Finding what’s important
March 17th, 2019
Interview: Jen Louie and Raphael Gaultier
Photography: Reina Choto
March 17th, 2019
Interview: Jen Louie and Raphael Gaultier
Photography: Reina Choto
Aiyana was interviewed in February of 2018 for the cover story of Issue 02.
Dressed in all black with the edges of various tattoos peeping out by her collar bone, shirt sleeve, and ankles, Aiyana sits comfortably on a stool. She leans against the table she typically tattoos her clients on. In her tattoo studio situated in the center of Capitol Hill, we discuss how she gravitates towards the unconventional, prioritizes mental health, and puts on for the Seattle creative community.
HC: Last time we talked about you growing up in Vancouver, Canada and how you now live in Seattle. I would love to hear your thoughts on the differences you’ve noticed between the two cities and two countries. Oh boy. Fuck America, even though I’m still here laughing. I always say that Seattle is the grungier version of Vancouver, and Portland is the grungier version of Seattle. The style is very different; people in Seattle keep the grunge alive, everyone in Portland is stuck in the 90s, and Vancouver is much more modern. Public school was also very different. I went to Montessori School for all of elementary and middle school. It wasn't something you had to pay for - it was just something that you opted in to. It was very hands on and experiential, versus just being read to from a textbook. It allowed me to figure out things for myself and it was awesome because I could advance as fast as I wanted to. It was shitty when I moved to the states and realized that the math I was placed in was behind what I was learning. So at that point I stopped caring because I was just bored in school.
HC: I think that’s a product of the American school system being so rigid and not allowing kids to figure things out for themselves or advance at their own rate. For sure, I mean the whole no child left behind thing is well intentioned but it's pretty short sighted. I think it's really cool for kids to be able to advance as fast as they want to simply because they're excited about learning something. But if you're being held back it stunts your growth and kills your excitement.
HC: With that appreciation for moving at your own pace, do you think stick and poking is a byproduct of you finding your own path? Yeah definitely. Every choice I've made in the way I've made money has always been kind of weird or atypical. It likely goes back to my parents never really putting too much pressure on me to go a certain route or even go to college. I mean they did want me to, but my dad never went to college, so they could never really pressure me to. A lot of my friends felt the pressure to go to a particular school, or be proud of the university they went to, and I never really gave a shit. I just thought it doesn’t really matter in the long run. If the path you want to follow requires a degree, then yes, do what you have to do. On the flip side, I know people who want to be free spirited but don't actually do the things they need to do to stay focused.
There's so many people in the world who use their parents’ finances to follow some dream, but there’s a lot of value in having to pay for your own shit. I moved out when I was 17 and have been very independent my whole life, and I value things a little differently because of that. A lot of my friends had their shit paid for; apartments and tuition, and I think that's amazing. But I've always made things work for myself because I had to.
HC: When did you start charging for your tattoos? I think as soon as I tattooed a stranger. Because before that, I was just doing them on friends. I think charging is a universally difficult thing for artists to do. It’s such a pain and you never want to do it. Of course you need to pay rent and pay bills and all that, but no one wants to do it. And it's just funny because it's so easy for us to tell our artist friends that they’re undervaluing themselves but hard when it comes to telling ourselves. Figuring out how much to charge and putting a price tag on art is difficult.
HC: It seems difficult because self-reflection and self-valuation are tough when you’re your own worst critic. If someone were to say that my tattoos cost too much and walk away, I'm like ‘well fuck, ok, clearly you don't really value my work that much.’ Once at Toe Jam, a guy asked ‘what can I get for $10?’ Dude, you can barely get a good meal for $10. And it’s difficult to convey to someone that the work is coming from me and it's time out of my day and it’s also leaving me. Like you're walking away with a part of me in a way, and how do you put a price on that?
HC: What’s the shit that no tattoo artist wants to hear? Definitely the, “what can I get for $10 dollars?” There's this Instagram account called ‘How Not to Get Tattooed’ and it's all screenshots of messages from people that are so bad but very common. It's always money related. People should be clear about what they want, because otherwise I have nothing to work with and I’ll just draw a unicorn on you.
HC: What did you think you wanted to be when you grew up? Honestly, so many different things. I used to really judge myself for having so many different interests and almost feeling bad about all the things I wanted to be good at.
I’m someone who needs to be so good at something if I am interested in it, like I have to perfect it. Otherwise what's the point? So I jump around and get really obsessed with various things. I was a jeweler for five years, and who knows if I'll even be tattooing in the next five years laughing.
I've come to a point where I think it's actually pretty cool that I can do that. I don't look back on what I thought I was going to be when I was ten and feel regretful that I didn’t do that. I mean, when I was nine I think I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to live in Central Africa, be a doctor, have a jeep, and own my own clinic. It was very specific. But I was just very obsessed with Africa growing up.
HC: Why was that? From a very young age, I was very obsessed with poverty and felt very broken over it. To the point where, for a couple of years, I would fast every weekend until a certain point in the day and get my parents and their friends to donate a certain amount of money to a cause. I did it until I got sick because you’re not supposed to do that…especially when you’re eight years old. When I graduated high school early, I left to spend a month in Africa. When I went, I realized I was looking at it all wrong. There were a lot of inspiring people aware of the problems there and ready to take them on - it wasn’t this continent of suffering and hopelessness. There’s so much more that’s lush and crazy and totally different than what most people think before going.
So, I was very aware of suffering from a very young age to the point where it would hurt me. I feel like I was too empathetic and I’ve tried to turn that off since then.
HC: How come? It’s something I’m still kind of grappling with because I think I’ve done the complete opposite where I’ve tried to shut it off.
