The Artist Spotlight series aims to celebrate creators at a time when art is being consumed the most. We wanted to invite individuals working within the creative field to provide their voice, opinions and suggestions for the improvement, development and future of the Canadian creative community

This week’s feature was guest curated by Natalie Nguyen, co-founder of ENSŌ Showcase, an Asian creative showcase & collective servicing Toronto and the GTA. She sat down with Justine Diaz, a 23-year-old illustrator, painter, and tattoo artist based in Toronto. Justine shared with  artsUNITÉ her personal journey to becoming a full-time tattoo artist and its relation to her own growth and self-confidence. 

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Q: Can you share a bit about your background and practice?  

I went to OCADU for illustration, got an apprenticeship at a tattoo studio right after I graduated, and now I’m a full-time tattoo artist.

Q: What has your journey from being an art grad to a full-time tattoo artist been like so far?  

I was always scared of what my parents would think or the fear of not making enough money and things like that. Then about a month before I graduated in 2019, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life and tattooing had always been on the back of my mind, so I just went for it. It was difficult at first because apprenticeships are unpaid and I was at the studio full-time. There was a part of me that started second-guessing my career choice, but once I started tattooing people and getting a stable client base, I realized that this was the right choice for me. I’m really happy with where I am now. 

Q: What inspired you to become a tattoo artist?  

I’ve always been interested in getting tattoos myself but never thought about it being my job until 3-4 years ago when one of my close friends asked me to draw her a design to get as her first tattoo. When I saw it all finished, I was so excited and realized I want to do this myself and put my art on people’s bodies. Also, getting to know the artist who did my first few tattoos was a big influence because of how comfortable she made me feel, and I admire her work a lot so I also wanted to be that artist for other people. 

Photo by: Justine Diaz

Q: Have your parents been supportive throughout your journey? 

When I first told them I had an interview at my first studio, they told me not to do it. They thought I wasn’t going to make any money, and it made me really sad because it was something I wanted to do for so long. But once I started getting into it and earning money, they saw how many clients I was getting and how many people loved my work. My parents eventually became supportive- they actually want to get something done by me soon!

Q: What themes do you usually address in your work?  

My self-portrait series is the only project that really has any themes, which is self-acceptance and growing and learning from pain. I started in 2015, and I did my first one just for fun and thought it’d be a good way to practice portraiture as a beginner. But over the following years, as I went through multiple shitty breakups with the same person, I became severely depressed and felt like I had nothing going for me. It’s sad looking at the ones I made when I was at my worst, but at the same time, I made some of my best work during that time. But it’s also interesting seeing each stage of my life and how much I changed physically, mentally, and artistically. 

Photo by: Justine Diaz

Q: How has the pandemic and physical distancing affected you and your practice?  

Since tattooing is so up close and personal, I obviously couldn’t work for months. I was also still working for free, so at some point, while everyone was quarantining, a bunch of my coworkers and I parted ways to either join new studios or started their own. It was for the best and I’m happy that we’re all doing a lot better and still in contact with each other. For me, it took a little bit for me to get adjusted to tattooing again after not touching my machine for months and not talking to people, but I’m doing way better than I was before everything happened and I’m glad it worked out for me. 

Q: Now that we live in a time where most of our connections are happening digitally, how has social media played a role in your growth?  

Instagram is my main platform for posting my work of all mediums and getting clients. TikTok also helped a lot, I’ve had a few videos blow up and people would find my Instagram through there. Even though I couldn’t post my tattoo work during the lockdown, I was still working on my paintings and pottery, and it helped boost my following. Right before lockdown, I had a week straight of clients who found me through TikTok, there was even one person from Alberta and a couple from Detroit, which is so weird but really cool at the same time.

Q: Since you started tattooing, what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned?  

You’re basically a freelancer in the tattoo industry, so if you’re in a studio where you don’t feel happy or you’re not being treated well, just leave. Make genuine connections with other people. I wouldn’t be where I am if it weren’t for the friends I made at my old studio and my new studio. Even other artist friends I made online.

Q: Do you have a favourite tattoo memory so far?   

There was this one client who felt a bit insecure, and I genuinely felt the same way about myself. I told her that she shouldn’t be worried around me because I know what it feels like, since I’ve struggled with the same issues my whole life. At some point, she said that she felt very comfortable with me and hasn’t felt like that with other tattoo artists. It made me so happy because like I said earlier, I wanted to make my clients feel the same way my first tattoo artist made me feel. I actually ended up becoming friends with a few of my clients; one of them is now a close friend of mine. 

Q: You touched on self-confidence and tattoos. How have tattoos affected your own self-confidence and mental health? 

I love getting tattoos so much. For my first one, I was feeling really insecure about myself. But the more tattoos I got over the past years, the more confident I became. I want to wear them like clothes and show them off because I love every piece I have. They help me both mentally and physically speaking. 

Photo by: Meg Moon

Q: Is there anything you dislike about the tattoo industry? What changes would you like to see?  

Men, and how some of them take advantage of their clients and cross boundaries.

Q: Do you have any advice for folks out there looking to pursue tattoo artistry? 

Draw a lot. Build up a portfolio of pieces you would want to tattoo and do your research on studios you want to work at, maybe even and get tattooed there and get to know artists you look up to.