Tête-à-Tête: Tattooist Julissa Rodriguez
Julissa and I met a few years ago at an art opening in Harlem. She was on the mic reciting poetry with these larger gauges in her ears, tattoos everywhere and a buzz cut. I was curious instantly. We stayed in touch, seeing each other at many other events following. Last week, I sat down with her and her cat in her living room/studio and asked her some questions...
Loyal Nana: Introduce yourself
Julissa Arlene Rodriguez: My full name is Julissa Arlene Rodriguez, I am a Dominican-American tattoo artist from The Bronx and head of my brand, Art by JAR.
LN: Your name is a great example of a very Dominican name. I love it.
JAR: I know! I thank my mom for not going more Dominican with it. Her name is Aristaida.
LN: When I met you, you were doing poetry and body painting for photoshoots. Now you are doing TATS! How long have you been doing this now?
JAR: I think it’s so funny when people ask me this. I never wanted to become a tattoo artist, I am going to keep it a buck. I was against tattoos for a very long time. I had a weird misconception of what it was. I grew up in the hood and you see those tattoos with like prayer hands or a jesus piece and I was just wtf is this? I used to do body painting and i just keep hearing “is that a tattoo? Do you do tattoos? You should do tattoos.” I started doing research on tattoo artists in Europe who are PHENOMENAL. Once I saw their work and looked deeper into my style, I realized that it can actually be translated on to skin through ink, I started to change my mind. Before I could invest though, I had to figure out if this is what I really wanted to do. One day I was at my corporate job, a Spa in SoHo, who by the way paid very well but I hated it. While at work, I was scrolling through IG and someone tagged me on a Bang Bang Tattoo post stating that they were looking for an apprentice. I applied and got called in for an interview.
LN: To go from never having tattooed to working with Bang Bang Tattoo is like going from 0 to 100 real quick. If you didn’t have a portfolio, what work of yours did you have to show?
JAR: Nothing. I shared my website which has all of my paintings, body paintings, digital designs and my JAR merchandise. We talked through what this position actually was. I told them I was interested in looking and learning about the business. I had a lot of managerial experience and I offered to contribute wit those skills while I learned the business. At the time I had NO idea who Bang Bang Tattoo was. I got the job and took a HUGE pay cut. I remember thinking “This shit better be worth it.” As months went by I realized I wanted to really do this. Bang Bang didn’t work out because a fire about tattoos was lit inside of me but what I actually need up doing was unclogging toilets, rearranging stencils, cleaning. I had boxes thrown at me. Have you seen The Devil Wears Prada?
LN: Of course, and lived it!
JAR: Well, It was like that. Too much heartache and this atmosphere, I decided, was just too toxic. So the I quit and said fuck this. Now we are in my studio.
LN: Yes, we are now in your studio. Tell us more about it.
JAR: This is my living room! I actually used to tattoo in my bedroom and people would sit on my bed. But that had to stop. My mother gave me the idea to rearrange the living room and use it as my studio. My grandmother HATED that I had people on my bed. It wasn’t until a girl vomited in my room on my bed that I made the switch. We removed the dinning room and I set up my studio in a couple of weeks. And here we are. BUT a deal just came through and I am moving into a tattoo shop on Dyckman street to share a space with other tattoo artists and really do the damn thing.
LN: Congrats! Since leaving Bang Bang, your first tattoo opportunity, how did you continue to learn? I mean how did you practice tattooing? Did you tattoo on yourself?
JAR: Yes, actually I tattooed and practice all over my left leg. But mainly, I purchased pig skin and practice on that.
JAR: HAHA. It’s a thing. The butchers sell pig skin to artists. You request however many pounds you like. I would put it in the freezer, defrost it, tattoo on it then toss it. It smelled like shit!
LN: How many tattoos do you have?
JAR: Omg I hate when people ask me that questions. Really, I don’t know. I just tell people sections now. I have a sleeve on my right arm, half sleeve on my left, all my legs, my neck, my face…
LN: So like 50?
JAR: Way more than 50. Sometimes when I am home with minimal clothing and walk by a mirror I ALWASY surprise myself. You never really get used to it.
