Words by Kat Thompson
Photography by Josh Boissiere
Jess Chen gave me my first tattoo earlier this year. It’s a tiger, surrounded by small, floating jasmines—a tribute to both my mom and my love of big cats. Every time I glance down my arm at it, or catch a glimpse of it through a mirror, I feel a surge of strength but also gratefulness—that mine and Jess’s lives have crossed paths and my body has been adorned with her work.
I first discovered the Toronto born-and-raised artist roughly two years ago through a friend. As I scrolled through her portfolio, I was stunned not only by the high attention-to-detail of her tattoos, but her ability to truly treat the body like a canvas—and work with it to create masterpieces on skin.
The most shocking thing, at the time, was that she had been tattooing for less than a year. I instantly knew three things then: that her talent is immeasurable, that I wanted to get tattooed by her, and that I was excited to follow her work and see how her career would progress.
“My career since I starting tattooing has been such an incredible rollercoaster,” Jess told me via email recently. Since my initial interview with her back in 2016, we’ve kept in touch and struck up a friendship. “I think many tattoo artists can attest to the fact that our jobs are comprised of very high highs and very low lows. You can easily go from doing a tattoo that you are so proud of and the next day can just be an absolute struggle,” she continued. “But that's kind of the beauty of tattooing, it keeps you so humble because you are constantly learning about the craft. I think even after 10+ years of tattooing, you'll be learning something new everyday.”
Jess’s career as a tattoo artist seemingly exploded over night. She’d always been interested in art, even as a kid, and attended Ontario College of Art and Design, studying drawing and painting. Following her graduation, she worked in corporate graphic design before growing bored of the sterile environment—and found a creative outlet through tattooing.
“I believe I have evolved stylistically throughout my short career, as I am always trying to play with new techniques and concepts,” Jess said. “I sort of went from small simple line tattoos, to black and grey whip shading, to small colored florals, to realistic botanical illustrations, to sprinkled floral or foods, to hand poke babies, and now I’m really focusing on minimal line drawings.”
Over udon noodles back in January, Jess and I laughed about how she no longer had to tattoo infinity signs or other tired tattoo clichés like she did when she first began her career as an apprentice. Instead, she’s been able to be selective about her clients—while people clamor to get a chance to be tattooed by her. “I put a lot of effort and love into my work so I hope to work with clients who understand my process and really have an appreciation for the arts,” she mentioned. “I can only focus on so many designs a week so I tend to tattoo less than more.”
Want a word of advice if you’re interested in being tattooed by Jess? “I will always gravitate towards ideas that seem ‘new’ to me. For example, unique placement ideas, or concepts that aren’t traditionally tattooed. I’m not saying I am trying to be an innovator but more so just being playful with what tattooing is or can be.”
Following the take off of her career, and the high demand for her work, Jess has been able to travel the world and tattoo in different cities—jumping from Seoul, to Los Angeles, to Berlin, and beyond. “Travelling and working has been so rewarding… it’s [been] really interesting to enter new studios, as they are so unique and varying in style. As someone who is definitely an introvert, travelling and working by myself has always [been] an intimidating idea. But again, I am always willing to push myself outside of my comfort zone. At the end of each trip, I am so fulfilled with joy and inspiration.”
Now, as a seasoned tattoo artist, Jess continues seeking new ways of creative expression to “try and [balance her] tattooing life with other aspects of art.” She’s enrolled in a pottery class, has been collaborating with different artists, and—of course—has worked alongside Jennifer to bring her creativity to life through apparel.
She describes the collaboration as “SO satisfying” telling us, “To be honest, I wasn’t sure how my delicate drawings could even be translated onto apparel, let alone sweatpants and hoodies. But the outcome is so much more powerful than I had initially expected. I think in a way, my collaboration with Jennifer USA really embodies what it feels like to be present in nature. You feel like you’re under a magnolia tree, just completely engulfed in a sea of pink. It's such an ephemeral moment, so it's interesting to capture it permanently on clothing. A lot of what I try to express in my work is that fleeting interaction with nature, specifically with flora and fauna, so I'm stoked to see it come alive on a different canvas.”
To everyone who has been keeping up with her work, or is a new fan, she has this to say: “Thank you for following me on this precious journey. Your love and support really pushes me to become a better artist. I hope to continue putting out innovative ideas and can't wait to show you guys what I'm working on next.”
Jennifer by Jess Chen is available now.