Simon Ban (@squids.ink)
September 5, 2019
Words by Simon Ban, edited by Emma Clayton
Simon Ban grew up surrounded by a creative family and was encouraged to go into a craft that used his artistic hands. For just under two and a half years, after finally transitioning to tattooing full time after working it around freelance jobs, Ban has been developing a style that combines traditional rules and layouts with new patterns and exciting placements. He discusses his inspirations including the importance of growth, movement, and rooftop sunsets.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
My name is Simon Ban. I was born in October 1991, Brooklyn, New York.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
I grew up in the countryside of south-western Massachusetts, in Great Barrington. My parents moved to the country following work and to raise our family outside of the city (which I am forever thankful for).
Both my parents are creatives. My dad immigrated from Japan in pursuit of artistic freedom. He was a bit of a rebel in Tokyo and felt the atmosphere was not progressive enough to foster the work and community he wanted to create. He continues his craft today in Great Barrington through many mediums, including sculpture and jewelry making. My mom is from a suburb just north of NYC and has dabbled in many creative fields. Her longest enterprise was running a local store for 20 years, selling housewares and gifts from around the world. She has impeccable taste and undoubtedly shaped my design sensibilities. Growing up, I was surrounded by people who made and did things with their hands which encouraged me to do the same.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
I am a resident artist at Black Iris Tattoo in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Before, I was working at Itzocan Tattoo in Sunset Park, further south in Brooklyn.
How long have you been tattooing?
I have been tattooing full time for just under two and a half years. The total time is a little muddy though. The first two years before Itzocan were sporadic as I would try to tattoo whenever I could between other freelance work.
How did your tattoo practice change when you were able to focus on it full time, rather than in between other freelance work?
When I was tattooing in between freelance jobs, it felt like a fun hobby. Making pieces for friends, drawing on lunch breaks for the weekend, painting themed Flash sheets in the evenings. It wasn’t until I was able to be in a shop all day, and spend entire days drawing, that I started to realize there was so much more than making cool designs to put on people.
While working freelance gigs I primarily drew on paper. My work was still two-dimensionally based so people would get those designs for wherever they would fit best. However, when I started working in a shop I got to be around bodies all day long, and seeing how stencils moved on people I realized that tattooing is not a two-dimensional art form, but something between sculpture and dance. Even though every design starts on paper, they end up on a three-dimensional surface that is constantly in motion. This is how the tattoo is going to live. From then on my approach changed; I was not only asking people what they want to get tattooed, but also asking where they want it, how big, and sometimes just as importantly, why do they want it?
Moving beyond just drawing a design became more and more important as I came to understand the multitude of factors in play. If somebody wants a hawk tattoo on a specific part of their body, how that body part moves will affect the design. On top of that, their intention for getting a hawk can greatly vary and determine how it’s handled. During consultations, I can generally pick up on why they want to be getting said piece, which informs the nuances of the piece. For example, if they admire the a hawk’s focus, I would not design one passively perched sitting on a branch but rather a hawk diving with intention, executing its goal.
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
I wanted to learn how to tattoo because I wanted to be part of something tangible. I want my work to move people, to inspire them, to make them feel something. Tattooing is not only a painfully literal answer to that, but it aligns with how I believe art and humanity can perfectly meet. We learn and grow through experiences, and I want to make work that can positively impact another person’s life. The most exciting part about tattooing for me is the inter-personal ritual of it; being able to work one-on-one with someone through a transformative experience that will mark them for the remainder of their life. I did not learn how to tattoo anything in particular in the beginning as I had an unconventional start to my career.
Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning.
I did not have a formal apprenticeship, I am self-taught. I learned by watching, asking questions, and seeking out anything I could online. Whenever I got tattooed I would watch, if possible, from beginning to end–the entire process. I wanted to know how every artist set up, what they were using, how they navigated their setup, and even how they broke down afterwards. Since I couldn’t be getting tattooed all the time, and because my freelance work was very time consuming, I would watch people tattoo on YouTube in my free time. I would read through online tattoo forums talking about materials and techniques, differences between brands, and debates over machines. I found a schematic somewhere breaking down and explaining the components of a coil machine. I bought one, took it apart, and put it back together. I was constantly researching and constantly cross referencing what I would read and watch up until I felt comfortable to buy the rest of what I’d need to set up to practice.
