Blending Illustration and Tattoo: Insights from Tattoo Artist Ningjia Zhai

    Ningjia Zhai, a distinguished illustrator and tattoo artist based in New York City, is presently employed at the tattoo studio Beanbeantattoo. During her early life, she discovered a deep appreciation for tattoos and began her apprenticeship under a renowned tattoo artist in 2017. Today, we will interview her to learn more about her journey and insights.

    Fascinated by tattoos for their captivating imagery, Ningjia found her true passion lay in illustration. Initially, she pursued painting as her primary artistic outlet. It wasn’t until eight years ago that she decided to delve into tattooing. During that time, she apprenticed under a talented tattoo artist and became deeply inspired by the distinctive style of Dr. Woo. “His intricate single-needle designs, reminiscent of monochrome artistry, greatly influenced  my own artistic direction in the early stages.” Ningjia said.

    Combining illustration and tattoo art is a fascinating and wondrous fusion. It creates a unique form of body expression by showcasing intricate artwork on the human canvas. Illustration encompasses a myriad of artistic schools, ranging from the editorial illustrations often seen in magazines to the delicate intricacies of monochrome sketches. Similarly, in the realm of tattoos, there is a distinct style known as flash tattoos. These pre-prepared designs offer customers a diverse array of topics and styles to choose from, eliminating the need for custom designs. Drawing from Ningjia’s background in illustration, she integrates her artistic skills into the creation of tattoo flash designs. According to her, “I view my practice in watercolor painting as foundational to my tattooing career.”  These two artistic disciplines allow her to develop a unique style that resonates with both illustration and tattooing pursuits.

    Artists draw inspiration and knowledge from various predecessors. Asian art and culture serve as some of her biggest influences and passions. One master she highlights is the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Katsushika Hokusai from the Edo period. She was astonished by the linear manga he drew when she randomly visited a bookstore. She found that she could incorporate this into her artistic style—monochrome, vividly expressing nature without color. She also wants to mention the Chinese artist Zheng Banqiao. She admires his use of linearity, particularly in his depiction of rocks, where, despite the overall form having edges and corners, each individual line is unequivocally straight. Significantly influenced by their works, she draws inspiration from the uninhibited representations of nature and animals found in ancient Asian art and strives to incorporate them into her art.

    Through the honest and blunt conversation, Ningjia also shared that one of her biggest challenges was incorporating linearity into tattoo art, inspired by Katsushika Hokusai and Zheng Banqiao. To learn this style, she acquired rice paper, brushes, and silk-bound sketchbooks. “Initially, it was a somewhat bumpy road because there was no one to teach me—this style is so unique that few have attempted it.” She experimented with various forms and eventually settled on using a 6B pencil. Unlike the brush, the pencil allows for a certain abruptness and spaces where the art can ‘breathe.’ Since most of her drawings feature plants, pets, and lines, the pencil lends her art a sense of freedom and breathability.

    Through her journey as a tattoo artist, she has discovered that her work goes beyond mere craftsmanship. Each tattoo she creates carries with it a story, a memory, and a piece of someone’s heart. The bond formed between her and her clients during these intimate sessions is profound and heartwarming. She cherishes the moments when clients share their personal stories, their triumphs, and their sorrows, allowing her to create meaningful and deeply personal tattoos that resonate with their experiences. It’s these connections and the ability to touch people’s lives in such a profound way that truly makes tattooing a fulfilling and rewarding endeavor for her.

    Ningjia told this inspiring story to us: “One day, a guest reached out to me just a day after her dog passed away. I was taken aback, and the raw emotion in her voice made it clear that she was in pain. She revealed that she had been silently following my work, always dreaming of getting her dog inked. However, when her pup was alive and kicking, she opted for quality time over tattoos. Tragically, her beloved furry friend left this world just a day ago, leaving her heartbroken. The irreplaceable loss pushed her to fulfill the postponed dream of immortalizing her canine companion on her skin. As a fellow dog owner, I couldn’t hold back tears, and I hoped my art would be a source of solace for her. Post-tattoo, she gazed at the inked tribute for what felt like an eternity. An initial sense of nervousness on my part was quickly replaced by the power of her choked-up words: ‘Thank you for bringing my precious one back to me.’ It was a moment that transcended the art; it was an emotional embrace that words couldn’t fully capture.”

    From that point forward, a flood of clients approached Ningjia, sharing tales of their departed pets—dogs, cats, squirrels, lizards, and even feathered friends. The human-animal connection became the heartbeat of her craft. Each client’s story became a melody, and every stroke of her tattoo needle transformed into a dance of emotions, turning these creatures into living artworks on their owners. “After completing their tattoos, clients would look at me with misty eyes, expressing that it felt like their beloved companions had returned. This profound connection gave me not just the power to create but also the courage to continue this meaningful journey, where art becomes a bridge between cherished memories and the forever bond with our furry friends.” Ningjia added.

    Arts in one place.

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