The first time Denon felt completely alone was when she was in middle school, right after she had just moved to the U.S. from Korea. Displaced against her will due to her parents’ jobs, she remembers the time as also her first time experiencing social discrimination. “I was living in Florida where there were not many Koreans or even Asians. It was a very difficult time because my peers constantly “reminded” me that I was different and therefore unacceptable. It really impacted how I viewed myself,” she says.
Once she experienced how being different can result in isolation, Denon began to take more interest in learning about how people who do not adhere to social norms were being treated around the world. Especially, when she came back home to Korea, she found herself frustrated by other forms of social issues—especially feminism and society-imposed body image.
“Lots of people, especially women, can be very self-conscious about their body image because of the social pressure to look a certain way. My customers, for example, often ask me to photoshop their bodies before posting their photos on Instagram.” Denon says.
Denon is now a watercolor tattoo artist based in Seoul. As someone who has felt such negative emotions regarding self-acceptance early on in her life, Denon hopes to support others who feel similarly, especially through her work. “Through my tattoos, I am trying to challenge such societal demands about how things “should” be,” she explains.
Her tattoos, which accentuates liquid qualities of ink, is known for its ink blots and shades of dark blue like the deepest parts of the ocean. They tend to be both delicate and rough—in their colors and textures, respectively—and the juxtaposition makes her work distinguishable from a mile away. “I wanted to break away from the boundaries of what is traditionally masculine or feminine. That’s why I try to make my work to be somewhere in between; not as intricate and “feminine” as fine tattoos but also not as “masculine” as traditional genres,” she explains.
In fact, her choice of watercolor as her medium is closely tied with her artistic purpose. “I work with watercolor because it allows me to bring out the natural curves in our bodies. Because you can see how ink flows and smears along the curves, my tattoos only really make sense on bodies and not on flat surfaces. I like to think of it as giving our bodies a purpose like a canvas.”
More than just serving her purpose, Denon is also drawn to the philosophical understanding of water as an element. “It’s two-sided. On the one hand, what I’m trying to explore in art, ultimately, is this idea of being alone, whether it be feeling that you are being isolated or more positively, appreciating solitude. I think the best imagery for such a feeling is being deep in water where even light cannot touch you. On the other hand, water also symbolizes change in the way it constantly flows—I hope it can bring change to those who need it,” she explains.
But when Denon first started out as a tattoo artist, she was not as committed to her goal of empowering others as much as she is now. “A bit after I started out as a tattoo artist, my friend was going through an incredibly difficult time. I tattooed the Greek god Athena on her back like casting a spell, hoping that the goddess would protect her. Later, she told me that she planned to commit suicide but didn’t because the tattoo constantly reminded her that there were so many people who cared for her,” Denon explains. “That’s how I realized how powerful tattoos can be.”
Later, Denon decided to focus on improving people’s body image through her work because she “felt that it’s something only getting a tattoo could help,” she notes. “I believe that getting a tattoo allows us to gain a new perspective of our bodies and ultimately, who we are as a person in this world,” Denon adds. “Even if I cannot dramatically help with my customers’ struggles—getting a tattoo will not miraculously cure you of your depression, for example—I hope that my tattoos can remind people to stay strong.”
As someone who clearly spends much time thinking about her art and its purpose, Denon picks Herman Hesse’s Demian as her constant source of inspiration.
“I read it for the first time in middle school and really sympathized with the main protagonist, Sinclair,” Denon explains. “In the book, Sinclair, who comes from good, is introduced to and explores evil. In the end, it’s not about deciding that what is necessarily right—it’s about accepting that both exist. Accepting the world for what it is and meanwhile, finding your inner peace,” Denon says. “That’s what I hope my tattoos can do. Just like the book, I’m not trying to fix anything—I’m just trying to help people accept themselves and the world.”
Surprisingly, or perhaps expectedly, Denon notes how many of her customers end up sharing about their depression or issues with self-acceptance even though she has never shared her artistic vision with anyone else before this interview. “I think it is because my interest in these topics permeate my work. I’m just glad that I’m able to connect with my customers and hope to continue doing so. Now, retroactively, maybe that’s why I was unaccepted in middle school—like who would want to talk to a teenage girl reading Demian, worrying about these things?” she laughs.