Interview on Saturday 10th October 2015 at North Capital
TF: The reason I approached you in the first place is because I saw your graffiti mural outside Beiluo Bread Bar and I was like, woah, that's fricking cool, so I went in and asked them who did it and they gave me your contact. So can you talk to me about that mural? What inspired it?
AM: Actually that picture, I saw a graffiti artist, that's actually his original work. I really, really do love the colour contrast and everything so I remember, in my mind, to sketch it down, I really wanted to do it because I really like his work. That idea just came from that. So the idea is not mine, actually, but I do really like his work. So I thought, it’s something to light up the hutong, I told him let's do this thing. So I just started to do all of this.
TF: Awesome! So yours is the chameleon section, right?
AM: Yeah, that's right.
TF: So have you done more graffiti around Beijing?
AM: I've did but I think they've replaced it. I didn't really take a photo or anything because it was just a quick shot. I started it when I was in school, around 2003, so now I do some wall paintings for cash. So in Gulou, there's a bar, I think it's still there, it's near DADA next to the entrance gate. The coffee bar on the second floor, I did a whole wall when I was 23. So that was a really long time ago. That one is still there.
TF: Is it inside or outside?
AM: Inside. You can see butterflies changing colour contrast. I still have my name on it. Yeah, hopefully they still have it.
TF: Was that something that you made originally?
AM: Yes. That was an original because that bar was like, the original people who ran it, the whole thing, DADA and the whole building belonged to them. So the bar also belonged to them but after many years they thought it cost too much money so that's why they sold it. They moved out and then it was some kind of restaurant and now it's a café many years after.
TF: When you were doing graffiti in Beijing, did you have any specific artwork that was your signature or you did just whatever you felt like?
AM: No. I just felt like, because I discovered I liked colour, and I really liked the contrast so when I'd do it I'd just put everything together and play with it. Sometimes it was abstract and sometimes it was meaningful, like something I'd been thinking about.
TF: And how does it feel for you knowing that those paintings are possibly going to be painted over?
AM: I don't really care. I just thought at that moment that I want to do it, did it and I don't really care if it's painted over. I mean if it's painted over I can paint it again.
TF: What do you think about graffiti in terms of the legality of it? Do you think it should be legal?
AM: I hope so. In China it's really hard. Like maybe you'll go under a bridge or something and, because you are causing trouble, maybe people will chase you. So I did have a few friends and I almost get caught when we were in school, we were running really, really hard with a policeman trying to catch us. But I know they're not going to harm us at all but we were just running for fun. Yay, chase us!
TF: I am really interested in the fact that you're also a tattoo artist, these are two sort of unconventional forms of art and also fairly modern things that are being recognised more and more as art now. So how long have you been a tattoo artist?
AM: I started a really long time ago but I've been doing this for three years, more or less. Maybe a little bit longer – four years. The reason I'm doing this, I don't know, it just happened. I mean, I love drawing, that's never gonna stop for me, but before with graffiti, you're a free spirit when you do it but also graffiti has rules when you draw, when you paint. Like how to show it better from different sides, that's an artist at work. But for me, it was years and years ago when I was a student in school, I just thought, I really like this colour or this idea on the wall, I think. I wanna do big things so that is really free spirited, in that moment. And the reason I became a tattoo artist is because a tattoo is a different thing, it requires skill, it's not just about drawing skill, another skill is: your mental skills, how do you think, how you put things together, and third, another skill is tattooing skill. So those skills combine a lot of your energy and focus and make me calm. So make all the free spirit will come back to the one thing when you calm down. It's just like age, when you get older and older, you feel like you're calming down and then you settle. Tattooing makes me feel that way. Also, you can create free spirit tattoos because I saw different tattoo artists at their work and doing illustrations. Like their illustrations they're doing for a tattoo, like for a different part of the body, so for me, I did a lot of research and study on this before I did a tattoo so I know it requires a lot of things. I'm actually working even harder than when I was a student. You know Chinese students work so hard to get past the competition so I just felt like I worked even harder and now I study even more. Even when my friends ask me to hang out or have a drink, I'll say, yeah cool, but after half an hour I'll say, sorry, I really have to go. It's not like I'm tired and it's not like I'm bored with my friends, I have to go home to study.
