After viewing Mina Aoki’s work, one might never guess that she’s only been tattooing a few years. Aoki, who began working at New York’s Daredevil and Fun City Tattoo shops as an after-school job at 14 years old, later apprenticing and ultimately working as a tattooer, has been cited by many as a rising talent and, more importantly, as someone with an unparalleled passion for the trade. Her tattoos–full-bosomed ladies with long, smoothly shaded hair, her disembodied eyes and mouths, romantic roses, and crisp tribal work–are not only impeccable but always incredibly sexy. We recently caught up with her to talk about her inspirations, work, and influences, ranging from 70s pornography to fantasy novels.
You started working at Fun City and Daredevil when you were only 14. How did you start working there? Had you been interested in tattooing prior to getting that job?
I started working at both Fun City and Daredevil in the summer of 2006, almost 8 years ago. I was 14 at the time, which sounds pretty wild since I was so young.
My father was actually a client and friend of Brad Fink, the co-owner of Daredevil. I remember going into Daredevil for the first time when I was 12. It was in the old location, 174 Ludlow Street in the Lower East Side, and it was right when the shop was being extended, so Brad gave my father and I a tour of the space. I remember seeing Michelle [Myles] there, and even though I didn’t know who she was yet, she looked so cool to me; she was this beautiful blonde woman, covered in tattoos, sitting at the drawing table drawing for her next appointment. That was when I realized that women could be tattooers.
A couple years after that visit, I needed a job after school and thought it would be a dream to work at a tattoo shop, let alone at Daredevil, so I asked my father if he would be able to get my foot in the door. Amazingly, Michelle gave me the chance to work for her. When i first started working there, I didn’t think that it would ever be a possibility for me to tattoo. I had heard how hard it was to get an apprenticeship, and I wasn’t particularly good at drawing; I wasn’t a natural from the beginning.
How did you transition from working at the shop to tattooing?
After the first year of working at the shops, I got a bit more comfortable asking questions and hinting that I was interested in tattooing. Big Steve and Bailey Robinson were the first people that knew that I wanted to tattoo, and they supported me from the start. Although Bailey left Fun City pretty shortly after we became friends, I always remember how supportive he was. And Big Steve still helps and supports me every day.
What aspects of tattooing first attracted you to it, both as a practice and a profession?
When I was growing up, both of my parents and my stepfather were covered in tattoos, so I had an interest in them right from the beginning. I particularly remember and love my father’s dragon backpiece from Brad Fink and a tattoo on my mother’s forearm from Andrea Elston.
Tattooing always seemed unattainable and surreal to me. In the beginning, it was just seeing the kind of people who got tattoos and meeting the people who did them attracted me to it. I grew up hanging around the Lower East Side and making friends with the other kids hanging around going to shows, and those were the people who had tattoos. Those people were like me, and that’s what made me want my first tattoo.
Do you have a background in art, or was that largely cultivated through an interest in flash and tattoo imagery?
I have almost no background in art. Before tattooing, the biggest art influence in my life was my stepfather. He is a graphic designer and an amazing artist, so we would draw together a lot, but I was never technically good at it. It was really after being at Daredevil for the first time, seeing the flash and and art there when I was 12, that made me start really thinking about drawing again.
Where do you look for inspiration?
I think almost anything can be inspiring, whether it be a hand-painted sign or simply a conversation with someone interesting. Right now, I look at a lot of dirty comics from the 70s, prostitution and dominatrix ads, tattoo flash from the 90s, and I watch a lot of sleazy movies, borderline pornography from the 70s. Traveling, talking to different artists, and listening to the people I look up to is also really inspiring. Watching people work and trying to figure out their techniques or even just looking at a drawing someone else made is sometimes enough to compel me to make something.
What interests you about 70s pornography and ads rather than contemporary versions. How did you first come across that material? What was going on in that era that makes it particularly interesting?
