Tat2X: How long have you been involved in the tattoo business?
Jess Yen: It was back in 1987 when I did my first tattoo of a Kanji character, “love,” on my classmate’s arm by using a needle that was tied to a bamboo stick. This method is known as Tebori – traditional hand-poked tattooing. However, I was doing it as a hobby in the beginning until I started my career as tattoo artist. I have been tattooing professionally since 1992.
Tat2X: What made you decide to become a tattoo artist?
Jess Yen: When I first came to the United States, I was pursuing a master’s degree in fine arts; however, my mom back in Taiwan had financial difficulties and money had run out. As a poor artist, I knew I had to find a way to survive by myself. In a fortuitous way, I visited a tattoo parlor in Venice Beach with friends. That was my first time to see an electrical tattoo machine and I was amazed by its “speed.” I have decided to combine by hand-poked tattoo skill with the advantages of using an electrical machine to make a living. I started my tattoo career in my garage until I was invited by a local tattoo shop owner to work at his place in Alhambra, CA. We became really good friends and he sold his business to me in 2001, which I have renamed to My Tattoo.
Tat2X: How did you learn the art of tattooing both machine and Tebori style? Did you apprentice?
Jess Yen: I am a self-taught artist, and I am not so proud of it. I have always wished for a teacher who can lead me and direct me, like a launching wing. The beginning is never easy, especially being the founder of the Jess Yen Tattoo Family. I have learned everything through lots of practice, trial and error. My clients become my teachers, my students become my teachers and people around me become my teachers. However, one thing I have always known for sure is that my heart and dedication. This means that I must be appreciative, respectful and trustworthy. It’s like learning Japanese Kendo and your master will not let you take out the sword before you learn the manner first. In Kendo, you spend all your first year bowing to your master, your senior classmates and most importantly to your sword before you can even do anything with it. Once your manner is established and your heart is set, then the skills will come. I did not have this type of inheritance through apprenticeship and I know how important this is. That is reason why I always teach my students to be appreciated and respectful to life and people, especially those who have trusted you with their skin. A right Attitude comes before any skills. I always remember all these people who have helped me in the early stages of my tattooing career. Although I have done the best I could at that time, I always know those works are not meeting my expectations today. I cannot reverse my past; however, I want my students to live a life with less regrets and sacrifices. Therefore passing this practice is essential and I hope their students in the future will adopt this inheritance as well.
Tat2X: Are there any artists tattoo or otherwise that you admire?
Jess Yen: I get great inspiration from artists I am in admiration of. Itou Hikozou is a great Japanese artist who specialized in portraying characters, heroes of the Suikoden. The vigor facial changes and movements of each character is interesting and the story line is well expressed. I also like Hwa San Chiune, Nagano Tsuyoshi, Shimura Tatsumi, and Rob Gonsalves. Learning from different artists encourages me to draw/design more, and inspires me to be as great as them.
Tat2X: Has any individual in particular influenced your career?
Jess Yen: Master Horiyoshi III from Yokohama, Japan is not only my most admired tattoo artist, but an idol to me. I still recall watching over his picture hanging on the wall when I was getting my first tattoo at the age of sixteen back in Taiwan. I have the utmost respect for not only the discipline, but for the tradition and for Horiyoshi III sensei, so I went to Japan and visited him. Our first meeting turned out to be more than what I expected. Horiyoshi sensei invited me and my tattoo family to have dinner with his family. Our relationship has been very close ever since. Now, I visit him and his family every year for many years, and his son becomes my god-brother and stays with me when visiting United States. Because I am self-taught, many people questioned my authenticity and my name in “Hori,” many times it has broken my heart when people called me “fake” and said disrespectful things about me and my tattoo family. Horiyoshi sensei heard my story, and right away he recognized my tattoo family name in “Hori Yen” as a family in United States and that I am a Taiwanese- American man who practices Tebori. I am truly honored by his kindness and support. His legend and big heart are much appreciated.
Tat2X: What would you say is your favorite part of the job?
Jess Yen: The greatest thing about being a tattoo artist is that you get to meet so many people. I heard their stories and those stories became my art. My favorite part is when my clients tell me about their enjoyment of my work. Here’s a quote from one of my clients,”hey, Jess, this is what I do every night before going to sleep for 30 minutes (looking at himself in the mirror). You amazed me with every section of the piece when I came here…” This is what keeps me going.
Tat2X: How would you describe your style?
Jess Yen: People know my style as realism oriental. Growing up in Taiwan, a country that was colonized by Japan for about 50 years, both Chinese and Japanese cultures have greatly influenced me as a Taiwanese. My grandparents were educated in Japanese and raised me in a strict traditional way. In addition to my background in fine arts and experiences in interior design, my oriental design works are slightly distinguished from others. Unlike traditional oriental art, I add elements of realism and materialism into my work. Oriental style has a lot of creatures that have never existed, so I want to bring the life out in them. When you see a dragon done by me, I want you to feel the sharpness of its claws, the texture of its snaked skin, and its vivid eyes that tell you the story line behind this work. Along with client’s muscles, the different complexions and reflection of each scale and the movement of hairs give you the visual effect of vigor. The theme of my artwork preserves traditional culture and stories, but with details in realism and materialism, hopefully, it takes you to a different level of oriental arts.
Tat2X: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists tattoo or otherwise?
Jess Yen: The most difficult part is to stay committed and never give it up. My biggest enemy is myself. As an artist or professional tattooist, my biggest challenge is to ask myself how I can come up with a new design for the next piece of work, how can I “wow” myself and the others. If you keep it going and keep commitment to your clients and to yourself, these will definitely take you to the next level in tattooing. There is no best, but only better.
A famous artist has quoted, “what sets apart the difference between the first place and second place in car racing is the second place driver fears high speed, but the first place driver is in the stage in between fear of high speed and facing death.” This tells us to give all you got, and you will be ahead. This is the advise I would give to any artist who is entering into this industry.
Another quotation by the same artist says,” Ideas are God’s whisper, he will only say it once,” therefore, you must always carry a notebook and write it down all the ideas that come up in your mind. This will help you to keep up with your new ideas.
Tat2X: Is there anything else we should know about you or your studio?
Jess Yen: I currently opened a second location in Huntington Beach, CA and would like to invite everyone to come and visit. As many may know, I was an interior designer back in Taipei before becoming a tattoo artist, this new industrial-vintage yet not trashy atmosphere was created by me, I hand-picked each material and decorative item. I really hope everyone can experience professional tattoo service and at the same time, enjoy the art and atmosphere of My Tattoo shop.
More About Tattoo Artist Jess Yen:
Jess Yen “Shodai Horiyen” has been tattooing professionally since 1992 and you can see more of his amazing work at MY TATTOO or follow him on Instagram @jessyentattoo. You can also visit either of his studio locations in Alhambra and Huntington Beach in California.