According to statistics from 2017, 4 in 10 adults in the US between the ages of 18 and 69 have at least one tattoo, with a quarter of those having more than one. It’s pretty easy to see that tattoos have become extremely popular over the last 30 years, so it’s no surprise that fashion brands, photographers, TV shows and magazines are catching on. While modeling used to be a profession that regarded tattoos with disdain, these days it’s a completely different story. So we spoke to Polly Ellens, Tirzah Athena, Manfredi Vannuci, Ashley Marie, Asami Inafuku, and Sebastian, about their thoughts on being a tattooed model in this quickly evolving industry.
Artistic people are drawn to tattoos and piercings in different ways, some through family or friends, many through music or other artists, and others more or less fall into it by accident. For Polly Ellens, it was just a natural path for her life to take. She says, “I was always a bit of an ‘alternative’, for want of a better word, kid; a ‘greebo’ really haha. I would get piercings and everything I could before I was 18 and then naturally got my first tattoo. I always admired tattoos and that general culture, so it was inevitable that I was going to get tattoos. I got my first, which was Hello Kitty on my foot and I still don't regret it.”
Tirzah Athena shared her first tattoo was deeply meaningful. “When I turned 18, I got my first tattoo in memory of my father that says ‘Talk is Cheap’ which was something he used to say before the Chet Faker song. He passed when I was 16 and I needed to have something permanent on me so that I don't forget the small things. Shortly after I was accepted into a global university program and began researching artists around the world that really inspired me and that's when I really started my journey.”
Tattooed people can be intimidating in general, and tattoo models can be even more so. But this only stems from preconceived notions about what these people actually do, and who they are, within this profession. Sebastian talked about how he can definitely see this himself, “Most people think that models are narcissistic or kind of arrogant but that is not true. I often even leave the house wearing sweatpants like everyone else. The world is just a superficial place where everybody judges you because of your appearance. But that’s all just a matter of taste. I‘m so honored that so many people like the way I present myself to the outside world. But I‘m also aware that I don‘t have to please everyone.”
Polly Ellens shared similar thoughts: “I suppose speaking from the perspective of a model whose main platform is social media; that online is so misleading! In my case people that I often work with who have followed me seem to always say ‘oh you're actually really nice’ - which I suppose stems from their own presumptions on how I portray myself online. For some reason, people automatically think I might be horrible or super egotistical, which I'm pretty sure I'm not. I'm super normal! I suppose everyone judges and it's easy to make assumptions-but really it's all a bit of a show- plus it's much harder than it looks promise!” Manfredi Vannucci agrees and shared, “I’d like people to know that there is a lot of work involved in modeling, and it’s not all about walking in fashion shows or being shot a couple of times a week. If you want to get to the top, you have to take care of yourself first, then social relationships and networks. Sometimes you also have to work without getting paid, just waiting for that big break. Otherwise, I think doing this kind of work is a privilege.”
It also definitely depends on the culture of how a tattoo model may be perceived. In places like Korea or Japan, where tattoos are still illegal, being a tattooed person can be uncomfortable or alienating. Asami Johnson says, “Growing up without tattoos in Japan I definitely had plenty of opportunities as a model. However, Japan has not fully accepted the idea of tattoos and it is difficult for them to adapt to the fast-changing times. After being signed to a talent agency, I ended up getting a full sleeve of Irezumi and immediately lost work. It was hard, but not something I would ever regret. I switched scenery and moved to California and I have been thriving since. American culture has embraced small pieces of work to full body tattoos and it individualizes and adds character to ourselves. You just have to be yourself and let your attitude shine brighter than your ink.”
Attitude and authenticity play a huge part in the work of a tattoo model as well. It helps people really resonate with their work, and the camera can reflect whatever a model brings to a shoot. Ashley Marie explains, “Modeling is so great, it’s definitely a confidence booster but it can also be a confidence drainer and it’s a lot harder than it looks. Don’t let another’s success make you feel less than, what’s for you will be for you. I always gotta remind myself of that.”