TF: So why do you feel that way?
AM: I want to.
TF: So it's just your passion?
AM: Yes. I've found something I really, really love. It's awesome. So, I think three years ago, I started finding for myself those kinds of ideas, so I thought, I really love this, is this what I was really, really looking for - this is my career, this is my life and I'm gonna do it. It's never gonna stop until you know everything. These kinds of ideas – how to put it into a drawing first, how to make the drawings different and freestyle and put your ideas in it. And then, what the client wants and which part of their body they want it on. I want to learn to do that, to put it on the drawing on the part of the body so it will turn out perfectly. Learning why this one is so beautiful and this one is not. This all comes from research. Also learning about skin the medical way. My family is doing Chinese medicine but it didn't really help me but, for some other things, they taught me about, muscles and acupuncture and how they work. So when I'm doing tattoos, I only started recently, when you tense, it is gonna to help the permanence of the tattoo and will then colours come up right? This is actual new for me and I did ask some really good tattoo artists and they'd never heard of this. I find it quite interesting, it's maybe something I want to know. So that's why I want to put more and more energy into it.
TF: How do you study these different areas of tattoo art?
AM: I don't think there are classes or lessons in the world but you can find really good artwork from artists profiles. So find the one you like and learn it. The way of learning is – look, and second, try to copy their work and write it down and see what're the tricks. Because tattoo artists, we're all doing the same, so we've done the drawing a thousand times, more times than that. I've been doing drawing for what seems like forever, more than ten years now. So I know when they do drawings, why are they doing that? This part should be like this. Why this line has to be blurred. So, copy their work and doing more sketches and practising follow their work every day. Every single update they do, have a look, and if possible, if you have a problem or a question, asking that question so they can answer it, if not, find a way to figure out what they do.
TF: That's really interesting. You evolved from your youthful self who was into graffiti and as you're getting older you're going into tattoos and you seem super passionate about it. You talked a little bit about how people come to you with an idea and then you develop it, how much freedom do you have or does it depend on the person?
AM: To be honest, it depends on the client. Some clients come in with their ideas like they already have the picture so I'll try my best to convince them to change a little bit. You don't want the same tattoo on everyone's body. So I try to convince them how to make it look better but also be a similar idea. This is one type of client. One type of client will come in with a story. I love this type of client. That's the tattoo part, right? You come in with a story and we picture it and then make it a different thing. I love that but I don't get that a lot. A client comes in and has a story that they tell me, so I'm picturing and I'm drawing it and I say, hey, I was thinking, how would it look on your body, blah blah blah blah, and they say, this is what I really want, or, maybe not and then I change. And clients that have an idea of the type of tattoo work that they like, for example black and grey, watercolour or dot, line, which is different, old school, new school, this is what they want. Then they say, I want this, okay, and I'll say what do you want, arm or leg it's different. What sort of concept do you like? They'll give me something. I want a circle, I want a cat. And then I have ideas to work on the different style and the different concept of the drawing.
TF: What's the usual timeframe from when they come to you with an idea and you sketch it before you actually tattoo?
AM: Because we now are all by reservation only, so all the clients, they can come in and we can talk about it or they can chat with me over WeChat about the idea, but because I'm already booked for my time, so I will tell them when is a good time and during that time I will tell them when I start on their drawings.
TF: Are there certain parts of the body that are more challenging to tattoo on?
AM: There are some parts I would never do. Like for me, it's their private parts, never, never. No. I don't think I'd do that, it's just more purist for me, like when people ask you to do something on their face or more challenging, I'd have to say, depends on where it's gonna go and also, like private parts I'm not sure I want to do that. It's not like it's not a pure thing, like showing your artwork. The skin is more like a canvas.
TF: You really have a diverse range of tattoos in your portfolio. You do some coloured tattoos, you do some really intense shading tattoos and then some simple linear tattoos. What's the difference when you are doing different styles of tattoos?
