Hard & Soft: In Conversation with Tattoo Artist Nati Lemper
Words: Niloufar Haidari
Images: Alexis Gross
When you walk into Echo Park’s Genero Neutral store, an independent clothing store run by Ashley S.P. and Jennifer Zapata, the first thing you notice is the wall-length painting of a blue cowgirl in a rhinestone bikini framed by chains and roses. I posted it to my Instagram story, unaware of who had painted it until I began preparing for this interview. The artist, Nati Lemper, is a quintessential 21st century California girl: a tattoo artist specializing in single-needle, Chicana-style tattoos inspired by her Mexican heritage; skater; and model signed to Natural Models, an agency that champions alternative beauty. “Genero Neutral held my first pop-up at their store, and I did that painting for it, so now I feel like it’s the mascot of the store,” she says, smiling, when we speak over video call in late June. Dressed in an oversized Mexico t-shirt that she has slept in, she introduces me to her dog, Ocho, a two-year-old boxer that she adopted as a puppy, before her husband comes in to usher him out. Here we discuss the relationship between her heritage and her creative process, Los Angeles, and her unique tattooing style.
Niloufar Haidari: Your style as a tattoo artist feels very LA, including its long Mexican heritage and influences: the single needle method, the almost greyscale shading, and even the images themselves. Has tattooing helped you to feel closer to your roots?
Nati Lemper: Tattooing helped me learn more about my family. Single needle tattoos and Chicana tattoos were a big part of where they came from. A lot of my uncles have all the traditional tattoos that I never got to see until I got older. It felt like something that I was always meant to do. I’ve always loved horses and cowboys. I grew up in Vegas so I would hang out with my friends and pretend we were in old Western movies. Finding out that rodeos and American cowboys were actually taken from Mexican culture felt like, “Oh wow, this is my background.”
NH: How would you describe your personal style?
NL: Single needle with a mixture of Chicano and cowboy culture. I’d say it’s very sparkly and girly, it’s a perfect mixture between hard and soft. I like to do a rose that’s super thorny, or a beautiful girl breaking chains – there has to be a good mixture between masculinity and femininity, because that’s how I feel. I like to dress up and be cute, but then also be sweaty and gross and roll around skating outside.
NH: How do you think your work is informed by LA itself?
NL: I feel like it’s in every aspect of it: it’s just me learning who I am. Being around so many people that are also Hispanic or Mexican, the single needle tattoo style, the payasas [Mexican rodeo clowns]… there are a large group of people who are here who all appreciate these things, so it’s easy for me to make art, because I’m always seeing it around me. Being around my people, it’s all implemented in my work. It’s something that I’m really proud of, and that I want to show off.
NH: What’s your favorite thing to tattoo?
NL: I love tattooing women. I like adding sparkles and attitude and character to them, they can all be drawn so differently. I really like tattooing payasas, or even mixing the two. Everyone has such unique features that I feel can be turned into a tattoo, so it’s really fun doing that. If I could just tattoo women’s heads all the time, I probably would. With cowboy boots and sparkles.
NH: You also skate in your free time. How did you get into that?
NL: I always wanted to skate when I was little. My friend’s dad got me a longboard [when I was 12] and I’d bomb the hill next to my house with my friend but my mom did not want me to skate – she was like, “That’s not what girls do!” One time I scraped the whole side of my face and we were taking pictures of the blood dripping down my face – she took my skateboard to shred it in the wood chipper the next day. It wasn’t until after I finished learning how to tattoo that I was like, “Wait, I’m an adult. I can skate if I want to!”
NH: Skateboarding has traditionally been a mostly male-dominated space. Do you think the tide is starting to turn?
NL: I think so, yeah. I feel like because they’re starting younger, little girls are watching older girls skating and seeing themselves in them, there are meet-ups and brands like Unity and There Skateboards [who] do a lot for the community. Skate Like A Girl is amazing. I think there’s just more foundation and people who have felt outcast are thinking, “Let’s break the cycle and teach everyone how to skate and make it a fun thing.”
NH: You’re also signed to Natural Models. Was modeling something you had always wanted to do?
NL: With the people that Natural work with, yes, but I do also feel that I have to be fought for a little more than others. [Clients] will be like: “We can’t have a brown girl who also has a bunch of tattoos, that’s too much!” I always wanted to model when I was younger but that super-skinny, anorexic look was the only thing that was in [back then]. One of my friends from high school was signed [with Natural Models], and it struck me how cool it was that they were inclusive and super body positive, and that I could see myself in some of the models. I thought, “Okay, I don’t see as many people with tattoos, but I feel like this would be the agency for someone who looks like me.” I feel really lucky to be a part of it. It’s definitely changing.This article was taken from issue 07 of WIP magazine, available from Carhartt WIP stores.