It’s also interesting to think that the tattoo models we’ve interviewed here would have had a very different life in the limelight 10 years ago. A few of them shared their thoughts on the popularization of tattooing and whether or not it’s a popular thing for the industry and community. For Ashley Marie, it’s about being able to embrace being yourself without negative connotations. “I do think it’s a positive thing, more and more workplaces are now allowing people to expose their tattoos and express themselves for who they really are which I think is SO amazing. A big part of why I became a hairstylist was to have the freedom of colorful hair, tattoos, and piercings.” Tirzah Athena shared the same sentiments, “It's funny but I always say that with every tattoo that I feel more like myself. It’s nice to know that we have the freedom to change and adapt our bodies to the way we feel inside ourselves. Not to mention that tattoos have been around for thousands of years relating to ancient rituals and can be traced back to many different cultures.”
For Polly Ellens, being a tattoo model not only feels creatively satisfying but with the mainstream acceptance of tattooed models, her job has become a sustainable living. “For me personally and other models it has definitely opened more doors and allowed for more opportunities work-wise. More brands, even mainstream, and luxury brands are becoming more accepting and hiring tattooed models for campaigns and editorials- it's not just an ‘alternative’ option anymore. I'd like to think this has also offered more work to tattoo artists and the industry in general- appealing to a wider audience, everyone gets a tattoo now, it isn't just for one type or style of person anymore.”
Manfredi Vannucci has an even perspective of it. While the acceptance is nice, many people are following the tattoo trend without really respecting it, or understanding it. “...unfortunately there are more and more people, especially after the global explosion of trap music, who get tattoos without thinking, only to be amalgamated, making the artistic and philosophic values of this work almost nothing. So I can’t say ‘no more guys, do not try to be like everyone else, do not try to fit into the masses, don’t be sheep, just be yourselves! With or without tattoos.’” But he also sees a positive side. “As with everything, I believe that there are positive and negative aspects. In these times it’s difficult finding someone who doesn’t have a tattoo. The working world is starting to open, step by step, to tattooed people, and prejudices are slowly being proved wrong. Here in Italy, the path is still difficult, compared to a lot of other countries.”
Of course, tattoo models are some of the best people to get advice on artists and studios who create really stellar work. Ashley Marie keeps a list of, mainly, Traditional and Neo-Traditional tattooists she hopes to get pieces from, “...these are a few tattoo artists I admire and would love to get work from; Pancho, Javier, Phil, and Chris.” Asami Inafuku likes to express her Japanese roots and many of her pieces reflect that. “I do not have any favorite tattoo artists as I appreciate all styles but definitely the artists that worked on me are people I admire. Ichi Hatano from Tokyo, Japan has worked on me and his patience and attention to detail is all shown in the masterpieces that he creates. I am blessed to have such a large, gorgeous and clean sleeve done by Ichi. James Eastwood from Insight Studios Chicago also took my breath away with a cherry blossom branch he added to me. I just enjoy getting work done by artists who have energy and love what they do. And James definitely kept me comfortable.”
For Manfredi, it’s not just about talent, but trust as well. And the same goes for photographers he works with too. “Concerning tattoos, I can’t say that I have favorite tattooists, it’s more like I have trusted tattooists. @umeboshi_tattoo is one of them, a friend who has marked my skin a lot of times and is responsible for a lot of important and visible work, on my chest and belly in particular. Another friend that I would definitely like to mention is @egeebeezee. I adore his working philosophy, he’s a real professional! I also really love being tattooed at home, rough and not professionally. Several tattoos that I love the most have been made at home by friends and girlfriends….I can’t say I admire any photographers more than others, but I’m in love with a certain type of photography, like specific lights and colors. Examples of what I mean could be Glen Luchford’s Gucci video campaigns. Anyway, just like tattooists, there are some photographers with whom I’ve established a strong relationship. They get me more than others. Andriana Tuesday is definitely the one who succeeds most in this, I love her!”
For Polly, it’s the same, and especially since her boyfriend is a highly respected tattooist, she knows many talented artists. When asked who she would like to get pieces from she says, “I really should say my boyfriend right? - Teide, Haha (he's going to read this). No, but seriously he is so talented although not particularly my style. Personally, I am a huge fan of Chris Garver, I've yet to get tattooed by him but he is top of my list for sure. I also really love Gakkin's work and hope to be tattooed by him in the future also. In terms of photographers my top all-time is Haris Nukem, not just because he is one of my closest friends but also his work is so amazing, also I love Hana Zebzabi, Ohrangutang, and The Tog Father. I have shot with all but The Tog Father, of whom I would love to work with if the opportunity arises in the future!”
