Yang Zhen Lee’s trauma-informed tattooing prioritizes boundaries and trust | Community Profile | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Yang Zhen Lee’s trauma-informed tattooing prioritizes boundaries and trust

click to enlarge Yang Zhen Lee’s trauma-informed tattooing prioritizes boundaries and trust
CP Photo: Kaycee Orwig
Yang Zhen Lee
Yang Zhen Lee didn’t intend on becoming a tattoo artist. After working as a freelance illustrator for six years, they even decided to give up on being an artist altogether. But when they were offered a front desk position at Gypsy Tattoo Parlor, it marked the beginning of their journey into a new art form.

Lee, 30, has worked at Gypsy Tattoo Parlor for four years and has developed a recognizable style defined by organic, natural imagery and thin, delicate lines. As their aesthetic style has solidified, their technique and approach to tattooing has evolved as well, incorporating what they’ve learned from other tattoo artists to create trauma-informed, trust-focused interactions.

“I always want to make people feel comfortable and taken care of, because I, myself, have felt uncomfortable in situations and I feel like, sometimes it's not just the image that we carry with us, but it's also just even the process of putting your trust in someone that can be very healing, or very damaging,” Lee says. Lee (@yangzhenlee) only had one tattoo when they started working at Gypsy Tattoo Parlor, a Romani-owned queer tattoo shop on the border of Bloomfield and Lawrenceville. Michelle Joy (@michellejoyart), Lee’s boss, had them tattoo on skin from the start rather than first practicing on fake skin or oranges. The first tattoo Lee did was on themself.

“My friend Kate [Kittenfists (@kittenfists)] was my mentor, and they told me to go as big as I could, so then I can fix it later. So it was like eight inches long,” says Lee. “And it's been so long that I kinda like how janky it is because it just reminds me how hard it was. Like, I remember my hands shaking and not being able to control how deep I was going and the lines aren't very straight.”

At the start, Lee had a lot of anxiety about making a permanent mistake on people’s bodies. For the first half a year, they tattooed almost anything for $30. Lee also learned from other tattoo artists, including those in the shop and online, and visiting tattoo artists passing through the city. They learned that darker skin is softer, requiring the machine to run slower to avoid scarring, from Joy — who learned from Roni Zulu (@zulutheartist), a Black tattoo artist — as well as how to layer color mixed with white as a base before tattooing the unmixed color on top of darker skin from Laura Hammel (@mathgoth), a tattoo artist at Outside Tattoo in Bloomfield.

With more time and experience, they developed a healthier relationship with their work, often returning to a quote from Thom DeVita, a New York-based tattoo artist who passed away in 2018: “Any imperfections add to its beauty.”

As Lee learned to tattoo others, they were also getting tattooed. “I think I should have 21 tattoos,” says Lee.

The collaborative nature of learning continues for Lee, who is excited to meet other tattoo artists and trade information and experiences. One of their most memorable interactions was when Ben Phan (@heart_fuzz) visited the shop.

“I remember us locking eyes in Gypsy Tattoo Parlor when he came to guest with us. We both were like, ‘We need to tattoo each other immediately.’ Ben is so funny, charming, and lovely,” says Lee, who tattooed a dapper frog from a nursery rhyme on Phan in exchange for a cactus in a cowboy hat and a heart with a dagger. “I admire his lightness of personality and his sense of humor. I felt so comfortable and at ease. After he tattooed me, I consciously tried to carry more of that lightness in my client interactions.”

Tattooing has also helped Lee set their own boundaries, both with clients and in their personal life, and working with other queer artists has helped create a space where Lee feels able to ask for others’ input as well as share their own.

Their personal experiences as a Chinese and trans nonbinary person have also shaped their boundaries as a tattoo artist, particularly in what they are and aren’t comfortable with tattooing, not just for location — they no longer do finger tattoos — but for content of tattoos as well.
In addition to refusing to tattoo hate symbols, Lee no longer feels comfortable with tattooing Harry Potter-related art due to series author J.K. Rowling’s transphobic actions. They also don’t feel comfortable tattooing Chinese characters on people who don’t have a personal relationship with the language, both because they feel it’s appropriative, but also because many non-Asian people they know with Chinese or Japanese character tattoos now regret them.

“I don't want to put anything on someone that is very likely to be very uncomfortable for that person. But also, it doesn't seem right to me,” Lee says, who also notes that their boss Joy has been supportive of the boundaries they’ve established. Lee now focuses on flash tattoos, including a whimsical egg lion series, and fantastical frogs and birds.

“I'm really grateful for all the people who put their trust in me. Because it is a scary thing, to have someone inflict pain on you and also to put an image on you that you're probably going to carry for a long time,” says Lee. “I'm also very grateful for my shop. ... I found a really lovely, supportive community, and people who really care for my well-being, and has probably ruined most other jobs for me forever.”

Gypsy Tattoo Parlor 4061 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. gypsytattooparlor.com

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