When our office manager, Holly, came in one day with a brand-new and drop-dead gorgeous tattoo on her forearm (seriously, take a look at it), everyone in the WSWD office had to know who did it and how we could get the exact same one. Though Holly isn’t thrilled with the idea of matching tats, she did share the name of the artist: Joice Wang, a young NYC tattooist who is changing the aesthetics of skin art from masculine (skulls, naked women) and symbolic (hearts, moons, and stars; tribal designs) to feminine and botanical, with images of blooming roses, arching irises, and unfurling peonies that are so realistic and lushly drawn and colored that you can practically smell them. The Brooklynite is an artist at Grit N Glory, the female-owned, female-forward tattoo studio and boutique on the Lower East Side, where she has a long wait list (get on it now!). But it wasn’t easy getting her start in the male-dominated tattoo scene here. Wang shared with us how her tough journey made her want to give back to the community: She now offers free tattoos to people looking to cover up—and reclaim—scars, particularly ones caused by self-harm.
What Should We Do: You do mostly floral work. Is that by choice or is it just what people ask for most when they see how amazing you are at it?
Joice Wang: I’ve always gravitated toward color and feminine subject matters. I think because the tattoo industry was so masculine and heavy-handed with bold outlines, a daintier flower-themed tattoo style was my soft rebellion within the bigger rebellion of being a tattoo artist.
WSWD: The bigger rebellion?
Wang: I started out wanting to become a more traditional artist until I realized, in art school, that I wasn’t feeling fulfilled. I didn’t even know that being a tattoo artist was an option until I got my first one.
A daintier flower-themed tattoo style was my soft rebellion within the bigger rebellion of being a tattoo artist.
WSWD: Do you have a favorite flower?
Wang: It’s so hard to choose a favorite, but I think it would have to be a garden rose or a Juliet rose. It’s such an interesting take on a classic rose. The multiple chaotic layers in the center of the flower are a fun and tedious challenge for me.
WSWD: Tell us about the process when someone comes to you for a tattoo. How do you decide what the art will be, and have you ever disagreed with a client about what they wanted?
Wang: The process starts, mostly, by email correspondence. I book out about three to four months’ worth of appointments at a time. Once we get some information about what they’re looking to get and where on their body, I generally choose the clients by their openness to the style I typically work within. The process is quite collaborative. I take a lot of notes about what elements the client wants to include, while still putting my own spin on the arrangement and color scheme. It’s quite often that we disagree on the details of the tattoo design! I think a lot of clients come to me with very specific ideas based on sentimentality. Which is great, of course, because I love to hear everyone’s reasoning behind their tattoos. But mostly I feel like aesthetic must take the driver’s seat in this sort of medium. A tattoo is permanent, and my job is to make it look nice. So when a client wants to jam five names and a date into the design, it can be a hindrance to flow and aesthetic. But what’s great is a lot of people put their trust in my advice.
A tattoo is permanent, and my job is to make it look nice. So when a client wants to jam five names and a date into the design, it can be a hindrance to flow and aesthetic.
WSWD: Was it important to you to be at a female-friendly tattoo studio?
Wang: Yes. Grit N Glory became a safe haven for me after a string of horrible past jobs. The very first shop I worked at was a street shop in Trenton, New Jersey, owned by one of the most misogynistic and irresponsible people I have ever met. I was 19 at the time, and it was for sure a huge and abrasive reality check about this industry. I spent about a year and a half there learning how to tattoo while being physically and emotionally taken advantage of.
Then I moved to a well-known shop in Manhattan, and it was the first time I had worked in a big city, gaining more attention and notoriety. But working there was equally draining. After a falling-out with the owner, he deleted my Instagram account (with 116K followers) and I was unable to recover it. I was also publicly slandered; [it was said I had] stolen money or messed up tattoo after tattoo. It was a really horrific time in my life. This guy had 1.5 million followers taking his word for what happened, and I was so incredibly embarrassed.
WSWD: That’s awful. But there’s a happy ending, yes?
Wang: Grit is owned by three women who really care about doing the right thing. We often host fundraisers for various organizations and charities, including the ACLU, ASPCA, and Puerto Rico relief. When I presented my initiative with the self-harm cover-ups, I was worried that I would be shot down. But to my surprise, it was so well received and encouraged. I forgot that normal people existed.
I feel a bond with people who struggle with the issue of self-harm and want to lend the type of helping hand I wished someone had held out to me when I was struggling.
WSWD: How did you get that wonderful idea, to use tattoos to help people with scars?
Wang: To be honest, I got the idea online. I saw a number of artists providing free services for scars, whether they’re from self-harm or acid attacks. At that point in my life I never thought of tattooing as a form of charity or altruism, and I felt so moved and inspired. I started by keeping it very low-key, offering half-price estimates to those who sent me their requests, or just surprising the client the day of the appointment with no charge. But as the project progressed, I realized I could reach a much larger proportion of people if I posted about it. And at first I felt really uncomfortable with that, because I didn’t want to come off as the martyr type or someone with a holier-than-thou personality. But as more people sent in their requests, I realized most of them would never have thought there was a way to cover the scars.
I prioritize the inquiries by severity, which is honestly really tough, both mentally and physically. Scar tissue reacts differently to the tattoo process, so it’s been a great learning opportunity. As someone who prefers to be a bit more private about my personal experiences, I’m not sure I can eloquently express why this work is important to me. But I can say I feel a bond with people who struggle with the issue of self-harm and want to lend the type of helping hand I wished someone had held out to me when I was struggling. The whole experience is so moving, from being physically close to their most vulnerable/insecure parts of their body to hearing about their past traumas and how much they lived through. It’s intimate and raw and the type of human connection everyone deserves to experience.
WSWD: What are your own tattoos of?
Wang: There are a few tattoos I absolutely adore on my body. The first being a piece by an artist who goes by Silly Jane. It’s a rather graphic image of a woman committing seppuku in her incredible illustrative style. The next, on my left leg, is of a kawaii-style doughnut done by my friend Anastasia. I get questions about it all the time, but to be honest I just like doughnuts. I don’t get what the controversy is on having almost meaningless tattoos, but I love it. I got it because I liked it and that’s all the justification there is on that. The tattoo I have on my left upper arm is the one I get a ton of compliments on. It was made by my friend Koty (@kotynymantattoo on Instagram). It’s a skull and peony in a neo-traditional style. I love how bold the outlines are and how striking the imagery is.
WSWD: Besides hanging out in tattoo shops, what are some of your favorite things to do and places to go in NYC?
Wang: Luckily, I live really close to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, so I spend a good amount of time there in the spring and summer. I also really love going up and down Museum Mile. I could spend forever at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, Cooper Hewitt, and the others. And you’ll find me at Sake Bar Decibel pretty often, too.