AM: Because right now I only have three years experience, I would love to try all of the different styles to find the one I'm really interested in and then become an expert. So there is not really a difference only for your mind. So if I find the one I'm really, really looking for and I want it, I might be more interested and work really fast. But others it might be a tattoo skill but my mind skills I might need to work on more so I might have to do a lot of research before I design it. This is kind of like the difference.
TF: Are you leaning towards anything yet? Do you have a preference?
AM: Right now I prefer the coloured or black or grey. I choose black and grey for now but I do love coloured. The coloured I just have specific things I want to do. Not like I want to do new school or old school design but I do have specific colours I want to do. But right now I'm focused on black and grey. So with black and grey also the concept is going to be different for me. I'm leaning toward Chinese traditional characters and styles. Recently lots of clients have been coming to me for black and grey and they have a concept about characters and also they like patterns on their feet or on their arm. I'm Chinese and China has a way longer history of those things so I realised those things can become my idea for the design but I'm using lines and black and grey shapes to fill in the style and change this. So I really want to change this so it becomes much more... I'm still working on it. I haven't really finished it.
TF: So what's the longest tattoo you've ever had to do in one sitting?
AM: To be honest, I can do eight hours. But it wasn't only for one person. In the morning I started at ten and I finished at eleven-thirty but I didn't stop. I didn't eat from ten till eleven-thirty. But I did six people. For one person, the longest is five hours because your skin already starts biting so the colours are not taking because your skin is going “aaaargh!” And you start bleeding and the blood can make the colours not take. Five hours is the top. I've never asked a client to do over five hours.
TF: You mentioned before how you really like Chinese characters but I also noticed in some of your photos that you have done tattoos in other languages as well. What are the languages you have done?
AM: Yes. You know Chinese people are really fascinated about different languages which have different meaning. From Greek, or Portuguese they think they have mystery or power for Chinese people. The language has power. So they find it online because always when we are learning some new language, how do you say, for example, “like father, like son” that everybody knows. Sayings. So people choose the sayings in Chinese that everybody knows and they think in another language it seems really powerful.
TF: How do you go about learning to write another language? Do you memorise it or do you research it as well?
AM: Research. You have to do research. It's better if clients come with their own languages they want to do, like different ones so I don't have to check it again because they have to make sure it's the right one. I don't think I have time to research everything. But I still manage to draw something. Drawing is our thing, it’s what they're paying for, not the language. I can't help them with that.
TF: When you were in school what kind of art did you study?
AM: Jewellery design.
TF: How does that relate to what you're doing now?
AM: They're all creative things. Because in China we have a different way, or maybe it's the same, before we go to college we have to pass a test, we're special so we have to go to different high school to study art. To study drawing and painting, water colour and everything. And then we have three different tasks about sketching, some creative design and we have to pass the test and go to college and apply. Yes, at this school fashion design was top so I talked with my teacher, and this must have happened for a reason, me and another girl we both are in the top of the class, so the girl was like she was applying for fashion design, she said, did you actually think of applying? Of these three tasks one of them you're not the top at she is actually better than you, if you apply for fashion design you're gonna lose. They're totally gonna pick her. So she advised me to choose something else. Jewellery design looked cool so I thought let's do it. And I passed the test so I think it was maybe just because of her.
TF: Did you enjoy it?
AM: The jewellery? I loved it. It was so much fun. So you learn so much about things like handmade things. We did about a week of study about jewellery about diamonds and silver and gold how to melt them and how to put them together and use design to make it look better. Original things. I did well in the first year, you know in China the jewellery design companies we've got, they are all copies from different countries' design. I hate that and they paid me so little. I was like, I want to make my original idea, why won't you let me?
You're not good enough.
Okay, I quit. I don't want to do this.
So I did my designs. I did drawing for one year and I just sell them. You know in Shunyi there are a bunch of houses with rich people living in them from other countries whose husbands are working in China so I sell to them. They loved it.
TF: How did you get from there to do tattoo art and graffiti art?
