I chose to spotlight an artist this month as opposed to a shop because I felt that this artist needed some East Coast love since he will be hosting a seminar at this year’s Empire State Tattoo Expo in New York City. His name is Jess Yen of My Tattoo shop in Alhambra and Huntington Beach, CA. I first became aware of Jess’ work at the Philadelphia Tattoo Convention back in 2014. I even posted photos of his work here in Inked Out when I reviewed that convention. His lines were so precise and his shadowing just brought his artwork to life. Yes, it’s true! I’m a sucker for the Asian tattoo designs and that is what Jess Yen excels in.
Fast-forward here to 2016; last month, my wife and I attended a tattoo convention in Long Beach, CA on the Queen Mary III, and who did we run into? Jess Yen! We told Jess that we fell in love with his artwork at the Philly Con and he excitedly told us that he was coming back to the East Coast for the Empire State Tattoo Expo in NYC from July 15 to July 17, where will be hosting a seminar to talk about his Oriental art concepts, Tebori needle making, and drawing full back pieces on Sunday, July 17, from 4 pm till 7 pm at the New York Midtown Hilton.
I called Jess last week to talk about the seminar, but also to give you, the tattoo enthusiast, a little insight about this amazing artist from the West Coast. Well, technically from Taiwan, but he now calls California home. Here’s what Jess had to say:
So, you started tattooing at the ripe age of 14 back in Taiwan using a needle and a bamboo stick—a method known as Tebori, which is a Japanese method. Why that method as opposed to going straight for the machines?
You know what? I don’t think that’s totally 100 percent a Japanese method. It’s just a needle with calligraphy ink. In the beginning I used calligraphy ink, I don’t think it was started with the Japanese style. It was just a way to do the tattoos. It was not really traditional Japanese in the beginning, but as for me, I had a mentor at the time, where I would copy his style. After that, he showed me more of a Japanese style, Tebori. In the beginning, I didn’t even know it was Tebori. I just knew of it as a needle on a stick and I thought I’d try it out when I was teenager. I wasn’t a good student, that’s why I tried it. These kids would come out with their cool Kanji tattoos, and I would say, “I could do that! It’s easy!” because we took calligraphy class in school. So, that’s how I started.
So, were you self-taught, basically?
I really don’t like to say that I’m self-taught, but the fact is I was. I think inheritance is very important to pass from generation to generation. So, I don’t really like to say that I’m self-taught, but the fact is that I am self-taught.
I read in some other interview that you were actually doing Tebori on friends until you visited a shop in Venice Beach and saw an electrical tattoo machine. Is this true?
Hey, you really did your homework on me, dude! (laughs) Well, let’s just say it wasn’t my friends; it was my girlfriend, who is now my wife. I practiced on her, a lot of my friends, neighbors…I tattooed her friends, but back in 1999, she wanted to get a certain kind of tattoo and we were just talking about it. She wanted to get an electrical style with handwriting, and that was just a popular boyfriend and girlfriend thing. She wanted to get my name. (laughs)
So, we had a couple friends who went down to Venice Beach, and I saw the machine and was like, “I can do that!” That’s easy because I already have years of doing Tebori, hand-poke style of tattooing, but with hand-poke style, you can’t do beautiful cursive handwriting, fancy lines work because Tebori is totally different type and shape of needles. You can’t do fancy, cursive, beautiful lines with Tebori, so I didn’t suggest that she get a Tebori tattoo by me. Our friends suggested going to get tattoos, and we ended up in Venice Beach, and I saw her get a cursive and was blown away with the speed.
At the time, it was very difficult to get a tattoo machine without a license. You had to be bloodborne pathogen certified. Without any of these requirements, it was hard to get a starting kit. Anyway, when we finally got the equipment, I put everything together. I don’t know how I knew how to put everything together. It wasn’t like there were any instructions or anything. I just put everything together myself and I just started.
And now, you even have your own machines that you’re selling, don’t you find that ironic?
Yeah, they’re selling pretty well. My machine doesn’t have fancy framing and it’s a very basic design. It’s solid, cast iron, and it’s selling, so that’s good!
Was it a difficult transition for you to go from a stick to a machine?
Yeah, it was quite a big difference because of the speed. When you do the hand-poking, it’s kind of slow, and you can put a lot of concentration. I mean both need concentration, but a different kind. When you’re doing Tebori, you have to keep looking at the needle where it’s poked and that needs a lot of practice. With the machine, you have to concentrate on the speed. It’s a big difference once you start slow and process picks up speed. It was a big transition.
Well, what drew me to your work was your “line” work, which is just amazing! It’s just so detailed and that’s what made me wonder if the transition was a difficult one.
