Rita Salt is a tattooer who is extremely drawn to the traveling lifestyle and the variety of people she meets along her journeys. She struggled through a fear and disgust towards tattooing to become an artist who is boldly and playfully inspired by children’s drawings, who values the tattooer–client interaction immensely. She discusses inclusivity, technicality, and why it really doesn’t matter if you get your face tattooed.
What is your name, birthplace, and year of birth?
I’m Rita Salt. I was born in Paris, France in 1995.
Where did you grow up? Please describe your upbringing and sociocultural background.
I was one year old when my mom and I left France for the great state of New Jersey in the USA. My mom raised me by herself because she is a star! I never felt very connected to New Jersey so I don’t really think of it as home–home is where the people you love are.
Where do you currently work? Prior to that, where have you worked?
Right now, I’m floating around somewhere in Europe. I left my apartment and studio in NYC six months ago. My commitments and material objects in NYC felt like big heavy weights. Since I can travel and work, I want to go to as many places as I can. Working in new cities and meeting different kinds of people is making me a more compassionate person and a better tattooer.
How long have you been tattooing?
Fiveish years, but the first three years were really discouraging, so I don’t really count those.
What inspired you to learn tattooing, and what did you initially learn how to tattoo?
Tattooers made me want to learn tattooing! I was drawing all the time since forever, but then I met Sally who was @homepoke then, and Francisca Silva (@framacho). Basically, those were the coolest people I had ever met, and even though I was struggling with the machine they still thought my drawings were cool enough to put on their bodies. That was the best feeling ever, since drawing has always been really important to me. Tattooing was never the main goal, it’s always been about the drawings and about having these funny and intimate interactions with strangers who I wouldn’t usually meet.
Were you trained through a formal apprenticeship? Describe the circumstances of learning.
When I started there wasn’t really so much of an Instagram community of self-taught tattooers. I never sought out an apprenticeship because the scene was mega intimidating, and I really hated physically tattooing people at first. The smell of people’s blood and sweat, combined with the awareness that I was putting people in pain, made me feel really sick every time. I hated tattooing so much that I decided I would only tattoo if it was my own drawings. I started making really wobbly flash sheets because that was the only thing I could tattoo that looked like the drawing. When I started making flash sheets, I was getting asked for tattoos more than I could really handle, and I still hadn’t really learned how to tattoo. I know it’s confusing for a lot of people that these silly drawings became cool. I realized then that for many people, tattoos are a lot more about expression and the experience, rather than wearing the most technically perfect thing in the world; as long as it’s done safely. For me, the interaction with the artist is way more important than the tattoo itself. I would much rather have a technically shit tattoo from my best friend than a perfect tattoo from a mean person that I paid a lot of money for. Now, I do really care about continuing to improve technically and making the tattoos exactly like the drawings, but I don’t think it has to be that way for everyone.
What impact do you think an Instagram community of self-taught tattooers would have had on you? What was your experience of being self-taught without this community?
I think now it’s easier to get better technically, since there are more people sharing information. On the other hand, it’s harder to grow in popularity on Instagram since there’s a tonne of people making really unique, non-traditional work. I probably would have struggled with the machine less, and struggled with getting followers more.
Have you previously studied art in an institutional setting? If so, what level of training did you reach and in what disciplines?
I studied printmaking at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and graduated with a BFA.
Did that training help as you learned the mechanics of tattooing?
Not so much, but while I was studying I was very lucky to get a printmaking job at Two Palms Press in Soho. I became friends with Craig Zammiello, a real genius wizard printmaker who had done extensive research on making copper etchings with tattoo machines. He made me a steel needle to tattoo copper with. Experimenting with this was a cool way to learn the mechanics of tattooing
How did you develop your style? How would you describe it? What are your influences?
I am really interested in drawings by kids. Before kids are like seven, they are just drawing because it’s fun to make stupid drawings. Drawings start to die once you start thinking that “art” is supposed to look a certain way. I guess people call it ignorant style, but I think kids are way smarter than adults since they don’t conform to arbitrary social structures yet.
Have you had or do you have plans to take on apprentices?
I don’t like the idea of working for anyone or anyone working for me. I’m happy to share whatever knowledge of tattooing I have with my friends or curious clients.
What do you look for in a shop?
Shops that are making tattooing safer, more inclusive, and less intimidating. Tattooers who treat their clients like people and not canvases.
What inspires you generally?
A drawing under the highway that schoolkids made; a cool treehouse; a painting for a restaurant made by someone who never painted; a cool dog; someone’s weird decorated car; a puppet show in the subway; a mosaic in a garden; a DIY skatepark; a sandcastle.
Are any other forms of media, traditional or digital, important to your work?
I want to do everything. Recently I’ve been making tiny videos, quilting, printmaking, writing, and stuff like that. I’m still trying to figure out how these things are influential to my tattoo work, and vice versa. I’m still trying to find my creative voice. The content is coming from the same place–the way that the systems that marginalize animals and nature also marginalize people, the brilliance of children, the bullshit of the fine art world, my fear of the apocalypse. Though I often think tattooing is just an accident and the medium that got my art seen the most. Tattooing is a way for me to travel, meet people, make money, and make my art accessible to people. Maybe it’s more than that, maybe it’s just what got popular. I’m not really sure yet.
Is traveling important to you? If so, where do you usually travel? Do you have any interesting experiences abroad that you can share?
Meeting people from different walks of life is making me a more capable and more open-minded person. I’ve just been traveling in America and Europe so far, but will go further soon. There are way too many stories to write here but if you come get a tattoo from me I can tell you some.
What is the main challenge of tattooing today?
One challenge is that (outside of major cities) there is not much room for people who have fresh new styles, who are often self-taught, that don’t fit into any traditional style. But that’s changing really fast. It’s also a big problem that a lot of tattooers are super privileged people. This is dumb, because people have been tattooing since the ice man was sticking himself with ash and a rose thorn. Additionally, tattooing is an industry that draws a lot of people who use their jobs as an excuse to inappropriately touch or photograph people’s bodies. I do think Instagram is drawing a lot of attention to these issues and the culture is changing to be safer and more inclusive. I think “call out culture” can be super problematic as well, but at least people are having more conversations about these issues. Ultimately, the biggest, biggest challenge is that the environment is going to total shit, and we’re all about to witness the end of civilization as we know it–so that’s why it doesn’t really matter if you tattoo your face.