AM: I started drawing when I was six so I always wanted to fulfill my childish dreams. I dream a lot when I was sleeping so I was drawing it down like a cartoon. Like even watch it later or something. The passion was not finished so I just felt, I don't want to go down so after I quit my job I started painting every day. I'd work like six jobs a day, six part-time jobs, from morning till end and I'd go home and I'm painting and painting and painting. Then one day someone said I wanna sign. So I did two years exhibition with this gallery, sold some and got some money but my mum got really sick and I had to go home. Later when I came back, everything changed. So I did some assistant work to save some money to make my mum feel like I have a stable job. She passed away last year. After that, actually I already did it before she passed away, but I didn't tell her because Chinese people think the tattoo is really something so bad. Painting has never stopped for me so I'm still doing painting and exhibitions and things with friends and some galleries. The tattoo was just one time I was having a conversation with my friend and he said, Hey your drawing is so good, so amazing, I love your drawings. Why don't you draw on me? And I did draw on him and he said, Why don't you become a tattoo artist? This is awesome! I love your work on my body. So I free-styled on his body and then we went to a club, this is one story, another friend of mine, I drew on her body and we went to the club and this one girl comes up to her and says, Your tattoo is amazing! And she said, Oh really? My friend here drew it but it's not real it's just a drawing. So she said that and then that guy said, Why don't you become a tattoo artist? So I said, Oh yeah, cool. I'd never thought about that so I did a lot, a lot of research and also about when tattoos started in China and how the market is now so are people still wanting tattoos and why are people wanting to be tattooed. So I did a lot of research then bam, I just did it.
TF: So how did you think tattoos and the way people perceive tattoos is evolving?
AM: I don't know about other countries because they're not developing countries they're moving faster but, you know China is really growing fast recently. Chinese people started to realise that something is really important to them, like part of them. Like some Chinese people still think a tattoo is fashion, it's cool. Hey! I have a tattoo. Hey what's up, man? It's like it's fashion or something, I'm so cool. So part of that and partly people started to realise it's something I want to keep forever, that's changing.
TF: How do you hope that it will change? How do you want people to see it in the future?
AM: In the future, I don't have a big vision for the big picture I just hope people could get their stories on their skin and you go to a different country and you tell people, Hey this is one thing I did in a different country. Actually something happened, so I did this tattoo, I hated it now but still it's a memory. So this is what I hope people will do – is keep it as a memory. I don't like people coming and saying, I don't know what I'm doing but I'm here???
TF: Have you ever done any of your own tattoos on your own body?
AM: This is the one I did.
TF: Is it difficult to do?
AM: It's difficult to do it on yourself, like I have friends who hold onto my arms because the skin needs something to hold it so I'm really tight to do it. But I will do on my legs because that's easier.
TF: Do you have a favourite of your own that you've done on someone else or on yourself?
AM: Yeah, I do. My friend is leaving China, he's my favourite guy and he's leaving, I'm so sad. His body is filled with mostly my tattoos and that style is kind of like more drawing and looking for in the picture and drawing more and shading. This one, this is the peacock I did for him and also the merman I did it on him maybe half a year ago.
TF: So what is it that you love about this one? Oh, he's cute!
AM: He's really cute. He's gay. So if you can use the line to show the layers and people use the shading to show the layers but actually lines and dots can show the layers too. And also, right now I only use black but in the future I want to use grey to also show the space and layers. To show it's depth so I'm trying to figure out how to do it on the body because right now I still do drawings and when I figured out how to do it on the body it looks cool.
TF: I've seen some articles about 3D tattoos that are becoming more popular now. Is that the kind of thing that you're looking at?
AM: No. That's something different. I mean I could do a 3D tattoo. It's looks really difficult but it's not that hard. It's just about shading different and also, when you draw something, usually when you draw lines you think it's only on one dimension. [starts drawing] But when you do this or this, maybe one or maybe two, right? So lines can show more difference and 3D works like, this is one but I'll show you how to do this and then this. So when I do shading here it's darker so it's behind. I do maybe light or black so this is in the front and this is way behind so this is called 3D. This is how 3D works – the shading and the line work and also the drawing records the lines, the things close to you are more clear so the lines have to be more strong in front of you. The other lines behind, you may see or not. It's more detailed, there're more things that you're looking at. So I like these new things more than 3D. I want to work on this more in the future and it may be one of my things.
