Looking at Boone Naka's work is like listening to Sun Ra or Om; it's a multifaceted experience that drenches you in the deepest parts of our human experience. Calling on the iconography and symbolism that has grown with humanity over eons, Boone Naka's creations are a blend of time, space, and culture. It's easy to resonate with his work; much of the imagery is so vast in foundation and inspiration that almost anyone can see a part of themselves reflected. Unique and often drawing on personal backgrounds, the tattoos shown here are part of a mystical narrative that weaves itself through our past, present, and future.
In this interview, Boone Naka talks about getting into tattooing, the inspiration behind these often fantastical creations, and connecting with culture through art.
What is your artistic background? What are your first creative memories?
I don’t have any formal training and I never went to art school so I have mostly just learned through trial and error, chatting with friends, books, etc. I did do an apprenticeship to learn to tattoo though. Growing up I was always shitty at sports so I gravitated towards things like art and music. My grade 5 teacher, Mr. Averill, was an old hippie who somehow got his hands on enough guitars for each student in the class. We spent the whole year learning how to play Beach Boys songs and he also taught us how to write our own songs. We also wrote and performed in our own plays and had tons of paint to mess around with. At Christmas time we cut up colored cellophane and turned the classroom windows into fake stained glass. He was always really encouraging of us being creative in whatever way we enjoyed. That was probably the first time I saw an adult living a creative life and sharing it with others and I guess it really stuck with me.
How did you get into tattooing? Why is it something you are passionate about?
I got into tattooing by drawing every day and getting tattooed as much as possible. Eventually I moved from the town I’m from in the Okanagan to Vancouver to try to find an apprenticeship. I got tattooed at Gastown Tattoo Parlour and started coming by every day, working for free and hanging out at the shop. That led to me getting a job working the front desk and eventually an apprenticeship under my mentor, Arlin Ffrench. Arlin and his partner, Caitlin Ffrench, taught me a ton during that time and are still teaching me things today.
Tattooing is and will always be my main passion. This is partially because you can never reach the end of it. It's history is so intertwined with the human spirit that its true form is just as elusive and tricky to define. Tattoo transcends time, place and culture and has persevered through stigma, restriction and criminalization. Tattoo is raw power and tattoo is magic!
A lot of your work is very psychedelic. Do you consider yourself a surrealist? What is it about psychedelic or symbolic visuals that fits with your personal artistic philosophy?
I don’t consider myself a surrealist or align with any particular art movement. All that stuff is fun to learn about from a history standpoint but I’m not interested in limiting myself by trying to be this or that. I don’t ever set out to make my work “psychedelic” but I think symbolic visuals are omnipresent in all traditional and tribal forms of tattooing. I think this is responsible for the reverence humans have had for the mystical quality of tattoo. We imbue meaning into symbols that we feel express aspects of our individual and collective experience of what it means to be human. What that looks like varies a great deal across time and culture but at the end of the day are often expressing the same things.
Tradition, superstition, love, faith, protection, intimidation, humor, storytelling, beautification, etc. It’s all expressed through different symbols and motifs that we attach meaning to and these are always evolving and morphing as new generations move tattooing forward. But even though the visual language changes depending on time and place, I still think they are scratching at the same itch inside of ourselves. I’m not saying there’s not hollow or egotistical tattooing happening every day; there is. But I guess I’m most interested in how these symbols and motifs work and how to give them power in order to do well by the people wearing them. I like experimenting with these things to try to create something that feels both familiar and strange at the same time.
What inspires your work? What artists, tattooers or not, are your heroes?
All kinds of things! Music, art, seeing new things, chattin’ with friends, books, internet, etc. The list goes on and there’s no shortage of inspiration. I love researching tattoo history and art from all over the world but at the end of the day I try to stay in my lane and do work that feels right for me based on my own understanding and cultural heritage. For that reason, I’ve been doing a ton of research into Japanese tattoo history as well as myth, craft and culture. As someone born in a diasporic community it has been immensely gratifying to get to reconnect to my family’s history and culture through tattoo. I would like this to continue to inform and shape my works and the things I get to share with my customers. I also love getting to connect with customers over their cultures, hear stories and make tattoos for them that they really connect with. That’s not to say that tattoos always have to be some meaningful or monumental experience but the fact that they can be is what makes them powerful and mysterious. I think great tattooing takes many forms and figuring out the best way to connect with your client and do the best tattoo for them is a lifelong pursuit.
As far as heroes go, there’s too many to name. For tattooing some all time heroes would be Thom Devita, Ed Hardy and in my opinion the greatest tattooer that ever lived, Kuronuma Tamotsu (Horiyoshi II). Mr. Kuronuma’s work really sings and to me it doesn’t get any better. So many heroes and biggest sources of inspiration and learning have been my friends. They’ve taught me the most and I’m grateful for all of them. You know who you are!
One example of a true artist to me is my friend, Matt James. Matt was an artist from the We Wai Kai nation who I met through buying paintings from him on the street in our neighbourhood. Matt’s work was raw and strong and his deep love for the culture of his people, their stories and their art is present in all of his work. Matt painted every day without fail because he loved doing it and to me was a true artist in every sense of the word.
Beyond tattooing, what are you most passionate about? If you weren’t a tattooer what would you be doing?
Beyond tattooing I love making all kinds of arts/crafts, collecting records, camping and learning about Japanese history and culture through researching tattoo, myth, textiles, art, etc. I’m also learning how to grow, process, and use indigo. This winter I’m trying to grow indigo in my apartment with grow lights (much to my partners dismay) but it’s turning out to be tricky haha. I’d also love to start making music again but at the moment I don’t have enough time to commit to it.
If I wasn’t a tattooer I’d love to still be able to do something creative with my hands. This has proven to be one of the most gratifying and important things in my life.
I love that your work has such a clear and unique aesthetic and voice. What advice do you have for other artists trying to be true to themselves in such an oversaturated, fast paced and competitive world? What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
I’m pretty new to the game to be giving advice but I think the best thing to do is to always be honest with yourself and do what feels right. Don’t get caught up with trends or fame, study and figure out what YOU have to offer. There’s no point in trying to compete in the fast paced, oversaturated environment of modern tattooing, there is no winner. Focus on learning more so that you can do work that’s fulfilling for you but more importantly your customer. The path of tattooing has lots of detours and I find myself feeling up and down constantly but it’s all the weird detours that really teach you things. This way your work can grow organically. It’s not linear and there is no shortcut. Hopefully with time I’ll figure it out haha.
The best advice I have ever heard was probably this quote I read by a favourite local artist, Mark Delong, “Paint what you can with the paint in your can.”
Do you have any travel plans, collabs, projects, or new materials/techniques you hope to work in?
Travel is out right now but there are tons of places I’d like to go when travel is possible again. As far as other things, just more tattooing, painting, printmaking, reading, swimming, standing around fires, eating good stuff, lookin’ at dogs, havin’ a couple drinks-couple smokes and hanging out with the people I love most. Whatever feels good at the time, there’s lots of stuff to do.