Jessie Brett, 30, from Sydney, tattoo artist. After living in China three-and-a-half years, first as a student of Chinese and then as an English teacher, the lifelong China enthusiast ("I read Wild Swans when I was 13, and after that learning about China was my hobby," she says) decided to travel down a new career path as an independent tattoo artist. Success? She feels reasonably confident.
How did you learn how to tattoo?
Lots and lots of practice. My degree is in fine arts, painting and drawing, and you have to do heaps of color theory. I know a bit from working in [a tattoo] shop and having been tattooed. The girl who got me the job is a tattooist; she also worked from home, so I was able to find out how you do tattoos from home—it's quite important to keep things really clean and hygienic. My first tattoos were on fruit skins—that's the closest to human skin. So you can practice your line work, and then also [my boyfriend] Mike makes up those silicon fake skins, which are a bit better for practicing things like shading, and then after that I did a few tattoos on myself, and then Mike. The bravest guinea pigs I've had have been Australians—Aussies are heaps into tattoos. My first customer was an Australian guy. It was his first tattoo.
Most people just [learn] through an apprenticeship ... but in Australia and places like the U.S. they treat tattooing as some kind of magical job that you have to work really hard for. It's kind of, "Oh, you have to earn your place as a tattooist," which is actually crap, it's not true. It's just a trade, it's a skill, it's a job anybody can do if they're willing to learn how to draw. You can do courses in hygiene. At the shop I worked at, I had to clean everything to Australian standards, which are really high. You just have to make sure you've got the right cleaning equipment and are aware of the different types of blood-borne diseases that are around and how you get rid of them.
What sorts of customers have you had?
Foreigners, mostly, who want a tattoo but might be concerned about cleanliness. I've been really lucky, because [my clients have gotten] tattoos that they've been thinking about for a reasonable amount of time or have some ideas but haven't been able to draw. I've been able to design a lot of stuff in collaboration with them. And for me that's a lot more fun than working from a pre-existing stencil. I have to go with what the client wants, obviously, but if I think something is going to look better, I'll suggest it. A lot of the foreign community that you meet here are interesting people—they're out exploring the world, and so their tattoo choices are more interesting too. I did a crawfish on one girl's foot. And a charm bracelet of different little animals in a tree; a children's illustration-book-style on the foot. After you finish, they're on this tattoo high—they're so excited and they're so happy.
Can you talk about your own tattoos?
My parents made me wait until I was 18 to get a tattoo, so my first tattoo, like a lot of people's, was really small and on my back, and then it was years until I got more. I got two half-sleeves and my chest done, and then my next ones were the ones I did myself. I started with some easy ones and then after that I decided to do some much bigger pieces. I'm not heaps precious about my skin. I meet a lot of people here from other countries who immediately say, "I wouldn't get a tattoo." And I think it's interesting because everybody of a certain age in Australia has a tattoo—even my mom has two tattoos. My mom got her first tattoo when she was like 50. It's just pretty common there.
How and why did you make the transition from teacher to tattooist?
Before you turn 30, a lot of people have a bit of a panic about what they're doing with their lives. I was worried because there's not a lot of money in painting, and Mike's thinking about moving to Europe, and I didn't want to get stuck washing dishes in Germany, so I decided I needed to find myself a skilled trade that I could do which wouldn't require language, and because I can draw, I thought tattooing would be the best. I wouldn't probably have thought about it in Australia because I wouldn't have the money to buy the equipment and I wouldn't have had the time to practice. Tattooing doesn't make a lot of money [in China], but if I can get a lot of work here, by the time I get to Germany I should be able to find a job in a shop there even though I've not done an apprenticeship.
I don't have a lot of skills, so I can't just go and set up a business which is what a lot of people do if they don't want to teach English. I thought tattooing might be good because I don't know any other foreigners who are doing tattooing here. So I worked for a company that paid a high salary for a while and made enough money to support myself for at least the next six months and to be able to buy all of the equipment. And now I do a very small teaching-English job to keep me going until the tattooing thing picks up.
It might work out in the end and it might not. It's something that you can travel with anyway. So if it doesn't work here in China, then I'd move on somewhere else. And the English[-teaching] thing too, not really a complete failure. It gets you by. But at some point if you decided this is where you're going to live and teaching is not your thing, you've got to find something else to do.
To contact Jessie e-mail her at wenwendewenshen [AT[ gmail [DOT] com or check samples of her work.