Currently reading : An Interview with Jenna Bouma (a.k.a. Slowerblack)
Primarily known to the internet world by her handle Slowerblack, Canadian tattooer Jenna Bouma has been traveling the world for the last two years, covering people with her distinctively bold handpoked tattoos. Her simple, graphic images of sultry ladies, kuniyoshi cats, and strong reworkings of classic flash are the products of meticulously engineered hand tools that Bouma makes herself, and by simplifying her setup and reducing the level of minute detail, Bouma creates tattoos with a sense of mystery–almost teasing a viewer by suggesting that there is more than meets the eye. Bouma plans to settle down in a city TBD, but until then, she’ll be making appearances in Sweden and Italy with Guy Le Tatooer. We caught up with her before all that to learn more about her background and her work.
Firstly, how long have you been tattooing, and how did you get your start?
I started tattooing on my own accord in 2008. That summer, I moved to Vancouver after having spent my life in Edmonton. I had always been intrigued by tattooing, but I didn’t feel at all comfortable with buying a machine and doing it at home, so I stuck with a stripped-down setup and began making pretty whack tools for stick n poking my roommates. (By “whack,” I mean a pencil end, a needle, thread, a thimble and India ink.) I’d pick up overly expensive packs of nitrile gloves from shoppers drug mart and trot my ass home with a smile on my face, fully ready to get to it. My friends Chad and Colin had both got matching Maple Ridge straightedge tattoos, and another friend Mallory got the Minor Threat sheep on the side of her foot.
When I did those tattoos, I really didn’t know what I was doing, but I had a good idea of what was right and what was wrong based on videos I had watched of sak yant, tebori and other types of non-electric tattooing. After the tattoos were finished, I was told they looked pretty good given the circumstances, so I kept going at it. Stubbornness.
How did you make the transition into tattooing professionally?
From 2008-2012 I’d tattoo about once a month, and the amount increased insanely in the beginning to middle of 2012. At that point I had a job working in TV as a production assistant, literally hating the reality of my day-to-day life, so I decided to drop it and figure out what the hell I was doing. I had thought about tattoo apprenticeships and going into shops with a portfolio of these tattoos I had done at home, but I knew I wasn’t going to be taken seriously, and that was fair because I didn’t know shit besides how to make the tattoo. (For example, I thought dettol cleaned everything, so I’d spray it everywhere, slap a bandage down and cite some poor healing instructions I found on the internet. Ta-da. Poor form.) I knew it would never fly, so instead I looked towards my friends abroad in England and made my way over.
October 2012 is when tattooing became very real for me, and I owe it to more than a handful of people who made it happen: Ed Mosley, Shen Schubert, Simon Erl, Rose Whittaker, Max Kuhn [Ed. note: read our interview with him here], David Spencer, and Adam Sage. All of them for different reasons, whether it was offering me up sound advice, putting a roof over my head, giving me a shop to work in, teaching me proper sterilization, getting me clientele, being an inspiration, calling me on my shit, or just flat out supporting me. Since tattooing at Duke Street and Haunted Tattoos, I haven’t stopped at all really.
I’ve been tattooing solid now for 2 years, I did not plan on tattooing professionally, and I do not have a background in art besides my own general interest in drawing growing up.
I have never used a machine, so hand poking has been it from the beginning. I like it ‘cause I feel like I can take my time and not feel overly rushed or nervous about having to keep up with a machine. Plus, the more primitive aspect of giving someone a tattoo by hand is attractive to me. Sometimes I feel like the content of my tattoos might sway people to think otherwise, but I’m still sharing a pretty personal experience with someone.
My tattoos don’t look primitive or old at all, but the method is, and I like that. People arrive knowing they are about to be hurt, and that vulnerability is something that I work well with. Hand poking is quiet, it’s intimate, it heals well, and I love the stripped down setup. I enjoy making my tools, and I feel elated every time I wipe down a finished tattoo knowing I’m 100% responsible for it.
