Body Artist Jenai Chin Talks Tattooing Superstars for Our January Issue

Body Artist Jenai Chin Talks Tattooing Superstars for Our January Issue

Whether temporary or eternal, the woman behind V's January cover shoot is on a life-long mission to elevate body illustrations to an art form.

Whether temporary or eternal, the woman behind V's January cover shoot is on a life-long mission to elevate body illustrations to an art form.

Text: William Defebaugh

For our January issue, Mario Testino collaborated with tattoo artist Jenai Chin to bring his punk fantasy to life on the bodies of supermodels Kendall Jenner, Joan Smalls, Lara Stone, and more—an extensive process that took hours to complete. A lifelong New Yorker, Chin has become known for her pin-up-inspired aesthetic, and has worked with everyone from Beyoncé to Taylor Swift. Here, she shares behind-the-scenes moments from the shoot, her most memorable tattoos, and what it really means to get inked.

Walk me through the artwork for the shoot. How did you come up with the tattoos?

Jenai Chin:  First, we talked about doing pin-up versions of each of the cover girls, which I love because the style I usually do is traditional style tattoos. So I came up with variations to represent each of the girls. And then, as we moved along in the process, I had an epiphany moment in the shower, and it was like: what I should probably do is for each of the girls that we’re going to feature, have the tattoos that were on them in the shoot, represented in the actual tattoos. Joan [Smalls] got a heartbreaker heart and I put her into that for the tattoo that comes with the issue. Lara [Stone] loved the horseshoe I did on her for the shoot, so she got a horseshoe that says “Lucky You.” I had done a snake on Kendall [Jenner] wrapped up on her leg, so I had her wrapped into one for her tattoo. So each of the girls got a representation of the tattoos they had.

What medium did you use for the illustrations?

JC: These are all tattoo inks and watercolor.

Tell me about the shoot. How long did it take to tattoo each girl? What was the energy like on set?

JC: It was so much fun. I feel like I’m so lucky because it’s something so different from what the girls are traditionally used to, like makeup or body painting. But tattoos aren’t something that a lot of people get in a shoot. I had a lot of drawings that I brought with me. The way I work with it is that I’ll have a drawing; I’ll make a stencil of it and the stencil is made out of the same things that we do for real tattoos, so that goes onto the skin and instead of me using a needle and ink, I just use paint and airbrushing. Depending on what each girl got, the tattoo could have run anywhere from a half hour to an hour and a half. Kendall's was very large with a lot of line work.

Did you notice if any of the girls had real tattoos?

JC: Well, Carolyn was really well known for the large tattoo that was on her side. She got it removed. So that was a lot of the conversation we had while we were doing tattoo work. She was saying how much she was known for it and then how quickly it went when she got it removed compared to how long she thought it was going to take. You could barely even see it was there; I was really surprised because, usually, it takes anywhere from six to ten sessions to completely remove a tattoo, and apparently hers was done in like three. And it was like a large, large koi fish.

How many tattoos do you have?

JC: I have probably in the 20s somewhere. You know, after a while you kind of stop counting. I have quite a bit on my legs, but everyone’s like, 'You don’t have as many as you would think for a tattoo artist.' And I’m like, 'No, but that doesn’t make you a good tattoo artist.' I like being the artist and sitting for tattoos is not my favorite thing. It hurts! I have a lot of empathy for people who sit in my chair. I know a lot of people who don’t like the process. I actually understand, so I try to be as light-handed as I can possibly be.

How did you get into this line of work?

JC: I was fired from my job at Saks Fifth Avenue. I hated retail. I wasn’t upset about being fired, but this was a really long time ago when people were still looking for jobs in the Village Voice, and I was still going to School of Visual Arts (where I actually teach now) for my illustration degree. From the time I was like 14 or 15, I was always drawing on myself. I started doing actual tattoo work for me and my friends then. But it was still illegal here in New York back then. It wasn’t legal until 1997.

It's strange to think that was ever the case.

JC: A lot of people don’t know that, but yeah. They were illegal for over 30 years. The truth is that the shut down was caused by a Hepatitis C outbreak in the '60s, but there was also this urban legend about a 14-year-old kid who got tattooed and he was the son of a very important judge or woman in society, so they went on a rampage to get all the tattoo shops shut down. We’re not 100 percent sure about that, but they were shut down from like the '60s to ’97. So a lot of people were doing them underground, in barbershops, you had to call someone from a payphone who knew somebody and you’d have to go to their house or in a basement or a kitchen or garage. So around ’98 was when I got my first tattoo and I started going to School of Visual Arts.

How old were you then?

