Credit: Lauren D. Zbarsky
Nomi Chi is an artist who describes their practice as "looking at things and making things." When Chi isn't tattooing out of Gastown Tattoo Parlour, Chi creates visual art in a range of mediums: from traditional painting and illustration, to large-scale sculpture and mixed media. Chi recently painted a mural at the inaugural Vancouver Mural Fest, and curated a group art exhibition called Dirty Knees that examined issues of mixed racial identity with refreshing frankness and dark humour. Nomi recently chatted with us about the art scene in Vancouver, tattooing from a young age, and how they balance self-care with a steady stream of creative projects.
Can you share your story of how you found your way to art and tattooing?
I started tattooing quite young. My art was going in a subversive, darker direction and I think some friends may have suggested tattooing as an interesting medium to explore. I was introduced (by my mother) to a fellow down the street from us who was a tattooer: he mentored me, although I wouldn’t call our arrangement an apprenticeship for a lot of reasons. Mostly because I didn’t really learn very much. I was so young, and would make many, many bad tattoos over the years. To this day I wouldn't consider myself much a technical or adept tattooer.
Did you always feel like an artist?
I assumed the identity of artist when I could support myself with my art. Actually, it may have been a title other people lent me and I just went with it. But it was definitely not an always thing.
Between tattooing and illustration work you’ve got so much on the go, yet you still manage to do more creative projects on the side. What are you most excited about these days?Next year is looking to be a bit lighter in the tattooing department—I think I want to travel a bit less, and work on my gallery practice! I am spread thin these days with so much going on, it is hard to me to be fully present.
Where do you get the energy?
I have an anxiety disorder, and my particular flavour of anxiety drives me to constantly make things.
What recharges you and keeps you going?
Podcasts, and time out with friends.
Do you have a self-care routine?
My self care list includes taking myself out for a nice snack or coffee, going for bike rides, taking care of sundry, low energy tasks like tidying my workspace & answering emails, and having too-long baths with lots of fragrant products while also playing videogames in said baths.
A colourful, large-scale mural painted by Nomi Chi for the Vancouver Mural Festival.
What does peace look like for you?
Peace is looking back on a day of productive art-making, and knowing that I’ve finished or made progress on a piece that demonstrates or goes beyond what I know of my abilities. Peace is also saying "fuck it" to art and production, and being a human with other humans who I cherish.
How did Dirty Knees come about?
Dirty Knees was born of some social media interactions/observations I’ve been having with my peers who have similar racial backgrounds (I am Japanese/Jewish, and a 4th generation Canadian). There are a lot of shared experiences, and also a lot of diversity in how we feel we are perceived, and where we place ourselves in the world. Most of the artists involved have illustration practices which often privilege aesthetics over message, and I felt that this could be an opportunity for all of us to use our art to talk about experiences which are important to us. The title Dirty Knees refers to the playground rhyme: "Chinese/Japanese/Dirty knees/ Look at these!"
Nomi strikes a pose with Sakana no onnanoko, one of the pieces she created for the Dirty Knees group exhibition.
It seems like the way we talk about that personal experience of moving through the world as a person of “mixed” heritage—and even the language we use around it—is changing drastically. Do you feel like the conversation is changing?
I feel like these discussions, and the language we use to talk about race (and sexuality, gender, class, etc!) have been going on for a long time, but they're definitely becoming more ubiquitous and accessible! And that is very exciting.
Do you plan on curating more shows?
Maybe. Probably. It has been incredibly rewarding, but I’m a studio artist at heart.
How do you find the art scene in Vancouver?
There are buckets of talented, hardworking, and thoughtful artists in Vancouver. The city however is not very hospitable to artists, or art spaces/events. From my perspective there are not many people buying gallery art, so a lot of (gallery) artists sell their work online or otherwise outside of Vancouver. So it is difficult living, but the community is very supportive.
How about about the tattoo industry?
I do not know of any tattoo shops struggling to make ends meet in Vancouver, and there are a lot of tattoo shops here. I see a lot of aspiring tattooers in Vancouver finding their own way into tattooing, which has created a bit of tension between older, more traditional tattooers and this new generation of art students making their own iconography. I mostly keep my head down and focus on my work, and I don’t have much to complain about.
What changes would you like to see?I think we could use more spaces that facilitate low income communities… maybe a few less condos, but I know that might be a tall order.
Lastly, how can people get tattooed by you?
There is a handy FAQ on my website which answers this question!