Pre cursor to what you’re about to read- My name is Jenna Bouma and Im a 27 year old tattooer from Edmonton, Canada. I live and work in New York, tattooing a range of small to large scale work that touches on a style that mixes american traditional, romanticized motifs, japanese, and pattern work. I will likely soon start traveling extensively again, but for now NY is home. If you're interested in basic interviews- you can find them on the internet somewhere else.
Over the last few weeks of contemplating how to formulate this piece of writing, I came to the realization that I still don't know where to begin. Much like running a race when I was a young kid in Edmonton, I've been falling palms down into the dry hot pavement, bloodied up, trying to pick myself back up with the hopes of finding the energy and courage to finish what I started. A stream of written consciousness seems appropriate, although I cannot help myself from feeling the twisting uncertainty of how to present my thoughts as eloquently as I'd like. Especially concerning work. I can feel it in the pit of my stomach, much like someone has reached in, hands covered in wet latex viscerally jolting away, attempting to procure the words Im looking to find.
Nevertheless, allow me to begin by saying that I am extremely lucky to have the job I have, and that the next few paragraphs might leave a confusing impression. Im not usually this serious, but Im gonna leave my self-conscious wariness at the doorstep and walk right in. I hope you’ll be able to understand, because these are the things Id like to write in order to better understand myself, while also sharing with you whats important to me. This is not a conventional self interview, but rather private thoughts.
I'm a tattooer, one that has been fortunate enough to see really outstanding parts of the world while slowly understanding the craft, it's history, and the people who associate themselves with it. They’re nothing short of meticulously placed permanent wounds that are asked for at the comfort and fear of those seeking a truly beautiful form of elective torture. I've never used a machine, which means I make my tattoos without the aid of electricity. You can call it what you like- hand poked, hand pushed, non electric tattooing, shamisenbori, stick n poke etc. Its all one and the same. Tā moko, sak yant, dayak, and tebori are all different cultural forms of tattooing that have influenced my work.
9 years has passed since I experienced the initial high of touching a persons skin and tattooing it, and since then its morphed into such a perplexing yet wonderful thing. Im trying not to sound too silly or disjointed explaining this all, seeing as Im writing what Im thinking as it comes, but Ive been lost in thought a lot recently about the exchange that exists between myself and my customers/friends, and how its often something I feel the other side fails to properly try to understand. I guess the energy aspect. I work in Brooklyn at East River Tattoo, and I do believe that the weird celebrity association with tattooers and shops skews the true and honest gut feeling one should experience when electively submitting to someone who’s about to permanently mark you. This is also true of a lot of tattooers. There’s another time and place for me to banter on about how technology/internet and social media has completely shifted tattooing and the industry- but allow me to just flat out say that its influence has been fucking weird. Whether its nervous 18 year olds, hipsters, cool dads, first timers, nice people, bratty people, punks, colleagues, intellects etc some people just see tattooing as a vain, cool addition to their lives, vs really registering the way the mind and body tolerates the pain and act of tattooing. Its not only about what you’re getting tattooed- Its also very much about the process. I think the appreciation of our bodies senses gets left behind, and rejected. So, I guess my point is that we’re built to be conscious of all ranges of emotion and feeling, but the pre conceived notion of pain doesn’t allow us to experience any pleasure of such a feeling, and thus distracts from the primitive and distinct nature of tattooing.
Anyways, perhaps I should backpedal and point out that I never had a proper apprenticeship. I moved around, guest spotted allover, and took bits and pieces of what other people shared with me and compounded it into an informal apprenticeship. Because of the absence of formality, I was always critical of what I was doing, and that criticism transcended, whether constructive or not, my intent on being as care free and easygoing as I had hoped as a tattooer. Ive watched this form of tattooing shift a lot over the last number of years, becoming far more popular than I would have thought, and my desire to work on larger scale pieces likes backs has kept me very much afloat in the wake of the new wave of hand poke tattooers popping up left right and center. Its really quite humbling and surprising that certain people are interested enough in what Im doing to have hours upon hours of work done to get the tattoo they want. It makes me feel very lucky, yet I also feel the frustration of not being able to work faster or more efficiently for them or myself. Maybe this is because I work and guest alongside machine tattooers, but it may also be because I see Japanese body suits made by tebori, and the sheer scale and commitment intimidates me while also fascinating me to no end. Nakamura Toshikazu always struck a chord with me, as do Horihiro and my friend Bunshin Horitoshi. Patience is certainly exercised to another level with them, and sometimes I do wish I had the formal training to better understand the ins and outs of executing such involved levels of tattooing. Its too bad Im too stubborn to give up what I know in order to start over and have a very disciplined apprenticeship. The sacrifice would be major, but the reward may be greater than I even know.
I constantly think about whether or not my curiosity of experimenting will lead me to a different approach of tattooing. As I write this my wrist and middle forearm pang and ache with discomfort from over exertion due to 6.5 hours of working non stop on a back yesterday. I feel little to no regret, but my attention cannot be swayed away from the fact that this sharp sting may get horrendously worse, and that a tebori like approach may be what's next if I am to continue on with large scale work. (Tebori made tattoos are applied with a long device with needles attached to the end. This device gives leverage and pressure without the need of overexerting oneself.) To be very candid with you, I am confident that I can figure the application out, however, I am quite fearful that I may be unintentionally disrespecting the Japanese tattoo community without having a formal apprenticehsip. This is one of my biggest reasons for delaying this practice. Ive never heard of someone tattooing American traditional/Japanese inspired pieces by means of tebori, let alone teaching themselves how to do it. I wonder how that would go over. I without a doubt believe that respect goes a long way within this industry, and that such a virtue has been discarded and not accredited as an important factor in approaching and learning how to tattoo. Japanese or not.
Its safe to say that I suppose at this point in my profession I'm at a funny little cross road where the only real answer is to travel and not worry. To be conscientious, to exercise patience, lust for education, draw constantly, be nice, don’t be an asshole, and don’t have an ego. My apologies for throwing you a complete curve ball piece of writing. Its difficult to convey my love for tattooing even though this likely came off as a massive complaint about what I should do with my life! But I will say that my gratitude and fondness knows no bounds.