To mark the launch of Skullcandy‘s wireless Push™ earphones, we teamed up with the brand to present a series of stories celebrating those in the creative community who push themselves to the limit and break boundaries.
For the first story of the series, we caught up with professional skateboarder Wang Di. In this installment, we met up with tattoo artist Miho (Yao Meihui) to chat about body art, defying convention, and having the conviction to succeed.
Yao Meihui is not your parents’ tattoo artist. Reserved, almost self-effacing, she’s hard to imagine wielding a tattoo gun. Were it not for the Chinese character drawn on her left cheek—jin (金), or gold—you might not even guess she has an interest in body art, much less that she runs one of Shanghai’s most in-demand studios, Shizhuo Tattoo. Her designs are unconventional, with intricate cartoon illustrations of goth girls drawn in a style she describes as Japanese and New School.
Yao is also not her parents’ tattoo artist. Their generation thought tattoos were something decent people just didn’t have. When she came home with her first one, at the end of high school, her parents pretended not to notice, maybe because she got it to celebrate a good score on the college entrance exam. But a few years later, when she announced she wanted to learn how to make them herself, her father hit the roof, and even threatened to cut her off. “My dad was against me learning how to do tattoos for a lot of reasons. One of them is that Northeastern China, where I’m from, is pretty conservative,” she says. “There’s a prejudice against it. If you have tattoos, maybe people will think you’re a thug or a criminal.”
Yet Yao stuck to her guns and kept learning on the sly. She taught herself the basics online, found her first willing customers, and eventually started to work at a roadside shop. After a couple of years, she apprenticed herself at YZ Tattoo, one of China’s most famous studios. Now that she’s become an independent, sought-after artist, even her dad’s come around.
Ever since she was little, when she saw her first cartoons, Yao has loved to draw. Her childhood dream was to make animated films, and at college, that’s what she studied. Only toward the end of her undergraduate years did she decide to take a different path from her classmates. “Tattoos are a pretty niche thing,” she recalls them telling her. “You probably can’t live off of that.”
Yao didn’t want to take the easy path. “I like to create different kinds of art,” she says. And she also likes to use different kinds of materials, something she couldn’t really do as an animator. “Skin is a really magical material. Skin is always different,” she says. “Some have soft skin, some people have hard skin, some people have thick skin, some people have thin skin.” On top of that, every body part is different and responds differently to the needle. “Every job is a challenge, you always feel you’re doing something new.”
Getting to where she is now took determination. Yao didn’t only face opposition from her father, she also had to face doubts from one of her mentors, a well-known tattoo artist with his own shop. “I’d been working there for around three years, and one day we were all sitting in a meeting and talking about tattoo styles and things. And our boss said to the dozen or so of us there, ‘None of the people sitting here will become an artist,’” she recalls. “But actually I was thinking, ‘I will.’” She’s always believed in herself, and that confidence pushes her to always keep moving forward, even when she’s not sure what to do next.
When Yao finds herself stuck creatively, she’s not immune to doubt. “When you’re blocked, you start to wonder if you’ve veered off course. Maybe my style isn’t natural enough? Maybe what I’m inking isn’t solid enough?” Her response is to force herself to keep creating. That’s the only way to get unstuck. Sometimes she’ll try painting or drawing for a bit— the detour into a different medium broadens her pool of inspiration. “I don’t let my hand stop, don’t let my brain stop,” she says. “You can really get a lot out of that. And when you finally make it past the dead end, you take a big leap forward.”
Being an artist is about constantly improving, says Yao. “Your works always look best before you’re finished. When you’ve added the last stroke, you think, ‘Not bad, but not perfect.’ A week later you think ‘They’re terrible, I need to do something better.'” She never stops seeking to outdo herself, making each design better than the last.
“Pushing limits, for me, means not stopping, always trying different methods, and striving to break through that dead end. Then you can soar.”