Where do you look for inspiration, in flash, art, etc.?
I’ve always been a fan of vintage advertisements and images: smoking ads, the labels of matchsticks, old shopping catalogues, circus/magic posters etc. I’ll take what i see and redraw it, but I’ll strip it down and then embellish and rework what I see fit to translate well into a tattoo. Same goes with old tattoo flash or wood engravings. Lately, I’ve been really into referencing the female bodies that Patrick Nagel drew, and also watching movies I find visually attractive, pausing on a scene or body position I like, and referencing that.
Some of my favorite tattoos of yours show people mid action–like the undressing girl–because I feel like you capture such evocative moments that are rarely used in images.
I just think its nice to see new content that isn’t predictable or just the same piece of old flash reworked again and again. I feel like taking off shoes, putting on lipstick or taking off a shirt can look amazing as a tattoo, but sometimes I need help to be inspired and find the right positioning. Pausing scenes in movies helps.
The Nagel reference is also interesting because I totally see the inspiration, but his figures are so sharp while yours are more rounded and distorted.
I just prefer a curviness to human figures. Not only in general, but in tattooing because I like that it keeps old aspects of tattooing present. Patrick Nagel wasn’t looking to tattoo his very angular drawings, but Sailor Jerry was looking to tattoo his own. His figures have real curve, and I find it visually appealing so I changed the Nagel pieces I referenced to fit that. More fluid, less sharp.
I had huge hold ups about tattooing or even painting anything Japanese-related for a long time because I didn’t feel as though I had the right to. It may sound silly and stupid, but there is an endless amount of information and detail in Japanese ukiyo-e prints and work I appreciate, and I didn’t want to go in blindly and disrespect that at all by tattooing it and making wild changes. Theres so much to know, and I suppose I kept feeling uncomfortable about it because apprentices learning tebori from their masters tend to spend years understanding the details behind what they’ll be tattooing, as well as learning the technique to tattoo. I didn’t want to disrespect that by using a modified version of tebori to tattoo a style so culturally specific and engrained.
Really I was being super cautious about the whole thing, over-thinking it, but after working in close proximity with Horimasa, I felt more open to slowly drawing and even tattooing Japanese work because I was inspired. He said nice things about what I was doing, and Gomineko books had their station set up next to mine, so I stocked up on hundreds of dollars of reference, and less than a week later I tattooed my first kuniyoshi cat on my friend Shaun. The Japanese women and cats have always struck a chord with me, so I reference those simply because I like them and because they tend to be simple. A good way to ease into bigger things.
I know you make your own hand tools, and I’m just curious about how you engineered them. Are they similar to Japanese instruments? How did you develop them?
A lot of trial and error. From the get go, I was referencing tebori tools I saw on the internet or in magazines, but my initial version was so messed that eventually I changed it. That was when I first started. After that I was using needles straight out of the packaging to cut down on time, thinking “Oh yeah, this is smart,” but I quickly learned I was headed for a future of carpal tunnel, so that was the end of that. Making sure I had a good grip and that the needle was firmly in place became really important, so I moved onto disposable tools that consist of wood, thread, the needle, and tape to cushion.
Adam Sage was definitely a huge inspiration for me and where I was going, and now my tools look somewhat comparable to the tools used by Nakamura Toshikazu.
How has the process hand-poking dictated the stark, strong aesthetic of your work?
Tattooing this way definitely pushed the aesthetic of my work to where it is now. I started out doing tattoos that weren’t as bold, and I’d stipple the piece for shading. I liked the look of it, but with more time and experience using different needles I found that I wanted the tattoos to look more traditional and even brazen. Sometimes romantic as well, but still solid. The content of my drawings shifted and became more tailored to hand poked tattoos specifically.
