“Cities can be overwhelmingly gray,” declares Zihee, a tattoo artist, from her perch in a rooftop studio. It’s an odd statement, considering the bustling streets below us, crowded with neon signs and fashionistas sporting the latest colorful trends. She shares the space with two other artists who are currently at work with new clients. Dressed in her usual all black and hair up in a ponytail, Zihee chooses her words carefully, not out of shyness, but out of a desire to express her thoughts as precisely as possible. “I think colorful images can pierce through that grayness, and really draw in people’s gazes,” she says, her voice barely audible over the sound of needles that fills the room.
Zihee is a rising star among tattoo artists in South Korea. In less than five years, her tattoos—marked by bursting blues, deep reds, and forest greens—have attracted such a large following that she has been invited to do guest work in Barcelona, London, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong.
“城市，总让人有‘黑云压城而欲摧’之感。”在纹身艺术家 Zihee 的屋顶工作室里，她如此说道。对照我们楼下人头攒动的街道，充斥着霓虹招牌和穿着五彩斑斓的时尚达人，这个说法显得有点奇怪。她和另外两位正在跟新顾客交流的文身师分享这个工作室。素日里，Zihee 身着一身黑，头发扎成马尾。她措辞谨慎，不是因为羞怯，而是想尽可能准确地表达自己的想法。“我认为色彩丰富的图可以穿透那层乌云，真正吸引人们的目光。”在充满房间的针刺声里，Zihee 的声音几乎听不到。
Her artistic ambitions can be traced back to her childhood. Fascinated with cartoons as a kid, she often spent entire days hunched over on the ground drawing instead of going to school. This interest in the moving image led her to major in animation in college. Though tattoos are static, her approach to colors remains heavily influenced by her background in animation: “I’m drawn to color because, just like in animation, I can layer different shades within a clearly defined area,” she says. “I can watch the colors blend without disrupting the unity of the overall work.” She emphasizes that the precision of lines and how neatly color is kept between them is crucial, referring to Edward Hopper as an artist whose work she admires for exemplifying these qualities.
Zihee 对艺术的向往可以追溯到她的童年时代。小时候的她为卡通深深着迷，比起上学念书，她更常常花一整天的时间趴在地上画画。为此，她在大学时也选择了主修动画专业。尽管文身是静态的，但她对色彩的态度仍然受到她动画的影响：“我被色彩所吸引，就像在动画中一样，我可以在一个明确定义的区域内给不同的色调分层。也可以在不影响整体作品的统一性的前提下，观察这些颜色的混合。”她强调，线条的精确和色彩的干净是至关重要的，她提及了艺术家爱德华·霍普（Edward Hopper），因为很欣赏他的作品体现了这些特质。
The ambiance of her studio is laid back, with a constant background of rock and hip-hop music. Sunlight streams in through the windows, and various art books featuring animals, such as one on dragons from different continents, are strewn across a coffee table for inspiration. Zihee understands the collaborative nature of the business as central to furthering her art, and she frequently brainstorms with her colleagues. Even clients play the role of collaborators. “A lot of my trademark designs have come from clients, and my clients have given me the opportunity to work on designs that I had never tried or thought of before.” Her multicolored snake, now one of her most popular tattoos, was originally inspired by a client who asked for a flower and all the colors of the rainbow in a snake.
Zihee 工作室里的氛围很悠闲，萦绕着摇滚和嘻哈歌曲。阳光透过窗户打进来，各种以动物为主题的艺术书散在咖啡桌上，其中有一本是来自不同大洲的巨龙。Zihee 以此寻求灵感。她知道商业合作的本质也是她拓展艺术创作的核心，她经常与她的同事头脑风暴，甚至有时候顾客也扮演合作者的角色。“我的很多设计都来自文身者自己的想法，而他们也给了我机会去设计一些我以前从未尝试过或想过的设计。”她现在最流行的文身之一：五彩蛇，最初的灵感就来自一名要求一朵花和所有彩虹颜色集在一条蛇上的顾客。
“When you meet her, you know you have nothing to worry about—you’ll know you are in the hands of a good artist,” a client tells me. He came with only a vague idea of what he wanted for his tattoo—one of Zihee’s snakes—but he hadn’t decided on the size or color. After some discussion, they reached an agreement and Zihee got to work. “I thought I was going to get two or three colors, but she brought out fifty,” he recalls. “She plans a lot but can also be very flexible. The work was almost evolving as she was going.”
“当你见到她，你就知道没什么可担心的——因为你知道你被一个很棒的艺术家‘接手’了。”一个来文身的顾客告诉我，他来的时候只有一个模糊的概念，就是希望他的文身包含那条蛇，但他还没有最终决定尺寸和颜色。经过一番讨论后，他们达成一致，Zihee 着手工作。“我原以为会有两三种颜色，但她拿出了 50种。”客户回想道，“她有很多计划，但也可以随机应变。作品几乎随着她的想法递进而层层蜕变。”
In describing her art, Zihee returns again and again to the ideas of “precision” and “flawlessness” that give her tattoos an incredibly clean, almost geometric, finish. When asked if this affinity might come from her personality, she laughs. “No, I’m actually not that neat and organized, but my art turns out that way.”
Zihee is hopeful about the younger generation of tattoo artists she is a part of. Tattoos are still illegal in South Korea, but Zihee says people are becoming more receptive to them, seeing body art as part of a larger fashion culture. She also mentions that though many Korean artists are finding success abroad, she hopes that they’ll continue contributing to the local tattoo scene. To this end, she’s currently taking on students interested in the craft, teaching them just as she was mentored not too long ago.
Zihee 对年轻的文身艺术家抱着希望，当然她也正是其中一员。在韩国，文身仍然是非法的，但是 Zihee 说人们对文身的态度越来越包容接纳，他们认为身体艺术是更宏观的时尚文化的一部分。她还提到，尽管许多韩国艺术家在国外获得了成功，但她希望他们能继续为当地的文身艺术做出贡献。为此，她目前正在招收对这门手艺感兴趣的学生，就像她不久前她也是学员一样。
With more than half of her social media followers living abroad, Zihee will continue traveling the world in search of new inspiration. An excitement crawls into her voice as she recalls being surprised by the open expressions of her American clients, or the way clients in Barcelona would chat endlessly with their tattooists. In contrast, she also recalls being surprised by her clients in England, where the culture reminded her a lot her Korean clients, who are generally more quiet and formal. What she’s found to be most rewarding has been the human connection, the opportunity to meet with people from all walks of life. She remembers one client who started crying tears of joy because he was so satisfied with the tattoo. “The thought that I could give someone that kind of emotion gave me goosebumps,” she says.
Now, with a budding community at home and a growing list of clients abroad, Zihee’s colorful tattoos are gradually seeping into streets all around the world—the grayness receding at her touch.
Zihee 的社交媒体上的粉丝，有一大半生活在国外，她也将以此为契机，继续周游世界，寻找新的灵感。她回忆起一名美国顾客对她公开表达的惊讶之情，巴塞罗那的顾客不停地和文身师聊天时，她的声音激动地颤抖。对比之下，她也记得让她倍感惊喜的英国文身者，那里的文化让她想起了韩国人，这些文身者通常都比较安静和严肃。Zihee 发现，最有价值的是人与人的交往、与各行各业的人会面的机会。Zihee 记得有位顾客因为对文身太满意而流下了眼泪。“一想到我能给人那样的情感，我就会激动得起鸡皮疙瘩。”她说。
Contributors: Eugene Lee, Joe Park
Chinese Translation: Chen Yuan
Images Courtesy of Zihee