TF: You were talking before about how you had painting exhibitions but you also mentioned that you have a new one coming out?
AM: Yeah, This should come up soon but they are worried about if they cannot sell any so they're actually working on the selling now so they're taking all of our work and printed a book to sell it to the buyers and if all the buyers decided to buy all of it, then they can put it into the gallery.
TF: Do you know which galleries and when?
AM: In Caochangdi but I don't know which gallery now because they're still trying to figure out which gallery they are going to use.
TF: What are the paintings you submitted to this one about?
AM: This one is called Chinese Medicine. This is the one I did for them because they asked for one from one hundred artists so I only did one. This exhibition was supposed to happen earlier but it didn't. There's a girl in this picture, the character I was working on for an exhibition I did a long, long time ago was kind of similar.
TF: So she's someone that you've painted over many, many years?
AM: Many, many years.
TF: Who is she to you? Is she just a character that you've created?
AM: In China we have this person, it's a wise person. He is, I don't know if it's real but, in the history he's a really wise men, in North Korea, long, long, long, long time ago. He knows earth, ground and people, animals, he knows everything because his eyes are like this. His eyeballs are like this because he can see everything around him so this is the story. So I used this idea, I wanted my girl to be a really wise girl. She's little, she's little, fragile and innocent but you're wise. She knows what's going on. That's why all the girls I did with eyes stretched from the different sides. If we did this, we can't do this. So this is how I represent this character.
TF: And what organs is she holding? Kidneys?
AM: I think it's lungs.
TF: Why did you choose that?
AM: You know, they gave me the Chinese medicine thing to talk about the plants and the plants made me think about cigarettes. You know you can use growing things to put in cigarettes so these leaves you can use plants to make your organs fresh. Chinese medicine is really warm to help the organs work better. Heat and also yin yang helps that so I think the Wetsern way is to use a machine to check the numbers of the body. Chinese, we test the pulse to feel the blood and feel the yin or yang, cold or warm they try to balance the body. So I wanted to try to say, like the balance in nature, you can balance your organs inside and outside you can balance.
TF: They came to you and asked you to do Chinese medicine?
AM: They told me the idea is Chinese medicine.
TF: Because your parents are involved in Chinese medicine, right?
AM: Yeah, but I never learned.
TF: That's funny that it happened like that.
AM: It's coincidence.
TF: I was wondering, when you were a child was there a time when you knew that you wanted to be an artist?
AM: I didn't even know that art was a thing. When I was a child I just liked drawing. I think what I do remember, I'm always drawing. And then funny things happened to my grandmother and when I draw, draw, draw, my mum says, Don't draw everywhere. There was like empty wall and she came and she'd paint in the morning and then I'd draw on it again.
TF: You're just a little graffiti artist.
AM: It's true. Pretty much every day. When she told this story to my grandmother, she said, Oh it's fine, the paper and pencils are not going to cost so much as a piano. But who knew, after a couple of years when I tried to get into college it actually cost a lot of money.
TF: You said that you went back home, where is home to you?
AM: My hometown is in Shanxi, Datong.
TF: Do you feel like, because you're not from Beijing but you live in Beijing and I saw in your photos that you do a lot of travelling as well, do you feel like places influence your art like where you grew up or Beijing or places you've visited?
AM: Yeah. Definitely. They've given me a lot of inspiration. My hometown gave me some inspiration from stories. It's like Beijing but more calm. The people I know are really, really Chinese people. Just like they're not really that open in international ways. They just grow up and go to a better school, get a job, get married and have kids and live happily ever after. You get a really warm side but I'm not really old-fashioned enough to join their path. Beijing you have more opportunity. They're open to you. You can talk to them about how people are different, from a different world. And you listen to them, they give me a story and inspiration. So different places definitely give you more ideas. And also, I love when people tell me more about things, like last year, my friend gave me some idea about Chicago and I think, What is this Chicago? Is it important to me? So if I go to new city, I like to ask, What is it about this city? What do you think is representative of this city? It's like, when I see you, I'm curious about who you are. I'm curious because you've got great hair.