The last couple months, I started painting flash sheets with no shading and felt myself more content with the result because I didn’t feel like the shading I had previously incorporated while painting accurately represented the tattoo a person would be choosing and getting. My whole frame of mind is kind of skewed and dumb about that, but I want those whip shades. I guess my mindset is that when a person chooses the piece of flash they’re getting, the whip shading brings together the tattoo and is sorta like a surprise at the end.
How do you adapt the images you tattoo for hand poking? What kind of aesthetic compromises do you have to make for a hand-poked tattoo?
I really like bold tattoos, and I’ve always outlined them with thick lines and filled with whip shading, so with that in mind, I keep what I feel is the most important parts of an image I’m referencing and scrap the rest. Shape, contrast and embellishment stays. Because of that, I don’t really feel as though I’m compromising much of anything because what I want is simplicity. No insanely complicated background to go with the subject, no color, no super realistic pieces or perfect shading. I want what I tattoo to look sick 40 years from now, and I’m hopeful that they will if I keep doing them this way. I draw and paint with the intent being that whatever I come up with will look great tattooed.
Have you found that hand-poking affects the client-tattooer dynamic in any interesting ways?
Sorta. Most people that come in have only ever had either machine tattoos, shoddy at home stick n pokes, or no tattoos at all. Almost all of them assume that hand poking will hurt a lot, and because of that they tend to be a bit more nervous about experiencing something new. With tattooing in general, you have a person submitting to you, and that interaction is pretty wild (knowing you’re hurting someone because they want the tattoo), and I suppose that in general makes the dynamic pretty wild but I wouldn’t say its really different than other client-tattooer interactions! The pain part is definitely subjective to each and every person who I tattoo, but its always very funny to me when I start the first line and people say “Oh.. is that it?”
Until recently, you’ve been traveling almost constantly. How has working in so many different shops (and with so many different people) affected the way your work has developed. Are there any specific lessons that you have learned from certain tattooers you’ve met along the way?
Traveling and tattooing has gone so hand in hand for me since the start that I can’t even imagine what things would have been like for me had I just stayed put in one spot. I daresay I wouldn’t be writing this. When you travel and meet so many different tattooers and artists you become subject to many styles and points of reference, so really it just broadens things up. I started drawing new things, tattooing larger pieces, toying with slight style changes etc. I’d say that working the way I have has been greatly fulfilling, and yes, there are definitely tattooers that have taught me lessons, but I’ve name dropped enough already so we’ll leave that for another time.
Have you noticed any country-wide or region-wide patterns about what people want tattooed/where they want tattoos/anything else?
Nah not really. I’ve noticed its pretty consistent. People love getting cats, women and knives tattooed on them.
Honestly, that book took me so long to put together. My friend Matt Finner runs Permanent Sleep and we agreed on this project in February or March 2013. I just wanted to do something different, so I painted some shoddy pieces related to Death in June and made a book like 5 months later! It was fun. I chose most images based from lyrical content in songs and also from artwork used by The Band.
How has your work changed over the course of your career so far, and how do you envision it developing in the future?
My work has always been somewhat cohesive in style, but my ability to draw better and come up with new ideas has gotten greater with time and practice. I’ve been able to do some bigger work and try new things that I would’ve been scared to try a few years back, and thats kinda cool.
In the future when all’s well I want to take on larger scale paintings on different canvases (wood and fabric), as well as tattoo back pieces, maybe try grey shading, making and using my own needles specifically, and collaborating on tattoos and paintings with some friends.
I’ve been forever working up to doing larger pieces and feeling fully confident about it. Big pieces take me longer to finish, and ideally if I want to do back pieces or full thigh pieces or chests/stomachs, I’m going to have to stay in one place for more than a week or two in order to make sure the client can come back for additional sessions. This is the goal.
Is there anything else coming up for you that you want to share?
The main thing is that I’m settling down beginning in 2015. It’ll be announced in due time, but I’m so excited to relax and call somewhere home. That aside, there’s not too much. More wood engraving and more large scale projects! More prosecco and good living.
-All images courtesy of Slowerblack, except where noted. –