I feel like things were more romanticized in some way in the 70s and 80s. The pornography was still raunchy, but everything was more dramatic and drawn out. And I think at that time, people were really comfortable being weird, just the perfect amount of weird without trying too hard; it seemed way more natural than what anybody is doing now, especially in the sci-fi and porno realm. Also, I find that the women in movies and women drawn in general were a lot sexier at that time, more rough: big dramatic hair that came with an attitude. Those movie covers got my attention right away when I first saw them. Switchblade Sisters was one of the 70s movies that I can remember first getting me interested in the era. As far as the ads go, everything is so clean now, a lot of ads aren’t hand drawn anymore. The ones from the 70s and 80s have such grittiness to them; it’s more raw.
I’ve noticed that recently, you’ve been been combining really subtle black and grey shading with some really graphic black, almost 90s style “tribal-looking” stuff. Can you talk about that combination a bit?
I really like the way that the grey parts of the black and grey can look so soft next to a large field of black. The sharpness of the tribal compliments the dream-like qualities of the black and grey image next to it. I started seeing this a long time ago in flash from the 90s that we have around the shop. This combination has been done before, but i’m not sure that many people are doing it now. Someone who definitely started me thinking on it and actually kind of brought it back, I think, is Oliver Macintosh. There aren’t very many people asking for it right now, but i’m hopeful that people will want it again.
I like to do more Americanized, biker looking black and grey, and the tribal kind of leads the style away from the Chicano look and more toward the somewhat gross culture of the 90s. I can definitely connect more to that than to the Chicano look. I love the East LA style, and I love to tattoo Chicano-like images, but i can identify with the more fantasy/biker look much more. I guess I like to take the smoothness of the Chicano art but approach it in a different way.
One of my favorite things that you do are your eyes: disembodied eyes, eyes in faces, color, black and grey: they all have this sort of glossy feel and are really evocative and romantic. What attracts you to doing eyes?
Eyes can show so many different expressions and emotions, and I think that’s what attracts me to them. They can create such a romantic image and say so much in such a small space. I want all of my eyes to have strong expressions, whether provocative, sad, angry, or all three at once. I like to do the mouth and eye or mouth, eye, and nose a bit more because the mouth is a very sexual part of the body, and with just a small tweak at the corners of the lips, the face can immediately become that much more teasing or strong.
Are there any tattooers that you particularly look up to?
There are so many tattooers that I look up to for so many different reasons:
I’ll start with Big Steve: Steve has taught me from the very very beginning. He has the best attitude and work ethic, and he can draw absolutely anything. Steve still teaches me something new every day; he is one of the best people i’ve ever met. Michelle Myles is someone that i will always look up to; she has been tattooing since the year I was born, 1991. She has been through so much, tattooing through the 90’s, and she’s still amazing. Brad Stevens is one of the most determined tattooers I have ever met. Brad and Big Steve were the two main people who taught me how to tattoo, and it was amazing learning from them together because they are such different tattooers. Brad loves tattooing. He taught me so much about the kind of attitude I should have going into it, being positive, and working hard. Steve and Brad are still the first people that I go to for help, and I am so thankful for that. Without them, learning how to tattoo would have been much harder. Andre Malcolm was also around a lot when I was learning how to tattoo. He used to work at Daredevil, so I got to see him work on some amazing pieces. He is effortlessly great at tattooing and was always so willing to help me.
Brent Patten and Eiland Hogan (of Forever Tattoo) are amazing tattooers. Although I have yet to meet them, I look up to their approach: both of them can take anything that walks in the door and make an amazing tattoo. Their tattoos are incredible and so distinct. Regino Gonzales is one of the nicest people I’ve met and, in my opinion, one of the best tattooers. Everything he does makes me feel like I need to work so much harder. I also look up to Oliver Macintosh, who is one of my favorite tattooers. He has such style and it seems to come so naturally to him. He can tattoo something so incredibly cool and so technically spot-on with the least effort, which is really something to look up to.
We have a lot of flash from Judy Parker at Fun City. I have been looking at her flash for years, and I love her style. Jack Rudy is obviously a big inspiration of mine, and I’m constantly looking to his tattoos and art. Phil Sims. I’ve looked up to Chris Garver since I started at Fun City and Daredevil. We had his flash hanging at Fun City for a long time, and I loved it from the first time I saw it. Obviously, his style has changed since he painted those sheets in ’93, but he is another one that makes everything look so easy. Chris Brand and Drew Flores have the slickest style. I love their black and grey; it’s so distinct and smooth.