I went to my local butcher back home and bought a pound of pig skin to practice, and then when that was covered I tattooed myself a couple times. Eventually my friends trusted me to make decent enough tattoos for them and it took off from there. After I started getting requests from friends of friends, I got a license so I could start buying better supplies. I worked out of my apartment when I could for about two years. It was a tight but tidy setup. I would even travel back to Massachusetts to tattoo friends at home once in a while. I was having a great time. The more I did it, the more I fell in love with it.
Even though it worked out for me in the end, I have to caution people with this approach. I was living and working under a lot of assumptions that what I was doing was right because that’s what I read or saw. This approach will only get you so far. I was comfortable doing the kinds of tattoos I was doing (mostly linework and dotwork) but I had so many questions that the internet could not answer for me. Tattooing the way I was was fun and satisfying, but I needed informed interpersonal dialogue with other artists to grow.
I wanted to be making work outside of my skill set, and that’s when I got serious about looking for a shop that would take me. I spent a lot of time checking out different parlors, but tread cautiously knowing full well what the answer is for most people walking in off the street looking for an apprenticeship. It would have been a step backwards beginning an apprenticeship, but I had a beautiful fantasy of shedding what I thought I knew. Starting from the ground up, scrubbing tubes, mopping floors, and soldering needles to become a fully-fledged tattooer.
That dream came to an abrupt halt one day as I was walking around exploring a new neighborhood I had recently moved to. I spotted a big TATTOO sign and recalled a tattoo I received at a convention years prior by an artist who said he had a shop in Sunset Park. I walked in joking to myself how funny it would be if this was his shop, and sure enough, there he was behind the counter. I started working there the following week when he learned I was still working out of my apartment. I am forever grateful to Luis Garcia for seeing that I was committed to tattooing, and giving me an honest start to my career.
I never got to scrub any tubes, but I was finally able to watch someone work on a daily basis, ask as many questions as I could, and be able to have my work constructively critiqued.
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
Yes, I graduated from Pratt Institute with a BFA. My focus was drawing, but took classes in many different departments. I wanted to learn as many different skills as possible, to expand my creative toolkit while I had access to a variety of facilities.
I majored in drawing because, since I can remember, it was my way of trying to understand the world around me. My schooling in drawing was partially technical, but mostly revolved around theory. It was less about learning how to draw, but figuring out why you are drawing. While trying to work out some answers to that, I made a lot of installation work that dealt with sensory phenomena, and ended up doing as much work with sound and light as I was with drawing.
Did that training help as you learned the mechanics of tattooing?
No–tattooing is a technical skill combining mechanical processes on organic surfaces. The only classes I took that have probably helped on a technical level were the anatomy courses I took. Understanding the body and how it’s composed certainly helped me navigate it better as I work, but as far as the machine and technique goes, none of it really crossed over. I will credit art school in helping my vocabulary when it comes to talking about any creative practice.
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
My tattoo style has been developing since I first got a tattoo. My first tattoos I designed myself and had applied on me. I love the pieces, but that was my first lesson in tattoo design. Even though you can technically tattoo any drawing, not all drawings make good tattoos. From there I started being much more critical of what I thought made a “good tattoo.”
I have learned that I look for tattoos that capture the essence of the world around us. I love traditional Japanese and indigenous tattoos because they are the tried and true visual symbols of what they represent, designed to last on the human body.
Most of my inspiration however comes from even older works. A lot of inspiration for my animals and plants comes from Ancient Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Greek, and near Eastern pottery. I love to reference ancient pottery because of its limitations; you can’t glaze a photo-realistic crane on a six inch tall pot, so people had to figure out how to capture the spirit of one with just a few brush strokes. When scaled up, these images tend to have a lot of negative space to work within, and what better way to use that space than to fill it with patterns. Everything around us has a pattern to be found if you look hard enough, and finding and understanding those designs is really exciting to me. A black sea urchin is not the most breathtaking of creatures, but finding the interior shell of one reveals the true beauty hidden underneath those spines. A hollow dome made of intricately organized half-spheres, ridges, and perfectly perforated seams that make patterns I couldn’t dream of. Natural structures, evolved methods of organization, and animal and plant display patterns are all important sources of inspiration for me.
Therefore, I would describe my style as a continuation of traditional work to capture the spirit of the world around us. I love combining traditional rules and layouts with new patterns and exciting placements.
Have you had or do you have plans to take on apprentices?
Not yet–I’m still learning every day. Ask me in ten years, though. I think this is a really powerful craft with an amazing community of artists. We need more good, conscious, mindful people who understand that this an art that goes beyond them, that can affect other people for the rest of their lives.
