Realism is not just a photocopy of real life. In this interview, tattooist Nonlee talks about how she combines imagination with realism.
Every once in a while, some tattoos show up in my feed and make me “wow.” And the works of South Korean tattooist Nonlee are one of them. As someone that has just started in the tattooing industry, she has a profile that makes me go back again and again. With sophisticated lines, precise lighting, and creative color combos, she invites us into her surreal world of micro realism.
So I reached out to her and asked if she would love to share her insights on tattoos and art. And it turns out that she has a unique point of view regarding how to choose a tattoo and how to create a good one. So keep scrolling to learn more about tattooist Nonlee and her wild world of art.
Interview with tattooist Nonlee
From receiver to creator
Based in Seoul, South Korean tattooist Nonlee is making a name with her micro realism tattoos. Most of her work is based on fine art. And she is no stranger to it.
Nonlee has always been passionate about painting. And after graduating as an art major in college, she became a painting teacher for ten years.
“I always love painting. And I love to create from scratch. But at the same time, I am longing for a change in my life.”
That’s when the opportunity knocked on the door. She went to get a tattoo. Instantly, she fell in love with the work as a tattooist.
“It’s a form of art, just like what I’ve been doing for a long time. But it is permanent and so closely related to the people. That’s what makes the job so attractive to me.” It’s been a little more than a year since she started tattooing. And she already has an impressive profile.
Being able to give a permanent mark to someone else is a great power. It’s even better if the tattoo brings joy or strength to the wearers. But with power comes responsibility. And one thing that Nonlee has to deal with daily is pressure.
“When you think about how your work will influence another person, it’s really exciting and terrifying. And it requires your full attention to every detail. And sometimes it’s hard to concentrate for a long time, especially on big pieces.”
But tattooist Nonlee sees adversity as a chance to grow. With practice, she is determined to become better and better at her craft.
“My goal this year is to solidify my style and practice whenever I can. I love being a tattooist and creating amazing illustrations on the skin. When you do your job with passion, your clients will feel it.”
Real and unreal
Just like other artists, tattooists draw inspiration from their lives. And Nonlee is one of them.
She loves watching documentaries about nature and wildlife. And animals with distinctive characteristics and unique habitats fascinate her.
“My favorite animal is always changing, but now it’s the harvest mouse. I have one now. It’s so tiny, and the way it squeezes itself into the flowers is just adorable.”
She has created many animal tattoos inspired by her love for them. For example, she has done a lion tattoo, and it’s so cute that it melts your heart.
Bird tattoos she did are so detailed that it makes you want to touch and see if they are real.
Turtles are one of Nonlee’s favorites, too. But instead of copying those in real life, you have turtles in dreamy, rainbow colors or with flowers growing from the shell.
The animal tattoos might look different from one another. But they all share a common feature: they look real but unreal at the same time. And the colors have played a part in this unique style.
“When I choose an object to tattoo, I think about the concept of colors simultaneously. That’s really where my artistic background shines and what makes a tattoo stand out.”
Besides animals, Nonlee is also fascinated by mythical creatures like dragons, Qilin and Haetae. Colors, again, are a tool to sharpen the design.
“I think rusty or faded colors are perfect for these legendary creatures. They give them a sense of age as if they are treasures buried for centuries.”
To be a good tattooist and constantly produce creative and quality works, one has to think outside of the box. And that’s what Nonlee does. Inspired by modern painters Peter Doig and Wayne Tebow, she learned how to interpret lighting and colors in her tattoos. And when combined with her techniques in micro realism, the results are mesmerizing.
Those who want to get a tattoo don’t need to worry about not picking the right needle or color. If you are to get tattooed, all you need to do is find a good design and a good tattooist. But that can be challenging if you don’t have an idea in mind. So to give you some inspiration, I’ve asked tattooist Nonlee for her insights.
“If you are getting your first tattoo, find something visually appealing to you.” While most people search for a meaningful tattoo as their first, Nonlee suggests otherwise.
“When I was getting my first tattoo, I also spent a lot of time thinking back and forth. But later in life, I found that what was meaningful to me no longer represented me. So I have to do a cover-up.”
So instead of trying to find something with meaning, make sure that your first tattoo is pretty in your eyes. “As you grow, your perspectives and values change. But the standard of beauty doesn’t change that much.” So start with something simple but artistically pleasing, and you will not regret that later.
But don’t worry if you are not happy with your old tattoos. Besides removal, you can also think about cover-up tattoos.
“I think cover-ups are challenging, especially when the old tattoos are in dark colors. And many clients don’t want their new tattoos to be dark. So I really have to be creative and strategic.”
For Nonlee, a tattoo is the joint effort of both the client and the tattooist. That’s why tattooists should have excellent communication with the clients and really make sure their thoughts are heard.
“Most of the time, when I am happy with how a tattoo comes out, the clients are happy, too. That’s because I understand their needs and stories. And I put myself in their shoes as if I am the one getting tattooed. The mutual efforts, good communication, and empathy are what make good tattoos.”
The placement and aftercare also play an important part in tattooing.
“One of the most common tattoo placements is the arm, which includes the outer arm or the sleeve, inner arm, and forearm. If you want your ink to be visible and eye-catching, these are the placements for you.”
Aftercare is crucial in keeping a tattoo’s colors vibrant. “Since the ink is injected under the skin, it is important to keep the skin healthy. Make sure it is moisturized, especially during the first few weeks of healing. That will prevent the over-production of keratins. So the colors stay fresh and vibrant.”
Life outside of tattooing
Every artist has a list of hobbies and passions to refresh their minds. And tattooist Nonlee is no exception.
“One thing I really love is to meet new people. I love talking with them about their stories. And if I am not a tattooist, I might be a fortune teller. How fun it will be!”
She also loves watching movies, TV dramas, reading books, and cartoons. The plots and stories in them are what resonate with her.
“Other than that, board games are my favorite. Before the pandemic, I loved having a crowd and playing board games. Now we are mostly in our own houses; my husband is my sole teammate. And recently, we discovered ‘Splendors’, and we’ve been playing it a lot.”
A fun life, fun personality, and fun tattoos, that’s how I would sum up this interview with Nonlee. If you want to know more about her work, check out her Instagram profile. Or, if you have any questions for her, leave them in the comment!