On reconnecting with culture through art & tattooing.
Gabrielle Widjaja, prominently known as @gentle.oriental, is an Asian American tattoo artist and designer based in Brooklyn, New York. On her recent visit to California to guest tattoo in San Francisco and Los Angeles, we were lucky enough to snag a spot in her schedule to chat tattoos, her relationship with culture, and the nuanced balancing act as an artist of creating for work and for self.
What drew you to tattooing?
I was doodling a lot on my iPad and I would upload my drawings to Instagram. People got excited and asked if my drawings were tattoo flash, so I bought a stick and poke set and started practicing on myself and on my boyfriend. At first, I advertised free tattoos on Instagram and as I got more comfortable I started charging and tattooing people in my living room. Then the pandemic hit, so everything stopped, but I eventually got a studio in Greenpoint, Fall of 2020 which I share with other designers and artists.
I really like drawing my flash - it’s the side of my practice that can be whatever and I don’t have to have meanings attached to anything. As a designer, you can get really into everything having a purpose or meaning. With tattoos, if I have even the tiniest inkling or vignette of my imagination, I can execute it, then somebody will want it and attach their own meaning to it.
How does your Asian American experience shape your identity and work?
My relationship to culture is really new. My thesis is that our relationship to culture is never stagnant and is always changing. As far as you feel like you are from it, there’s always a way to bridge that gap whether it’s through cooking or through objects, like porcelain. I worked with Wing On Wo & Co and created a zine about translating motifs on porcelain and the stories they tell, adding another layer of understanding to the cultural objects around us. I also helped design the brand identity for Pith Flower Shop - a collective that focuses on the preservation and education of traditional Taiwanese hand-crafted pith paper flowers. Working with establishments that do that laborious work of translating and preserving culture helps me feel more connected to my own heritage.
I think our role as Asian Americans is to bridge the gap between western and eastern culture, for the benefit of the people in the west and our own Asian American community. We are in a special place to be cultural ambassadors and at the same time learning about our culture along the way.
Where do you seek inspiration?
I usually find inspiration from looking at historical Chinese art and design, specifically paintings and drawings of traditional motifs. I also try to look at modern Asian artists and contemporary peers. Another huge inspiration for me is from photography, specifically artists such as Ren Hang and Leslie Zhang.
How do you balance creating for self/pleasure and creating for work?
I try to draw or doodle things that I don't post on Instagram or share at all. If I am not intending to monetize it or use it to further my work or my outward facing portfolio, then I feel like I'm truly genuinely creating for myself. It reminds me of when I was a kid and I would draw for hours and hours, definitely way before Instagram was a thing and I know that's when I was finding my passion when I was young too! I also try to take breaks between projects and not touch art/design at all. Or find different avenues of expression that I'm not necessarily amazing at (embroidery, I've always wanted to try rug punching or pottery) because if I am not trying to hold myself to as high a standard as my normal work projects, I think I can just have more fun and freedom with the output.
What are some projects you are working on right now and what is a dream project of yours?
A project I'm working on right now will be another big project related to food and Asian culture - that is one of the most common recurring themes within my work!
A dream project of mine is to work on album covers. I love music and I feel like if I could design the artwork for a song I love or a band I adore that would just make my entire life right now. I also do want to learn how to throw pottery and another dream of mine is to paint a set of teacups or something. My dream projects are always changing though!
What are you geeking out about currently?
I am currently (finally) reading Crying in H-Mart by Michelle Zauner (Japanese Breakfast, one of my fave artists AND writers now?!) and it's incredible!!! I also am absolutely geeked about these books I bought at The Last Bookstore in LA - Quantum Soup by this famous translator Chungliang Al Huang, a book documenting Suzhou Embroidery (Treasures of Suzhou Embroidery) and a short book A Comparison between Chinese and Western Paintings (all 3 for only $13!)