Artists: Jess Yen
1230 South Garfield Avenue
Alhambra, CA 91801
What year did you start tattooing?
It was back in 1987. I did my first tattoo of a kanji character, “love,” on my classmate’s arm by using a needle that was tied to a bamboo stick. This method is known as tebori—a traditional hand-poked tattooing. However, I was doing it as a hobby at the beginning until I started my career as tattoo artist. I have been tattooing professionally since 1992.
How did you get into tattooing?
When I first came to the United States, I was pursuing a master degree in fine arts; however, my mom back in Taiwan had financial difficulties and money had run out. As a poor artist, I knew I had to find a way to survive by myself. In a fortuitous way, I visited a tattoo parlor in Venice Beach with friends. That was my first time to see an electrical tattoo machine, and I was amazed by its “speed.” I have decided to combine hand poked tattoo skill with an advantage of an electrical machine to make a living. The beginning was never easy. I started my tattoo career at my garage until I was invited by a local tattoo shop owner to work at his place in Alhambra, CA. We became really good friends and he sold his business to me in 2001, which I have renamed My Tattoo.
Where did you apprentice?
Although I did not have any formal apprenticeship, seven years of art schooling and three years in the interior
design industry contribute greatly to me as an artist. I learned the technique of hand-poked tattooing by watching over other tattooists and trying it out myself. When I picked up the needle tying into a bamboo stick and started pushing ink into skin, it was like déjà vu. It seems like I was a tattoo artist in a previous life and this was in my memory. This did not mean that I was already good at that time. It took many years of tattooing, trying out different tools and inks, and making special needles.
Do you have any special training?
Because of my enthusiasm in art since childhood, my mom decided to send me to an art technical high school in Taipei, which is well-known for its art and design program. I continued to study in fine arts and obtained a bachelor art degree. After graduating college, I started my first career as an interior designer at a Japanese interior designer’s office in Taipei. Three years working in interior industry taught me many great things in perspective, materials, texture, and contrast. Now these skills have become great assets to me in tattooing.
What conventions have you worked at? Have you won any awards? What are some of your best convention memories?
I currently own over 300 trophies from both U.S. conventions and international conventions. The most recent ones are Best of Show and First Best of Black-and-Gray in Bogota, Colombia; First Best of Back, and Second Best of Black-and-Gray in Tokyo, Japan; First Best of Day, First Best of Color, and Second Best of Black-and Gray in London, United Kingdom; Best of Color in Florence, Italy; Best Artist of the Show, Best of Color, Best of Asian, Best of Back, and Best of Sleeve in Phoenix, Arizona (Hell City). This year , I have attended about 14 tattoo conventions nationally and internationally. I always remember my very first tattoo convention in Las Vegas back in 2004. What I taught my students is to attend every convention like your first time, and then you will always learn new things and make the best of yourself.
How do you describe your style?
People know my style as realism Oriental. Growing up in Taiwan, a country which was colonized by Japan for about 50 years, both Chinese and Japanese cultures have greatly influenced me as a Taiwanese. My grandparents were educated in Japanese and raised me in a strict traditional way. In addition to my background in fine arts and experiences as an interior designer, my Oriental design works are slightly distinguished from others. Unlike traditional Oriental art, I add elements of realism and materialism into my work. Oriental style has a lot of creatures that never existed, so I want to bring a life to them. When you see a dragon done by me, I want you to feel the sharpness of its claws, the texture of its snaked skin, and its vivid eyes that tell you the storyline behind this work. Along with client’s muscles, the different complexion and reflection of each scale and the movement of hairs give you a visual effect of vigor. The theme of my artwork preserves traditional culture and stories, but with details in realism and materialism, hopefully, it takes you to a different level of Oriental arts.
What inspires you as an artist?
I get great inspiration from artists I am admired of. Ito Hikozou is a great Japanese artist who specialized
in portraying characters, heroes of the Suikoden. The vigor of the facial changes and movements of each character are interesting, and the storyline is well expressed. I also like Hwa San Chiuen, Nagano Tsuyoshi, Shimura Tatsumi, and Rob Gonsalves. Learning from different artists encourages me to draw/design
more, and inspires me to be as great as them. Traveling is also a great way to inspire myself. Visiting different cities, seeing how other people live in other parts of the world, and learning from them all inspire me in different ways.
What sets you apart from other artists?
I think it is the variety I offer to the clients. I like my work to be textured and dimensional, merging with Asian influence. In tattooing, there are different types of disciplines: black-and-gray with great guys like Jose Lopez, Bob Tyrrell, and Steven Soto; color with Nikko and Jesse Smith; dark images as well. I choose to try and bring all disciplines together—black-and-gray realism, color, traditional Oriental, and realism Oriental. I do all things because I like the challenges, and I still practice tebori—hand-poked tattooing.
What other mediums do you work in?
Since I have completed seven years of art school education, I have worked on many different types of mediums, like acrylic, oil, watercolor, pencil, and charcoal. During my few years working with the Japanese interior designer, I have worked a lot with marker, and it became my specialty and one of my favorite mediums. As an interior designer in Taiwan, the work hours were very long. I spent a lot of time studying the perspective and creating different type of materials and textures, like metal, fabric, water, wood, and their reflection and contrast. Those experiences are valuable when I set my foot in the tattoo industry.
How have you branched out from tattooing?
I am currently working on my new book and will continue to do more bodysuits. I plan to publish books about my work, drawing, Oriental arts, and tebori. My ultimate goal is to open an art museum and gallery for Jess Yen Tattoo Family. This museum will exhibit the history of tebori, my work, and my students’ work, as well as that of the next generation, and thereafter.
What tattoo artists do you admire most?
Master Horiyoshi III from Yokohama, Japan, is not only my most admired tattoo artist, but an idol to me. I still recall watching over his picture hanging on the wall when I was getting my first tattoo at the age of 16 in Taiwan. I have the utmost respect for not only the discipline, but for the tradition and for Horiyoshi III sensei, so I went to Japan and visited him. Our first meeting turned out to be more than what I was expecting. Horiyoshi sensei invited me and my tattoo family to have dinner with his family. Our relationship has been very close ever since. Now I visit him and his family every year, and his son stays with me when visiting the United States. Because I am self-taught, many people questioned my authenticity and my name in “Hori.” Many times it broke my heart when people called me “fake” and said disrespectful things about me and my tattoo family. Horiyoshi sensei said no problem and recognized my tattoo family name in “Hori Yen” as a family in the United States, and that I am a Taiwanese man who practices tebori. I am truly honored by this. His legendary and kind heart are much appreciated.
What kind of tattoos do you look forward to doing?
My lifetime goal is to complete 100 bodysuit tattoos. I have completed about 10 or so, with about 20 in progress. This will be a long journey which I am very much enjoying. I found myself very blessed with a career I enjoy and many people’s love and support. I have much appreciation toward my clients, my students, and my family and friends. In return, I will do the best work to show my love and gratitude. There is no single tattoo I look forward to doing or am dying to do, but a long, long journey that I am looking forward to.