JC: I was 18. So around 19 I was fired from my job and I found this ad that said they were looking for someone who could do temporary tattoos for parties. Later, I started designing more things for TV shows and movies and higher end parties. Back then, the only people who had tattoos were like criminals and people in the military. And a woman having a tattoo—I have had so many people on the street be like, ‘You are disgusting, why do you have that, your parents must be ashamed of you.’ Even my parents were like, ‘You’re going to die, you’re going to get AIDS, something is going to happen to you.’ So I saw it as an opportunity to break the stigma of tattoos and really bring it into the forefront, not of just TV and film, and have it attached to criminals and military men, but to have it be this beautiful body art that can really go somewhere in fashion. I saw it as an opportunity to decorate and adorn yourself like you do with fashion: clothes, shoes, bags, bracelets, jewelry. You can accessorize with body art. People told me that I was never going to make a career of just doing body art, but I was determined. I just wanted to elevate this to a level where it’s recognized as a true art form. Because other than doing cave paintings, it’s one of the oldest art forms out there.

What does the act of getting a tattoo symbolize to you?

JC: Commitment. Bottom line is commitment. And bringing it into fashion is making a statement.

Especially in an industry that’s known for always changing.

JC: Yes, it’s unusual. It’s something that, I mean you can alter it to a certain degree. Things can be added to it and the colors can be changed. Color can be added. The thing that people really—it’s commitment. That’s really what the bottom line is. That this is what it is. I’m putting it here. It’s meant to be here. It’s meant to stay. I think there’s something that people really love or hate about that. It’s not for everybody and that’s what made it special to me is that not everyone would get one. So what makes you want to have one? What makes you commit to it? A memory of somebody? Something that’s just beautiful to you. It can be anything. Something just personal for you. Something that makes you stronger. Something that makes you remember things that you don’t want to go back to or things that you’re looking ahead to.

What are a few of the most memorable tattoos you’ve given someone?

JC: I think the most memorable fake ones were probably the ones I did for Beyoncé, because that really changed my career, and I think that was really a big change in the in the industry also for it to be seen more. She's a trendsetter; she really took it and just had it elevated to a whole other level. We were actually doing tattoos for her line with her mom, Dereon in 2010. I believe they shot House of Dereon the same day, but it was Dereon that we were shooting for—the clothing line. And it was very edgy and kind of biker-chick-ish, a little rock and roll. We did so many tattoos that day. I’ve never done so many in one day.

Who are some of the other big names that you’ve worked with that you can share?

JC: I’ve been so lucky and had the best time in my career to work with Hugh Jackman. I did tattoos for him for one of his Broadway shows. I worked with James Gandolfini. He used tattoos for method acting, which I had never really heard of until he came to me. You wouldn’t even see his tattoo and at the time when he asked me to design something for him he was also doing a Broadway show and I had said, "Can I get pictures of it when you do the show?’ And he said, "You’re never going to see it." Somebody, later on, said he uses it for method acting. He uses it to build his character. I was really proud of that. Even though nobody else knew it was there, I knew it was there and it was something that we developed together.

I imagine you must develop some strong relationships with clients who get real tattoos.

JC: You become like a therapist. You are touching somebody for hours and you’re exchanging energy with that person. They’re going through moments in their life, whether it’s happy or sad, with you. So you have to be very understanding to the process. Not only the pain, but the emotion that goes with it. Sometimes it’s happy, sometimes it’s sad, but there’s so much that you’re exchanging with that person. And getting to know somebody when you’re doing something that personal is really important. It’s kind of like bedside manner. You know, when you’re a doctor or nurse, you have an exchange with that person because they become your patients—not that they’re patients, but it is in a way sort of like that relationship.

Some people come in that are either fighting cancer, fought it, won. People who lost somebody, who survived something. Some people are still going through that process and this is almost like the closure to helping them through that. I’m glad that I can be a part of that and that people can trust me enough to be a part of that. People tell tattoo artists things that they would never tell anyone else, so I always say it’s like therapy. I’m very fortunate and appreciative that people let me into that part of their life because I feel that no matter where they go, they’ll always have that experience with them.

When you are completing a job, what do you hope that the person walks away with?

JC: I think it depends on the job, but I want them to have fun. I know that the temporary ones, it’s just art. You can be another person for a day, for a couple hours. Some of these tattoos take 12-14 hours and they’re like, 'We have to take it off afterwards.' I’ve gotten to a place early on in my career that I’ve realized I’m creating a moment, I’ll have a picture and then it will be gone, but for that moment it was very special. That’s what makes it interesting to me. It didn’t have to be forever. I do like real tattoos, they’ll last forever, but this moment in time, for that moment, for fashion, for art, for fun, for whatever that reason is that we’re doing it, it’s like it lived and then it’s gone and that’s what makes it more special.

View Jenai's sketches and behind-the-scenes images from the shoot in the slideshow below.

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