In The Road Not Taken, the poet Robert Frost writes, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” This line has come to symbolize for many the difficult choice of making an unpopular choice. Frost seems to explicitly celebrate the difference here; it must be remembered, however, that in life, even a small difference can be devastating.
Going against the norm can be like backing the wrong horse; you have more to possibly gain but also much more to likely lose. So when I first learned that 9room had graduated from neither middle and high school, I grew concerned. Will this be another story of a rare example who took unnecessary risks by dropping out? What could we possibly learn from someone who just lucked out? My concerns, however, immediately dissipated when I met 9room in person. A lover of cats—hence the name—9room welcomed me in her studio in Seoul with a big smile; and just a minute into the conversation, I could tell that she had much wisdom to share with me and the tattoo community at large.
When 9room was young, she could not understand why she had to study math when she wanted to become an artist. Unlike other children in similar shoes, however, 9room felt that it was enough of a reason to quit school. “My personality is extreme in that I refuse to do anything that I don’t find necessary,” 9room chuckles. “I used to just leave school between class periods. Because my truancy became so frequent, my parents eventually came to accept that they could not keep me in school.”
Instead of sitting in classrooms, 9room spent her school hours at art exhibitions and music concerts. While it may seem like she is just another fun-loving Ferris Bueller, 9room confesses that her days were not always full of laughs and surprises. “I think part of me just wanted to be cool,” she jokes. “But in all seriousness, I think I just needed a lot of personal time growing up. I may have skipped school, but I never stopped learning.”
In fact, 9room admits that she has never read more, saw more, and learned more in her life than during her teenage years. She remembers questioning everything—from art to relationships to life—and storming into adulthood. Retroactively, 9room recognizes that it was all about marching to her own beat. “I was really struggling during the whole thing and later, too, finding jobs, but I’ve never regretted it. I think having built my own path, I was able to grow much more as a person,” she says.
9room thanks her dad for always supporting her during tough times. “I realized he was different when I learned that most dads tell you to go to bed at night,” she says. In her household, it was not unusual for 9room’s dad, an architect with an artist’s heart, to work passionately on his designs until 4 AM. He would never force her to do anything. Instead, he believed that if she was truly passionate about something, she will make it work, just like he did. “He never criticized me for giving up or for failing. He just believed in me and that things would always work out,” 9room reminisces. “Even when I told him I wanted to give up art at one point, he only said, “Ok, I’m sure you’ll find something else you love.””
Still, her parents worried that, without proper education, 9room would fail to find a job. In the end, she took the GEDs and applied to art schools. “My parents wanted me to finish at least some schooling. Since they allowed me to skip middle and high school, I decided to go to college to make them happy,” she says. “I spent most of my time going to concerts and getting real work experiences though.”
While she continued to practice truancy every now and then in college, 9room was able to fully develop her own artistic style through structured learning. “It’s acrylic-based,” she explains. “It may seem similar to watercolor, but I focus on how acrylic paints are layered on canvas unlike how watercolors are absorbed into paper. And compared to oil painting, which is less transparent and coarser in its texture, my art tends to be much lighter and less viscous.”
Although tattoos leave ink underneath the skin, 9room hopes to create an illusion that ink has been poured over the skin, and not absorbed. This layered quality allows her to work on tattoos that are much lighter, even something that could perhaps be washed off like oil on water. “I try to be light-hearted as much as possible both in life and with my art. I think life is already very much challenging—I don’t think my art has to mirror that. I want people to be comforted by my tattoos,” she says.
While 9room hopes that her art can bring a smile to others, she recognizes that the client’s commitment to getting any tattoo at all is, in fact, what ultimately comforts them. “I was surprised too,” she says. “It turns out that in a society where tattoos are not as openly accepted, getting a tattoo—even a small one—symbolizes one’s willingness to break out of the shell, to be free from societal expectations.”
9room adds that she is also often consoled during each session, learning about what motivates her clients to get tattoos. It is like an intimate therapy for both, she says. “My favorite is when mothers and daughters come together. And they do not have flamboyant personalities. They are everyday mothers in their 50s and 60s. The daughters are usually very anxious and tell them to get small tattoos, but the mothers want them big. They say they don’t have to worry about finding a partner or getting a job anymore, so they are down to get big tattoos,” she laughs. “It just makes me happy to see them banter lovingly.”
Although she began as a painter after college, 9room finds her later transition into tattoos very rewarding because it helps her answer the questions from her teenage years. She never appreciated, for example, how paintings were hung on the gallery walls like trophies. Even then, she could not accept why art is not as integrated into daily lives as much it can be. “At exhibitions, people seemed to admire the pieces just because they were hung up,” 9room says. “But tattoos are a living art. Tattoo moves around. Everyone with a tattoo, in a way, is always performing. I think it’s cool to see how I’m pursuing tattoo ultimately because of the questions I asked while skipping school.”
“It’s all I’ve ever dreamed of,” 9room acknowledges. Now as a tattoo artist, she makes it clear that she is not looking for anything more. For her, no world-wide fame or more money would make her any happier than she is now. “I make a living now through art. Not many people can say that. As long as I have that, I’ll be happy. I can only be grateful for what I have every day,” she says. Her tough journey has allowed her to appreciate the little things and as much as tattoos have made her happy, she hopes to share the love through art. “I hope my tattoos do exactly that—just reminding people that life can be enjoyed, even just with a tiny bit of happiness.”
While her life has not always been easy, 9room managed to find happiness and her dream job. Still, when asked whether her children should also take the road less traveled, she hesitates to answer. “A lot of it was luck. Also, because I know how tough it can be, I don’t think I’d try to encourage them to take more risks than they absolutely need,” she says, after taking a moment to collect her thoughts. “But I certainly won’t discourage them if they believe it’s for them. Some things are just meant to be. And I'd definitely be OK with them skipping schools to figure things out,” she quickly adds, with a wink.