Joice Wang Talks Mental Health, Self-Harm and Tattooing in an Exclusive Interview

Located at Soho's Grit N Glory Tattoo Boutique, Joice Wang has developed a reputation as the queen of delicate and elegant floral tattoos. Her talents have attracted thousands of clients, many of whom would never think of getting a tattoo before seeing her feminine designs. However, there's more to this Manhattan-based artist than a pretty portfolio. She's also changing the lives of people who suffer from mental health disorders and have self-harmed with free tattoos. Every month, Wang gives away a free tattoo to a lucky client and in return, asks for a donation to one of three charities. Take a look at how she got started with this project and what she hopes to teach the world about giving back with ink.

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When did you first decide to give away a tattoo to someone who self-harms and what was your motivation behind this decision?

 Joice: I actually began by heavily discounting the self harm cover ups I did and not really posting about it because i kinda wanted to go about it quietly. But then I realized it would be probably better to do it more publicly to reach the people who needed the most help with their more severe scars. 

I was inspired by a few artists I'd seen online offering free self harm scar coverups and felt like I was now at a place where I can afford to offer something similar 

How did this become something that you do monthly and how has this project evolved over time?

I am still working out some details, so the project is evolving over time. I am now prioritizing pieces by severity to put those who are likely to be turned away by other artists in first. I also decided to try to eventually do more than one per month but because of my travel schedule and already booked appointments, I have to keep it at one a month for now.

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What are the challenges you face as an artist tattooing over scars?

Scarred skin is raised in certain places and recessed in others. It also doesn’t take ink as well as clear skin. It has been a huge learning experience as far as needle choices and other techniques.

What different techniques, color palettes or approaches do you use when tattooing over scars?

Well I quickly learned that large mags cannot saturated severe scars, so a lot of these projects are more time consuming because I have to use a smaller needle arrangement to saturate each section between scars individually. Also I tend to use more black ink to cover deeper scars so they don’t look too apparent as they would with lighter colors.

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What’s the most rewarding part of the process and how do their stories impact you personally?

I think the most important part is that I require everyone to make a donation to the three charity organizations I picked out. I want to make a difference not only for the individuals receiving the scar coverups but also for the mental health community as a whole.

Which charities can your clients choose to donate to and how’d you pick them?

The three charity organizations I chose are: 
American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which is a national charity that works to provide services for those who have suicidal thoughts and those who have lost loved one to suicide. 

The Brain and Behavior Foundation, which awards grants to discover more about mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and more .

The Trevor Foundation, which provides crisis intervention and suicide prevention for LGBTQ young adults.

I chose these three to cover all the bases. I was trying to think of which foundations provided the most necessary help and it really came down to three main things, which are research, crisis intervention, and specialized crisis services for those who struggle with their gender identity and sexual orientation. 

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What’s your process for selecting someone for a free tattoo and what does the demographic of clients look like?

My process is similar to the way I book normal appointments. I ask for their idea, photo references, and their availability. Then I choose select clients who have the most severe scarring and try to book them accordingly. Mostly, the types of tattoos I make, florals, attract more female clients from the ages of 18 to 30.

What do you wish more people knew about self-harm and mental health?

I think a lot of people dismiss self harm as a cry for attention, but from my experience with my clients, they are mostly always in hidden areas of their body. Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma on mental illness, but that sort of thing takes time to change.

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Beyond helping people benefiting people who self-harm, what other causes and charities have you worked for as a tattooer?

I am also really lucky to work at Grit N Glory, which is a shop that really dedicates itself to fundraising for charity and good causes. For example, we hold walk in days for the ACLU and the ASPCA. Aside from these I also partner up with Mark Wade, who is a tattoo artist in NYC, to raise funds for charity and giveaway a collaboration tattoo regularly. We just did one that raised $4000+ to cancer research and hope to do many more in the future.

What else should people know about self-harm, tattooing over scars and mental health?

The main thing I hope everyone can take away from this is to turn what hurts you into something beautiful, however you may interpret that. I also have depression and anxiety and I channeled that into becoming the best artist I could and try to make people happy with my humor and charity work. Whatever situation you’re facing in your younger years, just know it all can change. I never imagined myself to be a successful tattoo artist but sometimes you have to muster up the courage to do something completely outside your comfort zones because everyone is capable of being successful and then in turn using their success to help others.

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What do you think about her philanthropic endeavors? Share your thoughts, opinions and questions in the comments section on Facebook.