Tirzah prefers mainly illustrative tattoo artists who do experimental and unique work. “I have so many favorite artists! Some of the first people I began following on IG was a Parisian Duo, Ana & Camille, who I eventually had the honor of getting my hand tattoo from. Some other off the top of my head would be, Costa Rica Based artist Esteban or on IG as “otro0”, there’s Nicolas Gumo from Paris aka ugly_kid_gumo, Oozy from South Korea, Matt Bailey, Frances Segismundo, and Rylee Sky just to name a few!”
For Sebastian, it’s difficult because of the amount of prodigious artists around the world these days. “I don‘t want to have to decide because there are so many talented tattoo artists and photographers out there but that is again a matter of taste. For me, it‘s important to give credit to the ones that are not that well known but still do great work like my very first photographer that was like a springboard for my career as a tattoo model. Everybody starts small with a simple set but she made it just perfect. Her username on Instagram is herzblick_fotografie. Her work is worth a look. Speaking of tattoos I definitely have to mention my hometown studio, Lines of Color, that is responsible for my tattoos and I am so thankful for every single art piece which I got there and now wear proudly for the rest of my life. It‘s also worth a look.”
We all tend to glamorize our Instagram feeds and models are, of course, no exception to that, generally keeping what they post focused on work. In this case, modeling. But of course, tattoo artists and models have other hobbies and things that they care about. Tirzah is not only a model; she’s interested in empowering others as well. “I am currently about to enter my final year of University to complete my Political Science BA as well as my Psychology AA. I’ve also been a swim instructor for nearly 5 years, working with children and adults. I am 100% passionate about people, I eventually want to become an educator as well as a congresswoman (we will see how the future pans out) all I'm certain of is that I want to help others help themselves and give them the tools that allow them to see the potential that I know is there.”
For Ashley Marie, creative expression is extremely important not only for herself but for others as well. “Besides modeling and tattoos I am super passionate about doing Hair, I am a colorist of 13 years and I own a salon here in San Diego called Velvet Hair Lounge. I just love to make others feel good about themselves through hair or modeling.”
Asami and Manfredi also have creative outlets. Asami shares, “I am very passionate about dancing. Dancing is something I grew up doing in my living room, to an actual dance studio, and then on stages for an audience to watch. I am currently on Culture Shock San Diego and I have built a family with the dancers. I love my teammates and I am in awe that all of our different personalities are brought together and unified to share our love for dance. It makes me want to keep dancing.” Manfredi’s passion also includes music. “I play a lot of different instruments and sometimes I write music (or at least I try). I’m also really enthusiastic about cinema, but in general, I could say I love every form of art. Oh, and of course, I love fashion too.”
For Polly Ellens, who recently just had a beautiful baby with Teide, it’s all about family. “I had a baby four months ago with my boyfriend and honestly it completely changes your life! I love spending time with my little family and it has changed my priorities completely. I've taken a step back from work - I mean mainly to give birth haha but also to spend as much time with my son as possible. I have done a couple of shoots since and as he gets older I will get back into it more and more but, for now, my passion and focus is on my family.”
Teide, Polly, and Baby!
While Sebastian finds solace in healthy living. “Besides modeling and getting tattoos I found my passion in sports like weight training to not only keep myself fit for photos but also to keep my self-confidence and to let out everything that has been on my mind because that is the only healthy way to think, for me.”
People always seem to have mixed feelings about the popularization of tattoos over the last few decades. Many long for the days when tattooing was still more underground, a bit seedy and dangerous, which, for many, made them appealing in the first place. Others feel like tattoos opening up to the mainstream public is a good thing. Everyone from your kids’ babysitters to your grandma can have a tattoo now. Just like the rest of the internet, these six artists also have differing opinions. Tattoo models are not only popular in North America but now come from all over the world. Tattooing continues to grow as an industry, year after year, taking with it the fashion and modeling world.