

Social Producer, Journalist, Editor, and Curator for Tattoodo I am here to support you 🌻 IG: @lathe.of.heaven

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