Currently reading : An interview with GRACE NEUTRAL
Grace Neutral is the social networking phenomenon and tattooer whose popularity has escalated at an accelerated speed over the last year.
She is perhaps best known for having her eyeballs tattooed a light lilac colour, her belly button removed, nose stretched, face tattooed, the shape of moons carved out of her cheeks and ears turned into pixie shapes as well as having 90% of her body tattooed with manga and disney characters.
With almost seventy thousand followers on Instagram, Grace shares with us images of her hand poked tattoos of cartoon characters and mandala designs created at Good Times Tattoo in London and her own body modifications.
So what is it about Grace that people are finding so fascinating? Tattooing has become so common place within youth culture and body modification isn’t that far behind this current trend , so what is it that Grace has created within this culture to have accumulated all this attention? Working as a tattooer is increasingly becoming more and more popular so what does it take to grab the attention of so many in the way in which Grace has?
Is Grace Neutral presenting us with a new format where she has sabotaged a conventional form of female sexuality and our expectations of womanhood or is she creating a new one? And if she is creating a new one is this something that she is doing with an aim to actively challenge our expectations? The tattoo world still exists as a predominately masculine world so having this new young girl accumulate so much attention so quickly has certainly challenged what we expect of a female tattooer.
What does it mean in our contemporary culture that girls want to inlay their bodies with cartoon characters? This of course is nothing new, tattooed images of cartoon characters are completely intertwined with notions of flash design dating back to the turn of the century but Grace is tattooing child like images and almost predominately only on to women. The mandala designs that she hand pokes appear in contemporary placements on the body, triangular shapes above the ribcage or under the breasts and circular shapes around or over the nipples which until the last few years was an area of the body which was almost completely ignored within the tattoo world.
Besides from Grace’s own work as a tattooer the journey that she has gone on through permanently altering her own body is so extreme and has been so fast that you can’t help but feel that people must be drawn to her in the same way that might resemble the attraction of a freak show. This isn’t a criticism of Grace but more an observation of how we all react when an individual makes numerous commitment to irreversibly changing their body, especially when they are so young.
However I don’t feel that Grace’s attention is purely that of shock, women are recreating aspects of her appearance . Is this a new formation of how women are taking charge of their own bodies and understanding feeling attractive in a new way? Or is the parallel between the violence of body modification juxtaposed with the innocence of cartoon characters speaking of something greater in our society of how women want to be perceived?
Injecting ink into your eyeballs is a procedure which is so new that the long term effects are still unknown. Tattooing the entirety of your chest and covering your breasts and nipples with an image of Snow White seems to obliterate a kind of sexuality which we’ve all become acclimatised to, and that of course of removing your belly button hints at creating not only a different form of femininity but something even alien.
Carri Munden came with us to Grace’s house to interview her and Eloise Parry took portraits where we found out more about her life up until this point, her inspirations and where she wants to go in the future.
Grace moved to London when she was 21 and became an apprentice piercer at Self Sacrifice. It was here she learnt about Western tattooing and body modification, it was also where she met people and artists that could help her transform her own body, “to evolve physically”.
She explains: “I got my first tattoo in the local shitty tattoo shop- I got a heart on my leg, kind of a traditional tattoo. But then I was getting more and more tattoos, and I was getting other stuff done too, scarification and things- so yeah, my parents got a bit freaked out about it. But they realized it wasn’t a phase, it was part of my identity- I had to go on, to find out more about my self. My dad’s a captain, so I can’t like turn around and go in-depth with him about how I think I’m a fairy from another space and time because he’d laugh! But I don’t feel like I have to, they get it and accept me for who I am”
I liked the way Grace casually mentioned she might be from another dimension. As we talk more she confirms what I had thought myself – that Grace is not trying to provoke or shock by altering her body in such extreme ways. It is a very personal and intuitive journey for her. She wants a body that reflects who she is inside. And equally it would be simplistic to think that changing her body in this way is because she is not happy in her body or in herself. I found Grace a very intelligent and confident young woman who is very in control of and guiding this journey. She is also responsible in choosing artists that are experts in body mod so that her transformation is performed safely.
I found it refreshing to hear her discuss body modification as a vast spectrum with none of the cultural judgment or elitism that I sometimes find within the tattoo community – “I mean those women who want a fake bum and fake breasts and things, we’re all in the same boat. Just different ideas of beauty is just what it comes down to, I’m not following any fashion trend I’m just trying to feel comfortable. We shouldn’t put a boundary on anything”
We talk about female role models, she says, “When I was young, I mean there were girls who I’d be into. Brody Armstrong and Karen O and people. All these crazy women who portrayed not giving a fuck, I loved them, there’s not enough (of them) around now”.
“I work for a woman called Nicole, she’s been in the industry for ten/fifteen years and she’s one to look up to. Her work holds it’s own, she’s a real pioneer. I’m lucky to have her, I’m young and it’s good to be surrounded by these strong women. It is a very male lead industry, full of alpha males and yeah, they get a bit funny about people like me, young girls tattooing after being quite fresh in it all still”.
I suggest she is now a role model to a new generation of girls. That perhaps her own fearlessness inspires and empowers. I also find it interesting that she mostly tattoos women, although she says this was not a conscious decision. I am guessing this is because young girls are both her audience and her clients.
Grace has chosen and perfected the hand poke technique of tattooing, “it’s different because there’s no electricity, it’s just me and the person”. This technique and the way that she speaks about her clients makes me feel that the connection between her and client is important to her.
