Design & Living / Culture Talks

Tattoo Artist Tati Compton on Instagram and the Occult

As Sang Bleu releases a new book featuring over 800 of her flash pieces, we talk to the stick ‘n’ poke tattoo artist about why social media is a double edged sword

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Tati-Compton-Portrait
Tati ComptonCourtesy of Sang Bleu

There are a few things Instagram loves, but essentially it mostly comes down to cool people, clever imagery and human flesh. It’s rare to see someone manage to propagate this holy trinity as brilliantly, succinctly and cliché-avoidantly as stick ‘n’ poke tattoo artist Tati Compton. Her beautifully expressive linework and distinctive illustration style have placed her firmly in the vanguard of artists leading a recent revival of the somewhat primitive stick ‘n’ poke technique. For the uninitiated, in contrast to the buzzing needle gun used in most tattoo application, stick ‘n’ poke uses a needle dipped into ink, which then punctures the skin to create a permanent mark. Historically, the practice was mostly favoured by folk drawing onto friends, or by prison inmates; but now it’s made its way into the world of pro-tattooing.

California-born Compton (real name Tatiana Kartomten) recently moved to L.A. with her artist husband Danny Fox after three years in London and many more travelling the world in a VW Camper van. She honed her craft at east London studio Sang Bleu with no formal training, and it’s not hard to see what has made her designs so desirable. They combine a distinctly clean, modern aesthetic with folkloric suggestions of the occult; symbols and psychedelic flourishes mix with images of powerful women, and she manages to capture a vast narrative into a single monochrome image. Now, Compton’s work has been drawn together into a stunning book, TATI by Tati Compton, which features more than 800 illustrations showing the monochrome designs from her flash sheets, alongside some gorgeously lysergic kaleidoscopic patterns and photographs. We basked in her sun-dappled West Coast accent as she told us a little more about ditching education for a nomadic lifestyle, her conflicted feelings about social media and the joys of having your mates draw indelible things on you.

On learning her craft...
“I finished school when I was 18. I’d been kicked out of my high school art class by my very grumpy teacher because I was always chatting when we were drawing. I started tattooing with my friends when we were all living in San Francisco and hanging out a bunch. I always wanted a tattoo, but I never knew what – I didn’t have any clue about it. The first time I got a tattoo was the first time I gave a tattoo. I was 21, which is pretty late – a lot of people who do stick and pokes were 14 and rebelling. Me and my friend Moses did matching ones on each other of little dots on our fingers and a vampire bite on our wrists. I had been going through a breakup, and Moses was having all this love drama. We just thought ‘fuck them, we don’t care about them, they suck – let’s just have some fun’. I met my my now husband Danny Fox when I was getting a tattoo at Idle Hands in San Francisco and moved to London to be with him. His best mate was [tattoo artist] Liam Sparkes, and we’d just hang out at the tattoo shop all the time. Eventually Liam was like ‘you should make a flash sheet’, and gave me pointers here and there. I started doing tattoos at parties, events, and art shows, then when I was in LA my husband was doing a residency at the Sang Bleu pop-up shop in Downtown L.A. and I started tattooing there. Being around tattoo artists so much, you just pick it up.”

On the appeal of stick ‘n’ poke tattoos…
“When people get it done they see how different it is to using a gun. They often say having it done is meditative, and they also heal faster. My hand is doing all the work, not a machine, so it’s a little less aggressive: the whole feel of them is more organic, you can tell they’re made by hand. They sort of look like they were supposed to be there all along. They’re just amazing! There’s also the D.I.Y. aspect, it feels like anyone could do them, but that’s not really true. With my group of friends who would tattoo each other, we’re all artists, musicians, illustrators, photographers… I could trust them to do something cool. When I look at my own ones I just think ‘these are from my best friends, we were having fun and we were wasted’. I’ll always remember those times.”

On the double edged sword of social media…
“The popularity of stick ‘n’ poke tattoos now is pretty much because of Instagram, and that’s how I get a lot of bookings. But I only use it for what I need to do, and I would be completely fine in my life without it. I’m 29 and I feel so lucky and wild to be in that last weird generation where my youth was untainted by iPhones and that shit. It’s fucking crazy how much it affects how younger people think and view things. Social media can be oppressive and dangerous: you think you’re seeing so many things but you’re not, it’s just algorithms that show you what they want you to see. You’re not learning what you could be learning because it’s not real: the world is not a phone.”

On her fascination with occult imagery…
“When I was growing up my parents weren’t religious and I was very free to learn and think about whatever I wanted. When I stumbled across Tarot, the symbolism and the placement of imagery – that idea of basically learning from an image – really spoke to me. The main reason I lived in San Francisco was because the 60’s happened there – the hippies, the freedom – and hippies and occultism go hand in hand. I believe in gaining knowledge through symbolism, and the first tattoos I was getting from my friends were all shapes and symbols.”

TATI by Tati Compton  is available now, published by Sang Bleu. 

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