HC: Can you turn it off? Yes… but it's very damaging to do that. I was recently talking about this with a girl I tattooed who’s going to grad school to become a therapist because she had really similar experiences with feeling too much and then shutting it off. I learned it actually has physical repercussions, which is super interesting. She said, if you deny yourself feeling it comes out in weird physical ways. For her, she started feeling numb in her hands, like she would lose feeling in her hands. And for me, if I have to be empathetic or have a difficult discussion I have weird out of body experiences where I feel like I'm on drugs and it's really freaky laughing. So yeah, it can be damaging. But because of a lot of shitty things happening in my life, I got really good at turning it off.
I think no matter what, everything anyone ever does is self preservation to protect themselves - that’s a big reason why I don’t blame anyone for anything. Things on the inside come out on the outside. That's why I hate arguments or yelling at people - I just can't really do it because it physically hurts me. I'm the oldest of four kids, with three younger ones that are all quite a bit younger. The dynamic was never like we were siblings, I more or less raised and disciplined them. I remember there were only really two specific times that I yelled at them, and I got the worst stomach ache ever afterwards. And that's just how it is. Like if I'm like having issues with a friend or a partner, if there's something off, I lose my appetite. And if you know me, I can eat. I can eat so much laughing. But that feeling sucks.
I spent from age 21 to now  trying to figure that out. I'm a very logical person, and trying my best not to feel. I can literally talk myself through situations and make myself feel a certain way or come to certain conclusions. My friends always thought I was a robot for this, but apparently it's what you're supposed to do.
You know when you get really sad and spiral and can't seem to get out of it? Well for me, what I do is I'm like, ‘OK, how are you feeling?’
‘Like fuck, I'm really sad.’
Then, ‘hey, why do you feel that way?’
‘Is the reason why worth feeling this way?’
‘No, it’s really not.’
‘OK, well just stop.’
And then I’m fine.
HC: Do you feel like that has a reverse effect, like it limits your happiness? Yes, I mean not the logical reasoning process, but when I don't allow myself to feel the full expression of what something is I definitely limit my own happiness. I actually get embarrassed and bashful when I’m too happy or if someone does something really nice for me - I just don't know how to react. It’s something I’m really working on.
I like seeming neutral all the time. Plus the fear of being vulnerable, or the idea of anyone having any control over me, or anyone having an advantage because of an emotion I’m having.
There were nights that I would cry and no one was there for me so I told myself to just stop crying. Anyway, sorry that’s super depressing. I'm fine laughing.
HC: I think what you said about people not having control over you translates over into what you're doing and who you are now. Do you see that continuing? Yeah. Because of my very rigid upbringing with super religious parents that followed all these rules, I was told what kind of life to live, what path to follow, and was raised to be the best, most holy person. Stepping away from all of that and realizing that I can actually do whatever the fuck I want is really weird. I’ve always known that the religion I grew up in was not right - they were super homophobic and I was very, very sensitive to that. And I’d try to talk back and fight it in small ways. But it’s interesting now that I am in a place where I truly don't give a fuck about the religion and all that. I feel liberated but also lost, like ‘fuck, what do I do now?’, because what's always guided me was trying to go against all of it. But I think no matter what - religious upbringing or not - doing things that aren't conventional, career wise or not, is always a little scary.
HC: What makes you continue to pursue the unconventional and pave your own path? I wish I had some punk rock answer, but it's just that it feels right. It feels good. I’m in a weird place where I don't have anything guiding me. I’ve been trying to follow what feels right and not do things because of what other people say or do.
HC: Yeah, I think at the end of the day it comes down to ‘I feel empowered as fuck right now.’ That’s totally real. It’s like when people try to explain their tattoos. I’m like, dude, I don't give a fuck, if it feels good to you just do it. I don't think there needs to be some kind of grand scheme. It doesn't even have to be beautiful - just do what feels good, do what you want to do. At the end of the day or at the end of your life if you look back and didn't do the things you wanted to do, like what the fuck are you here for? It’s stupid.
And I think no matter what people are always going to judge you and not be happy for you. And I've experienced that a lot. I used to always say nothing matters, just do what you want. But it’s more about figuring out what matters - because it’s not that much. Figure out the few things that do matter and focus on that.
HC: How do you balance the widespread interest and curiosity to do things while knowing and focusing on the few things that do matter? It's hard because I feel like you want to care about everything and you want to be involved in every way possible but as Bilbo Baggins said, “It feels like butter spread on too much bread” laughing.
Just realizing you're human. I think it’s important to be involved and I've realized one of the things that matters is community. Even though I’m pretty introverted and it's very exhausting for me to be around people - it’s connections that keep you alive. Seattle has so many special people that are doing big things. It’s realizing that it’s about the people around you and if you can improve the lives of those people, if they leave feeling better than worse because of interacting with you, that’s really valuable. That's the kind of person I strive to be. As much as I'm like ‘yeah, fuck America,’ Seattle's this special little bubble that I really care about and I want Seattle to be better. And for artists to get paid. I feel like everyone wants to leave Seattle and go to New York and LA, but you can make Seattle like that. Take advantage of the gentrification. Laughing Take their money, use it. LA already has everything they need and they don't deserve our guys. Seattle is a humble place - some of the people that play big shows are the same people you’ll see at the bar and don’t act like hot shit.
HC: How did you gain that sense that community matters - was it from tattooing or getting into the art scene here? Or has that always been there? I think it’s always been there. I've always wanted to make some kind of a difference in some way, and not necessarily saying I'm doing that now, but I’ve realized that the smaller scale matters. And that you need self growth to really make anything happen. It's easier to pull someone up from above than push them up from below. You’re no help to anyone without resources, whether tangible or emotional, so it’s up to us to get on top and then bring others with us. But you have to start from within.