There are so many more people that I look up to. i could sit here all day and talk about them, but I better end it here.
One of the things I love about your work is that the women in your tattoos are unabashedly sexual and sexy. I know you also just did an Invisible Radio episode about being a young female tattooer, but more specifically, what’s it like to be a young female tattooer who tattoos hot ladies?
Women are beautiful, and in my drawings and tattoos, I want to make them look tough and sexy at the same time. I want them to have this certain attitude to them; I like them to have personality. Big boobs and big butts add to an overall feeling of sexuality and empowerment. The approach that I think i’m going for in these types of drawings and tattoos is supposed to be somewhat dreamlike, so drawing women with ridiculous bodies seems a bit more dreamy in a way.
I honestly don’t think about the fact that I’m a woman when I’m drawing or tattooing. I think it does take a bit more effort to be taken seriously as a tattooer as a woman, but if you’re respectable and if you prove that you love tattooing for the right reasons and prove yourself through your drawings and tattoos, it’s no different from being a male tattooer.
I think people have accepted women in tattooing now, but I don’t want anyone to think of me as a woman tattooer; I would just like to be thought of plainly, as a tattooer. For this reason, I don’t back up my work with pictures of myself, because I just want the work to speak for itself. I think a lot of young women who are getting into tattooing use their boobs and a vagina as a gimmick to benefit themselves and maybe get more clientele that way, but really, they just look like idiots. But there are also many male tattooers that have gimmicks too. I guess I just wonder how can anyone take people seriously if they can’t even take themselves seriously. I want people to want tattoos from me only because they like my work. I don’t need another reason.
Can you talk a bit more about fantasy in your work? There seems to me to be an interesting contrast between the gritty reality of 90s subculture that inspires you and the fantasy/escape/romanticism of many of your tattoos.
In a tattoo and in a drawing, things don’t necessarily have to make sense. I mean, obviously there aren’t dragons forming out of cigarette smoke in real life, but that’s what adds to the enjoyment of drawing those types of things. My interest in the fantasy stuff comes a lot from reading, I think. I’ve always read a lot, and its always been mostly fantasy. It’s a form of escape, and I find very similar ways of escaping through drawing. I also just like the subject matter; I like castles and dragons and women just as much as the next guy.
What are some of the pros and cons of having worked in the same shop for so long? What kinds of changes in tattooing in NYC have you perceived since you started working at Daredevil and Fun City?
The thing I love most about being in the same place for so long is that everyone I work with is now my family. Even on my days off, I find myself sitting at Fun City; it’s become a second home. It’s the kind of place where you can just stop in to hang out, get a tattoo, sit and eat with us, or just sit out on the stoop. It’s awesome working for two people (Big Steve and Michelle), who I’ve known for almost half my life.
Working in the same place for so long does get a bit familiar sometimes. New York can take a pretty big toll on you after a while, especially if you’ve never lived anywhere else. It’s a really hard city to live in, but at the end of the day, it’s nice to work and be around family all day.
I think the biggest change that I’ve seen here in the past 8 years is the sheer amount of people tattooing. There are so many tattooers here now, so many good tattooers too. I think New York has always been a
“place to be” for tattooing, but the community here seems to have grown a lot more. Tons of people come and go through New York, and it’s interesting to see who ends up staying or leaving.
How do you think your work has changed since you started tattooing? How have your inspirations changed? What would you like to be doing more of?
My work has changed a lot since i’ve started. My goal right now is just to be able to do anything that walks in the door the best I can. I’ve developed a much bigger interest in black and grey tattoos, but in a day’s work I will do American traditional, black and grey, color realism, whatever the customer asks for.
Right now, I like to do black and grey, 70’s 80’s and 90’s style, and I would love to be able to do much more of it.
Is there anything coming up that you’re looking forward to?
The only traveling I have set in stone right now will be Miami, May 9th-11th for a mini-convention celebrating the Stab City book release and a guest spot in June at Cathedral Tattoo in Salt Lake City. I’m looking forward to both very much!