LN: Who do you trust enough to tattoo you?
JAR: I have 3 artists that do my tattoos and that I always recommend. Pablo was the one that essentially introduced me to the tattoo world. He has his own shop in State Island, Injection Tattoos. His specialty is realism, he does a lot of black and grey work and some color. I always come over and we talk for hours as he tattoos me. Rogelio has a Tibetan feel. I go to him specificallyfor his work. Natalie Tatoo Your Face. She specializes in pointillism. She is FUCKING PHENOMENAL. She is another Dominican Woman. SO FUCKING GOOD. Those are the only folks I trust.
LN: What was your first tattoo?
JAR: I thought I was going to regret it but I have no until this day. This was my first tattoo, a mermaid in black and grey.
LN: Thats huge for a first tattoo!
JAR: I know! Go big or go home. I did almost cry thought because I knew nothing about tattoos. I remembered seeing ink smeared and regretting what I was about to do. Four hours later, the pain kicked in but I love love love it still.
LN: What is your favorite tattoo on your body?
JAR: My hands! The tats on my hands are all different. I have a little stick and poke, letters, designs, etc.
LN: I love that this is how you see you and this is how you resent yourself to this society.
JAR: When I started getting tattoos and also when I chopped all of mohair off, I remember saying “Yes, this is me, this is Julissa.”
LN: What is the best part about what you do?
JAR: Well, I get to meet A LOT of cool people so my favorite part ishearing their stories. We talk for hours while I work. And I want to hear about it too. Like art, with people, it is about process. I am interested in how someone became who they are. Our sessions are therapy sessions. Hearing their issues and then seeing their face when they see the tattoo we created, is priceless. That does it for me.
LN: What do you enjoy doing when you’re not tattooing people?
JAR: I do logo designs, I do book designs, commissioned paintings, I do handmade products, answering emails, its always something. Actually, right now I am designing tarot cards for a client. Its fucking awesome.
LN: What is the overall change in perception of tattoos?
JAR: I was absolutely and entirely against tattoos before. Now, I see tattoos and I want to know who did it, why they got it, the significance and EVERYTHING. Another amazing thing is I see tattooing is a form of healing now.When I am going to some shit, my thought almost always is: “bitch, I’m going to go get a tattoo.”
LN: Do you find your work attracts a specific type of clientele?
JAR: Yes and no. I say yes because it attracts people who like my work specifically. I like my work to compliment the person’s body rather than it be a separate entity. It attracts people who are very spiritual and self aware. I say no because I’ve tattoo clients from the hood. Super ghetto, sometimes ignorant and ACTUALLY want ignorant tattos.
LN: Favorite Client?
JAR: I tattoo a Christian mom. Her body is FULL of jesus, bibles and crosses.
LN: How much of a tattoo is the idea of the client and how much of it is things you thought best to put in it?
JAR: I would say its 50/50. What I like is for people to keep it as general as possible; to give me as much freedom so that those same constraints don’t mess up the work and I want to give you a great tattoo. For the most part, the majority of my clients trust my work so much. They give me an idea and let me interpret it which is really cool.
LN: What is the most memorable tattoo you’ve created?
JAR: Hmmm. Good or bad? The moments are more memorable than the work. My work is meant for other people.
LN: How do you prepare for a tattoo session?
JAR: I don’t have a process. My cat helps me a lot though. His name is Charlie Haze Rodriguez.
LN: Who is on your playlist?
Kanye is my spirit animal. I listen to him to hype me up. No matter what I am going through, I am always mindful to receive my clients is a positive mood ready to work. So between Kanye and Charlie, I am good. When I am tattooing I need to be more chill though so I play Mick Jenkins, Frank Ocean, Willow Smith, Sza, and Sevdaliza. These artists have me on another plane while I work. I am open to my client’s suggestions too but most of the time, they request is trap music and I just won’t do it. Maybe after the session but never during.
LN: How do you see your style developing?
JAR: I was trained in realism in fine arts while in school and I have yet to try that with with my tattoos. I look forward to incorporating some realism to y work as well and color. I really want to work with color.
LN: Where can we see your work and learn about your art and tattoo pricing, etc?