Hyun Gi Park is a self-taught, self-made tattoo artist based in Tujunga, Los Angeles but has been traveling around the United States and making her mark as an artist. We've been inspired by her striking, distinct style and reached out to her for this series to get to know her better. The following is our conversation with her at her newly renovated studio that she invited us to.
Alnea: To start off, it may be corny, but who are your main influences? It doesn't matter what industry - doesn't have to necessarily be another tattoo artist.
Hyun Gi: I'll just start off with some random ones: I really like Alejandro Jodorowsky's films, and for artists, Mika Rottenberg has really great work. It's like a lot of installations and working with women and laborers. I really like Comme de Garçon.
Alnea: Yeah, [Rei Kawakubo] is really who I'm influenced by as well!
Alnea: What are the challenges that you encounter in your industry now, as a woman and also as an Asian woman - I think those encounter different challenges.
Hyun Gi: I mean, given Instagram, it's been definitely a lot more open and accepting for tattoo artists. I personally think I wouldn't be tattooing if it wasn't for Instagram. Before, I feel like traditional tattoo shops were the only way to go for the most part or if you knew someone - and those shops are very closed off for the most part, especially for women and women of color tattoo artists. The energy is very hyper-masculine and Americana/traditional and very white. I always felt kind of looked down upon especially since I am self-taught. They would view me as a "scratcher," which is the term, just because I didn't do a proper apprenticeship. I started off with stick-and-poke then I got a machine - so it's been about 3 years of tattooing.
Mandy: When did you start posting your work on your Instagram account? Did your business change drastically when you did?
Hyun Gi: I got Instagram in like end of 2016, but I hadn't started really tattooing until I was about to graduate and I was worried about money since I was moving out of Richmond. I was applying for a bunch of artist residencies because I majored in sculpture, so basically, tattooing was how I could make money while traveling since I wasn't staying anywhere - I was hopping from residency to residency and cities to cities. Tattooing really picked up when I moved to New York last year, and I was only in New York for one year.
Alnea: I've been nomadic as well my whole life, and that whole lifestyle is such a crazy experience. In those years you've been so nomadic, what did you pick up and learn from it?
Hyun Gi: I had to very quickly become more of an adult. I was 21 when my parents had disowned me, and I became nomadic and picked up artist residencies. I learned a lot because I traveled to other countries I had never been to - I had never been to Europe prior or Asia in like 10 years. It was a lot of survival mode and meeting new people. More than anything, it made me grow very quickly and understand what the industry was like in different countries like the differences in American culture and Asian culture for example.
Alnea: Yeah, like from my own nomadic experiences, I've learned that it allows you to problem solve differently and that helps you sustain a project or a business.
Hyun Gi: Definitely. It forces you to be more creative when your resources are limited. Like with my fine arts work in school, I ended up doing mostly performance and I didn't have the funds for new materials. It drove me crazy because art school is the worst in some ways - it's full of kids that can spend hundreds of dollars of their parents money on materials and I see it in the dump the next day. So performance was more feasible for me; it was more present. And that applies for all of my other work especially when I was traveling. Stick-and-poke was really convenient because you don't need the machine or all these other tools - you just need needle and ink and other hygienic stuff, so it was super easy to travel with.
Alnea: On your body, who do you trust to tattoo you? Do you do a lot yourself?
Hyun Gi: Well, I did a lot on [my right] arm; a lot of these were stick and poke since I'm left handed. For people, I've had so many different people tattoo me. Most of all my tattoos from other people are trades from other artists. Usually it's my friends or other artists from Instagram. If they're in town, then we can do a trade. It's really sweet; you get to know them and have something from them. I've also let friends who've never tattooed anyone tattoo me! Just little ones!
Alnea: Do you see your body separately from your mind? Do you view it as an art form and there's a disconnect? There's some people who are so connected to their physical form that they don't want any tattoos at all. How does your mind connect or disconnect from your body?
Hyun Gi: I think so. I think I take sacred to a different definition. I don't think I want to keep my body "pure" because I don't really believe in that - whatever "pure" means. All these tattoos from people are all experiences and stories - it's like a friend or someone I've become friends with. It's a sacred act to have someone tattoo you.
Alnea: What is your favorite part of the body to tattoo?
Hyun Gi: Oh that's a good question. Hm, maybe I have a couple. I think like fun placements like where the arm moves. Some place intentional but not too obvious. I really like stomach tattoos. Places on the arm are really fun too. Intentional, interesting places. It really depends on that tattoo as well!
Mandy: You previously talked about how you grew up in North Carolina, and there probably weren't a lot of Korean influences, and since your art is very eastern Asian influenced, do you think you were able to connect with your culture more through your work?
Hyun Gi: I definitely think so. I think more than anything I really connected with people. If I were to throw out a percentage, I would say roughly I tattoo 85-90% Asians. I think it's largely because I'm Asian. They want to talk about their experiences as Asians in America.
Alnea: You're going to be like a tattoo therapist!
Hyun Gi: I really feel like it! It's really great, but I definitely feel like it!
Alnea: I mean, maybe they can relate to you in a way. They can find a place of validation or a comfort in knowing it's okay to be a rebel.
Hyun Gi: Also I think since I tend to tattoo a lot of eastern Asian imagery, they don't want to go to just a stranger where it doesn't mean anything to [the artist]. It's nice that I can work on that with people.
Mandy: Do you feel like you don't want to be put in that box?
Hyun Gi: To be honest, I'm a little split. I love the part where I get to meet and connect with people, but also I don't want to be a gatekeeper. I don't want to be like "this is right, this is wrong, you can't do this." So it's been tricky for me honestly. I've been trying to navigate how to tell people I'm not comfortable with something.
Alnea: What's the most interesting tattoo that you've done?
Hyun Gi: I did this one tattoo on someone who's Korean in Austin, Texas - I was on a road trip from New York. They're currently transitioning; she had a lot of issues with her mother and we really connected on that. When she was transitioning to be a female, she had reconnected with her mother and their relationship had gotten a lot better, so the tattoo was for her mother. It made me cry! I was so moved and touched and glad that I could be a part of that experience.
Alnea: That's amazing. There's something so special about this job - it allows you to have that depth. Some jobs you just do and there may not be a depth to it, but this one you're really connecting.
Hyun Gi: Yeah definitely! That's why I'm a little less interested in working in a traditional tattoo shop. I mean it is a business transaction, but it just seems a little too sterile and cold in a traditional shop. I'm more into private studios where hopefully the client and I am more comfortable.
Arno: How do you and have you refused potential clients before?
Hyun Gi: I have. Mostly for cultural appropriation. I get really interesting DMs. Someone DMed me before and asked where I was from, they liked my neck tattoo, and they wanted to get "letters" similar to them. And I was like, "why does my ethnicity matter?" And this isn't an actual alphabet. It's a talisman for my grandmother. So it seemed like they wanted to copy my neck tattoo, and now my ethnicity matters because you don't know what language it is. For the most part, I'm pretty open as long as it's not problematic! To some, it's purely aesthetic and don't care to know what it means or what is really is. It blows my mind to want this and not know what it is.
Thank you to Hyun Gi for letting us into her studio amidst her busy schedule! Her work can be found on her Instagram account.
Hyun Gi has self-renovated her own studio space, Baboshop in Tujunga, Los Angeles. She plans to have her studio function as a place not only as a private studio, but also as a space for events and classes.