Michelle Wanhala works in Chicago where she was born and raised, driven by the achievement of fulfilling her goal to make a living as an artist. Influenced by references from comic books to retro décor, Wanhala creates humorously subversive designs, executed with clean lines and jabs of playful color. Off the body, her art encompasses a multitude of media including sculpture, embroidery, and painting.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
My name is Michelle Wanhala. I was born in the suburbs of Chicago in 1991.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. My upbringing was pretty standard for being in the Midwest; I lived with my mom, dad, and sister. I went to public school, and so on.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
I’m currently working at Pioneer Tattoo in Chicago. I’ve worked at shops in Tennessee, Texas, and a couple in the Chicago suburbs.
How long have you been tattooing?
I think I’ve been tattooing for about eight years now.
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
Honestly, I just wanted a way to make money doing art and I thought tattooing would do that for me. My artistic style at the time was conducive to tattooing so I sought out an apprenticeship. In the beginning, I did a lot of walk in tattoos. I was in Tennessee so it was a lot of crosses and bible verses and things like that. I always had flash pieces that I wanted to tattoo and would be lucky to get to do one every so often.
Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning.
I had a few partial apprenticeships. The first was under a guy who ended up falsely accusing me of not paying him, so I got fired. After that, the other artists from the same shop reached out to take me on as an apprentice. They were very nice and helpful but some technical things and knowledge of proper sanitation were missing from that learning experience. My last apprenticeship was at a new school shop with really talented artists. Under them I learned how to do things properly and my skills really started to develop, but they were awful to me and I ended up leaving. I know it is a traditional idea to treat apprentices poorly but looking back I really consider the way their other apprentice and I were treated as being abuse. I ran away from that apprenticeship and was lucky enough to find a job at a shop that was ok with me teaching myself to tattoo through trial and error.
How do you think your experiences apprenticing shaped your approach to tattooing now?
I think learning a lot on my own allowed my style to become pretty unique. Traditional tattooing really inspired me while I was learning. I taught myself a lot of traditional techniques—bold lines, whip shading—but didn’t apply it to standard traditional imagery.
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
I went to art school for a couple of years and dropped out. I took all kinds of classes but was majoring in art education. I still take art classes every so often outside of the college setting.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
I don’t really look at my style as developed. I like to see it as evolving. I’ve had a style since I was very young and it has slowly morphed over time. I’m not really sure how to describe my style now. Lowbrow? Cartoon? My influences are all over the place: fine art, comic book art, traditional tattooing, cartoons, retro decor, fashion, and the list goes on.
"It is tough to find a good apprenticeship but also tough to learn how to do things properly on your own."
What do you look for in a shop?
I honestly work at the ideal shop now. All of the artists are extremely talented but don’t have huge egos, I get to come and go as I please and no one judges my work patterns or ethics, plus the shop is clean and well managed. It is everything I ever hoped for in a work environment really.
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
Too many. I draw, paint, sculpt, print, embroider, bike, hike, cook, thrift, read, write, collect, keep plants, keep pets, play games, etc.
What inspires you generally?
The drive to want to create, the creative people around me, amazing art that I see, interesting people I spend time with, and the possibility of creating or discovering something new.
Are any other forms of media, traditional or digital, important to your work?
I work in a lot of different mediums. Art is a huge part of my life outside of tattooing. I have a fine art studio where I paint, mainly on glass at the moment. From time to time, I will show work in galleries and booths at conventions. I hope, in the future, to find more of a balance where I can spend half of my time tattooing and half in my art studio.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
I think learning to tattoo is a real challenge. It is tough to find a good apprenticeship but also tough to learn how to do things properly on your own.
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
I would love to see it become easier for anyone who wants to learn tattooing to do so and do so correctly and safely. I’d like the idea of needing to “break” an apprentice to phase out and I’d like for shops to start paying their artists more fairly. I’d also like to see more women in the tattoo scene. Realistically, I have faith that these things will happen and are starting to happen now.
You can find more of Michelle Wanhala’s work on Instagram (@mwanhala)