Graces tattoo work is most powerful on a female body; her hand poke mandala chest designs both enhance and transform the breasts like a new alien skin. “I try and make things for a body, I want it to look like it’s always been there. I want it to flow. Mandala means sacred shape, I fell in love with them and their symmetry, maybe it’s to do with my OCD haha. But it’s that pattern and craft element that I love”.
It also has to be pointed out that the chest is one of the most painful areas to tattoo! It is a brave decision! I am always so disappointed to watch a show like Snog Marry Avoid that offers life changing make overs to scouser fake tan / make up addicts and suburban cyber Goths. The lesson is conform to find a man. The women that invite Grace to tattoo their breasts are claiming this site as their own.
Through her own appearance Grace is physically challenging our concepts of beauty, femininity and female sexuality.
Japan is my own spiritual home and I am interested to see Kawaii cultures’ global impact. Outside of Asia I think the culture is often misunderstood as childlike, even submissive; but it is actually the opposite In Lolita culture. For example, although young girls dress like life-size dolls, it takes a fearlessness to walk down the street like this. These young women are dressing purely for personal expression, for themselves and their Lolita peers and definitely not to attract boys.
I once read an article on Gungaro girls that explained, rather than trying to conform to a Californian tanned and blonde dream with their tango tans, heavy make up and hair extensions, the girls deliberately wanted to look aggressively extreme, more warrior than beach babe/hip hop huney. This new sexually aggressive generation of woman were terrifying to the older generation.
These are challenging forms of young female sexuality. And I am sure Graces childlike appearance but playful confidence and sexuality must be unnerving to many.
Also in Japan fantasy is something that continues beyond childhood and offers an escape from adult life. This is crucial to Graces identity and it was her Disney role-playing and love of Stich shared on her Instagram that started my mini obsession with her. We met in her bedroom, which is, as she explains, “a pastel princess dream or nightmare” (depending on your taste). The walls and wardrobe are covered in Disney princesses and tattoo sketches, characters line every surface. I immediately slip into play / sleepover mode and sit cross legged on her Disney princess rug. She spoke excitedly about her obsession with Disney and Studio Ghibli.
“It makes me feel good, surrounding myself with all this cute stuff. It’s a form of escapism too. It’s so easy to let life get on top of you, especially living in London and working so hard. I need to have my things, my room – it’s my sanctuary and nest”.
“I grew up on Disney, lost interest in my Goth teenage years but recently have rediscovered Disney and become obsessed with Studio Ghibli. I am still interested in the dark side but it’s finding a balance of dark and light, finding yourself”.
She has the character No Face from Spirited Away tattooed on her arm and often incorporates Studio Ghibli characters – Totoro or No Face again or Disney princesses into complex mandala patterns. I ask her if she also makes up her own characters or creatures and she says she has been known to make her own monsters and spirits, but agrees that it is the iconic nature of Disney and Ghibli that she is attracted to.
Her favorite princess is Snow White – she has a large Snow White tattoo on her right breast by Piotrek Taton, who also did the large swan on her back. Because she was the original and she has short hair, which is rebellious in Disney! She’s such a sweet entity and soul, the princesses have gotten more brave and fiery in recent Disney films, but she’s this perfect pure girl, her purity is her strength, and I get the impression that this purity and moral integrity is very important to Grace. An inner rather than physical strength.
It is this paradox of childlike innocence and otherworldly strength that I find so fascinating about Grace. When enthusiastically discussing her various body mods, there is little discussion about the pain or extreme nature of the process, the focus is on the result and the aesthetic.
The moon scarification on her face was chosen quite spontaneously. The moon has a special symbolism to her.
“I don’t feel like I’m in my body a lot of the time, sounds weird but I don’t. Sometimes I feel like I wasn’t made from this place. I do have this relationship with the moon and things, I know where I’m from, I know I was born from my mum but in my head and my heart I feel like I’m from somewhere else.
From risk of sounding arrogant, I don’t want to say I feel this way, but I do, I do feel otherworldly. I feel anxiety without having this.
I think people have totally lost touch with the world we’re in- gotten lost in this bubble of technology that surrounds us. It could sound contradictory because I’m sat here in this fantasy realm! But I try to connect with the earth and work with her. I want to grow with her on my weird little fantasy elf journey”
“With my eyes, they’re new still, it took a while for them to be like this – two treatments. We were just playing around with colours, we mixed a purple and it sort of fitted me. It’s a wash and moves around”.
“I’m not in a hurry to change anything else but I’m doing a lot of lasering on my legs getting rid of some things; more to make room for some new ones because there are some amazing artists who I want to draw on me”.
Grace moves fast and fluidly like some lil cute creature, she is both unguarded but considered in her responses.
Although otherworldly she is very grounded when discussing her accelerated profile and Internet fame. She understands the importance of Instagram and that her identity is a currency in our new culture of visual communication. She admits that sometimes she questions why she has so many followers, wondering whether it’s because they want to be updated with her art or because she looks weird and does weird things to her body – maybe it’s both. “At the end of the day I put myself into my art and my art into myself, it’s one whole. I see no separation.”
She ends with “Ghibli is the closest to religion I’ll ever come to! “ and that to me sums it up, just as Ghibli offers a fantasy world crafted from century’s old storytelling and folk art, Grace combines tribal techniques and identity with Kawaii culture and neo paganism to create an identity, a belief system and complete universe that is cute, powerful, alien, sexy and unique to her.
Grace was photographed at her home wearing all of her own clothes.
Follow Grace on Instagram here: instagram.com/graceneutral