I’ll put it this way, Oriental tattoo is very focused on “line” work and I could do a lot of line work and backgrounds for interior design because back in Asia when I did interior design, there was a lot of different line work to bring into perspective. In interior design, there are a lot of blueprints, where you have to take blueprints and turn them into perspective drawings to show the customer using a Sharpie or a ballpoint pen. Using a fine point marker really helped when practicing my “line” work. I realized that if you wanted any cool dragons or any really cool Oriental creatures, the “line” work is very important. I think that having that fine point marker drawing background really helped my “line” work in many different ways and that’s really helped.
You’ve been pretty busy this year with tattoo conventions and back in April, you even did one back home in Taiwan. How was that?
When I do Taiwan shows, it’s really awesome! I left Taiwan almost 20 years ago, and I went back to Taiwan back in 2013 for a convention and it was a big difference. I was shocked and surprised because back in the 1990s, when I was doing tattooing as a side job in the factories in Asia, it wasn’t that popular. It was mainly Yakuza gangsters who would get that kind of work. Now, everyone is getting them. It was very different back home.
I’ve seen you at the Philly Tattoo Convention a couple of years ago and was amazed by your work and most recently met you again at the Long Beach Tattoo Convention in Cali, which is your home base, and was still amazed by your work. When you come here to the East Coast, do you have such a large fan base that you are totally booked the entire time you are here?
I think I’m really blessed in that sense. I have a strong…I can’t say fan base, but people who appreciate my work. In New York, I’m really booked. I couldn’t fit everyone in. I try to fit everyone in within 10 days minus two days on the plane, so I really have eight days and within those eight days, I have three days at the convention and on Sunday, I have my seminar. Friday and Saturday, I am totally booked. So, I arrive on Monday, take Tuesday off, I have appointments on Wednesday through the following Tuesday until I leave on Wednesday.
So, last question before I let you go. The Empire State Tattoo Expo hits NYC July 15 to July 17 and you will be hosting a seminar on Sunday, July 17. What can we expect to learn?
Well, this class is really different because it’s a new topic and new subject for my New York friends. So, I make it different than my seminars in Costa Rica at the Pura Vida Convention and at the Philadelphia Tattoo Convention because I’ve been teaching in many different cities. So, I don’t want to stick with the same topic over and over.
I prepared a new class for the New York audience, and at first, we will talk about Jess Yen style and the Jess Yen concepts. Just like you say that I do beautiful work. If you study my work, you’ll see there’s a realism element in there because I was a Fine Arts major. So, realism, to me, was part of my studies many years ago, and I take that into my work.
I also focus on a lot of “line” work. When you do a lot of “line” work, like comic book style of drawing, there’s not a lot of realism. Realism uses “line” work and more shading to make the detail and the tone different. Once you get down the “line” work, then you can become fancier and incorporate that comic book style.
In my class, I’m teaching about concepts and I create my own styles. So, this time, I’m talking about the Jess Yen concepts. Second, I’ll be talking about many different “line” works, but their very specific like the “cracking” lines, “organic” lines, “on and off” lines, “curve” lines, “unpredictable” lines…I haven’t put together the “line” work part of the class yet, but this time I will show many different types of “line” work.
I’m also going to talk about one of my concepts I like to call the “Holy Shit” concept. Why do I call it the “Holy Shit” concept? A good tattoo that can be seen from a far distance like eight to 12 feet and you can tell what it is right away, but when you get closer and see all of the detail and “line” work, you just say, “Holy shit! Look at that!” That’s the Jess Yen, Hori Yen concept.
In this class, I will be teaching how to make Tebori needles. I will have my assistant with me. He’s the needle master that I call MAN. He’s been with me at many seminars teaching how to make needles, but in this class, we will teach people to make three-layer needles. Usually, the needles are two-layers. We’ll show them how to make the hand-poke needles from a loose needle and solder them all together.
I’m also bringing extra sample of the Tebori tools and I’ll show people how we do that. I might even bring fake silicone skin, so I can show people how to shade in using the Tebori needles. The seminar is open to anyone who wants to learn about the Jess Yen concepts and Oriental style of tattooing and its “line” work including artists, fans, and writers…Hint, hint!
Jess Yen is an amazing artist. His Asian artwork and portraits are hard to compete with. You can learn a lot from an artist like Jess, so I highly recommend that if you’re going to the Empire State Tattoo Expo in NYC from July 15 to July 17 that you stop in and see Jess Yen’s seminar on Sunday, July 17, at the New York Midtown Hilton at 1335 Avenue of the Americas. Admission to the seminar is $200, but you also need convention admission to attend the seminar. Trust me, you really don’t want to miss this!
Well, I’m off to check out my next tattoo spot! Who knows what state it will be in! If you have a tattoo shop that you want to suggest, please e-mail me the name of the place and whom I should ask for at email@example.com.