These days, plenty of kids grow up aspiring to become tattoo artists, but during the eighties and early nineties this was seldom the case. Jess Mascetti first fell in love with tattooing around the time when the ban was lifted in NYC, although it took over a decade for all the pieces to finally fall into place after she began getting tattooed by her soon to be mentor, Josh Lord. We sat down with Mascetti to learn how she wound up becoming a world-renowned artist and what valuable lessons led her to where she is today.
What were your favorite art mediums going up and when did you decide to become an artist?
Bic pens, markers, pencils or whatever was available to draw with. Markers are still my favorite and definitely the most fun. My artwork as a child was very much inspired by the comic books and animated films of the time. I’d imagined myself as either a comic illustrator or animator as far back as I can remember. I've always been drawn to the moving image—be it dynamic juxtaposed panels on a page, frames on a reel or pictures imprinted on living skin.
Take us through your career as an artist before you became a tattooer?
I was lucky to have been born in NYC and have the opportunity to attend the High School of Art and Design—a fantastic institution for young aspiring visual artists. When the tattoo ban in NYC was finally lifted in 1997 I was hungry for an apprenticeship at any shop that would take me. My brother linked me up with an old childhood friend of his, "Mad Dog," who owned a shop on the Sixth Ave strip.
Unfortunately, between my day school hours, night school and full-time work, I didn't have many hours left to be a proper apprentice and I lost that grand opportunity. After high school, I attended F.I.T., which was a complete waste of my time and efforts, but I had a scholarship for their illustration program and didn't have affordable options outside of that, so I fucked off there until I completed my Associates degree and dropped out soon after.
I managed to obtain freelance animation and motion graphics gigs here and there, as well as creating boards for a marketing firm for a while, but my heart wasn't in any of that work. The money wasn't that great either and I had major student debt to pay off. I had worked in NYC's nightlife and club scene as a cocktail waitress since I was 15, then after Giuliani's war with nightlife culture, the dance clubs that made NYC great were all shut down and turned into bottle service "clubs" that catered only to the Black AmEx crowd. So I drank the Kool-Aid and became a sparkler-waving bottle service ho for a few years. I lived life hard back then. I involved myself with the wrong people, made terrible life choices, stayed in abusive relationships and completely lost my identity, my voice, my art and gave up on my dreams as I had no idea how to obtain them anymore. The money, at least, was thankfully good enough to put a dent in my student loans, and for the first time ever, I had a little cash left over to invest in the back piece that had been haunting me for so long.
In the pre-smartphone social media days, one would look for tattoo artists by physically going shop to shop and looking at portfolios, as well as digging through tattoo magazines. It was in Tattoo Magazine that I discovered the incredible work of Josh Lord and just had to have his work on me. As luck would have it, he happened to be the best friend of my friend B Paul—who has always been my champion and advocate. B Paul was able to get me what is usually an impossible consultation.
The time spent working with Josh on my back piece reignited that desire to not only create art again, but to become a tattoo artist. I knew this was the art I was always meant to create, as I love artistic collaboration and the stories that people carry with them.
By the time my back piece with Josh was nearing completion, I was able to convince Josh, along with Patrick Conlon and East Side Ink (with the help of B Paul) to take me on as an apprentice. As an apprentice, I was looking for an opportunity to learn this sacred craft, not knowing then that I would also gain a loving family.
I officially started tattooing in 2010, which, at the age of 29, is a late start in our industry. And though I feel I’m a decade behind in my craft, I'm so very grateful that the art of tattooing came back into my life when it did.
What are some of the most valuable lessons you learned during your apprenticeship?
As someone who had suffered from low self-esteem, Josh and Patty tried to instill in me the confidence that is needed to have someone in my care and under the needle. It's our responsibility as tattooers to have confidence and believe in ourselves and our learned skills or we're doing a disservice to anyone looking to trust us with their body art.
How did you form your signature tattoo style?
I'm not sure if I have a signature style. I hope to always have my work be ever evolving and I'm forever open to change. Though I'm a decade into this craft, I still feel I have much more to learn. There are themes and imagery that I'm more drawn to creating, but the style application varies person to person dependent on their preferences. I'm always yearning to grow, be better and try new techniques, hoping to advance my skill day-to-day.
What are your favorite flora and fauna to tattoo?
Anything with feathers, petals or scales. I think the movement and patterning of those elements flow so beautifully and so naturally with any part of the body.
What’s your favorite pop culture fandoms? What are some nerd tattoos you’d like to do in the future?
I'm still a weeb stuck in ‘80s and ‘90s era anime worship. My first and last love will forever be “Sailor Moon” and I would love to tattoo any character or element from that epic series.
What advice would you give to new artists?
Draw every single day—even if you don't want to or don't know what to draw. Keeping a daily practice will expedite your skills and expand your imagination.
When you’re not tattooing, what do you like to do?
My current hobby between tattoo appointments and tattoo drawings has been learning to memorize a monologue from every Shakespeare play written. This is a relatively new hobby and I only have five down thus far—“The Merchant of Venice,” “Titus Andronicus,” “Henry V,” “Twelfth Night,” “Macbeth” and I’m currently working on “The Taming of the Shrew.” Get me drunk and I'll annoyingly perform all of them for anyone within ear shot with or without their consent.
What else should our readers know about you?
My dog Owen is the best part about me.