TF: [laugh] We do have great hair. You talk about how you dedicate so much of your time to researching tattoos, so how much time do you dedicate to the paintings?
AM: Recently I don’t have that much time because I need to earn money so I spend more time tattooing clients though every week I paint at least one day. Doing the painting then finishing over the rest of this month. I try to use every month to try to get one done. If I start with bigger ones than maybe two or three months.
TF: How do you think tools influence your art? Like your sketch pencil, you tattoo with a tattoo pen and you paint with a brush.
AM: I love tools! This is endless. This is so different of course, like with painting you use watercolours and Chinese watercolours or some other material, and with your painting you can choose whatever you want to use, right? But with tattoos you only have one option. But tattoos and painting are different. With painting you can free-style. If you feel like using watercolours then some oils and see what happens and after, it's like, Cool, now I'll do the next one. But with tattoos it's not like this. It's one thing forever. When I'm doing drawings it's the same thing. This one and then that's it. When you're painting you can use other things too because sometimes I use salt and candy. When you melt the salt it can suck the oil and you can make it a different colour. It's really cool. So my friend told me, the oil he used with fire, you can burn it first with a candle. You burn it first then mix together the melted colour and you can mix melted colours together and spill it on the canvas. It's beautiful. This is something you can't do with a tattoo.
TF: So these are the kind of tools you can play with, right?
AM: I use different tools too, but when I see different artists at work doing paper cuts or whatever, sometimes I give myself just one hour or two hours to play with the tools. The paper, the scissors or when I see people's work and want to use other materials to copy that work so, in my mind, I get excited.
TF: How do you feel the different mediums of art that you do influence each other? The jewellery design then painting and graffiti then tattoos, do you think they influence each other or are they separate?
AM: It's separate and also together. They all influence each other because it's all my inner working things. Jewellery design requires a lot of work because you want people to wear it beautifully and it's also creative design and your mind opens. The idea comes from all the nature, the people you see and the things around you. It's the same. This part it's all the same. The inspiration, the flash, is all the same, you get that from people, from your work, from nature, but when you do it, actually make it happen, that part is different. Like with painting, you want to make it happen so what are you expecting? With a tattoo, you make it happen, clients and you are expecting. That part is different. But the beginning is all the same, it's all connected. Sometimes I still buy some jewellery design books from different schools outside of China. They have such amazing ideas. I don't think they want to sell it they just wanted to make it. I think it's awesome. So that inspires you a lot. It's like your mind opens. This is cool.
TF: Do you think there's anything different about being a Chinese tattoo artist, and a female Chinese tattoo artist as well?
AM: I don’t think it's different because people don't really care if you're female or not. I'm not shy to do it for guys. But I think somehow the style of the female tattoo artists is more sensitive to the client so they can understand. For example, I have some guy tattoo artist friends and they always want big, Do you want this? It has to be good, it has to be cool, it has to be big! Otherwise you'll regret it! But females do not think like this. If it's big and good it's good, if it's small it's good too. They don't really feel I have to be strong!
TF: I've had two tattoo artists, a female and a male, and the man said, It has to be bigger to see all the lines!
AM: I think guys like that but, as a female, I don't really care. I like big ones that show the line work I’m proud of, but if it fits for you, this is for you, if it's not small is for you. That's how I feel.
TF: You’re definitely gonna design our tattoos, we’ll come with our stories.
AmTattoos is an artist from Datong in Shanxi province. She moved jewellery design to graffiti and has found her niche with tattooing China's best and brightest. She has had work displayed in galleries and her graffiti murals can currently be seen across from Beiluo Bread Bar on Beiluoguxiang and in the Temple/DADA complex on Gulou Dong Dajie.
Find her at: TATTOORIFF 813, Tattoo Studio, Tianzhi Jiaozi Number 1, Unit 3, floor 11, 1101, Shuangjing District