What do you look for in a shop?
Having only worked in two I’ve never “shopped” around, but the decision would be almost entirely based on the other artists there. I seek out people I can learn from, who will by proxy make me strive to be my best, and who are not afraid to question my choices and can talk critically about our work. Having guest artists coming through is also a huge plus. I have learned so much from working next to someone for just a couple days who simply approaches their work differently. Everyone has something to offer, even if they have nothing to say; watching how they work can be an invaluable lesson.
Do you have any hobbies outside of tattooing?
Plants. Wherever I go, if I see a new plant, or there is a particularly nice arrangement, I take a picture for reference. But aside from the small jungle that I tend to in my apartment, I am at a point in my life where I feel fulfilled focusing on tattooing. I find joy in drawing for future appointments, making designs for my books, and drafting experimental concepts.
When I do need a break from my craft, I go to natural history museums, art museums, and seek out wonderfully bad films from the dregs of Amazon Prime’s horror/sci-fi genres.
During the summer, rooftop sunsets are something I especially look to. The sun will set every day, but every sunset has and will be different than any other in history. To witness that brings me the greatest happiness.
What inspires you generally?
Plants, animals, growth, movement, space. I like to discover the flow from point A to point B. How did this plant grow to be as it is now? What path did it take? How has it supported itself? How has it changed during this process? Where will it end up?
How does this interest in growth and movement translate to your tattoo work?
I love learning about how things grow because this is a form of movement, and understanding how and why things move is integral to making a good tattoo. When things grow they usually are following some sort of growth pattern; this is prominently visible in most plants. Splitting branches, alternating leaves on vines, clusters of buds–all of these are visible signs of growth that can be drawn, simplified, and made into new and exciting patterns that can live well on moving bodies. I enjoy these processes and translating them into designs because then they can further contribute to this endless cycle of growth and movement as we grow and move through our lives.
Are any other forms of media, traditional or digital, important to your work?
Drawing on paper is incredibly important to me and my one-off designs in my books can only be seen in person. Come as a human, flip through real pages, hold up an actual drawing. This is vital to me as an artist in regards to my work in an age where we now view most things on a screen.
Is traveling important to you? If so, where do you usually travel? Do you have any interesting experiences abroad that you can share?
Traveling is absolutely important to me. Living in NYC can sometimes feel like living in the center of the universe, and traveling is always that slap you need from reality to remind you otherwise. I need to travel to see the plants and animals I draw on a daily basis. The internet is a fantastic tool, but it has unintentionally flattened our world. I could draw a pelican every day and get quite good at it having only images from online to use as reference. But I know I draw them differently when I see them in the flesh, gliding over a wave, or diving into a school of fish.
I have recently fallen in love with a small town on the west coast of Mexico. Last year I was on a little boat as the captain cast a line out into a school of fish and accidentally snagged a pelican on its wing as it dove at the exact same moment. It bobbed to the surface and let itself be cautiously reeled in as it could not fly off. The captain turned to me and said I had to grab its beak and hold it so he could pull the hook out. I grabbed its beak (after a couple snaps at me) and held as firmly, and gently as I could, and for a moment sat face to face with a bird almost as big as I am. I had never before considered what a pelican’s eye looks like, and was suddenly taken by one of the most beautifully clear things I have ever seen. The pure sensation of life coming forth from the depth of its eyes had me transfixed. Before I knew it, the hook was successfully removed and it immediately took off as soon as I let go. That one minute memory now lives within every eye I tattoo–I can only hope to one day make something as beautiful. Moments like that are why I cannot downplay the importance of traveling and experiencing what you regularly take for granted online.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
One of the main challenges the industry faces as a whole is the amount of waste we produce. For sterility reasons there have to many disposable elements, but I hope we can find new methods to keep ourselves and our clients safe while being conscious of our environmental impact.
Ideally, how would you like to see tattooing evolve? How do you think it will evolve realistically?
I’m honestly unsure if I can see it changing for the better much more than it’s at now. People all over the world and from all walks of life are getting tattooed regularly now. I tattoo people in finance, school teachers, nurses, artists…there is no longer a “type” of person who gets a tattoo. Perhaps it’s because people are realizing that they have more power over their lives than previously thought, and that is a beautiful thing. People have greater access to tattoos than ever before, and see the full potential of what a tattoo can be. All I can hope for is that people continue to embrace the artistry and magic that tattooing has to offer.
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