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.
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.
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.
I have an anxiety disorder, and my particular flavour of anxiety drives me to constantly make things.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Maybe. Probably. It has been incredibly rewarding, but I’m a studio artist at heart.
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.
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.
There is a handy FAQ on my website which answers this question!