Katie So is bent over her iPad when I meet her for coffee on a rainy Monday morning. So is answering emails (“like always,” she sighs) which doesn’t surprise me, because the illustrator-cum-tattoo artist has already inked two of my friends and seems to be fielding more tattoo requests than she can handle. “I’m just learning about the tattoo business,” she says, “And I can’t say no to anybody, which I think I have to start doing soon!”
So helped open Black Medicine Tattoo last May with owners Joel Rich and Daniel Giantomaso, in exchange for mentorship from Rich. Vancouver born and bred, So has been practicing art since she can remember. “I always grew up in a really creative home,” she recalls, “So it was always like, everything, all creative materials were at my disposal.” Her move to tattoo work was motivated by her desire to progress her career as an illustrator. “I guess I was in a spot where I was just doing art and I wanted to…get it out there any way I could, and make money doing it,” So explains. “I met Joel [Rich] and he tattooed me. I asked if he wanted and apprentice but he [said] ‘Not really, but I’ll help you!’”
So says that attending an arts high school put her off the idea of pursuing visual art, but that she rediscovered her love of drawing during a gap year. She then registered in the Capilano IDEA Program where she realized that illustration, rather than graphic design, was what she was passionate about practicing. So was attracted to comics because they allowed her to combine her habit of creative writing with her drawings. She has since put out three print compilations of her work: Destined for Misery, Bad Boyfriend, and Attempts at Positivity. So’s work––narrative driven and punchline-heavy––is both hilarious and honest, and her ability to capture awkward moments, pathetic self-pity, and heartbreak is so accurate, it’s uncanny.“The comics kind of started almost as a way to laugh off my problems,” she says.
The magic of So’s work is that she manages to create scenes that are deeply personal but touchingly universal. Panels from Destined for Misery show a tired girl hunched over in identical positions eating dinner, sitting on a toilet, at a drawing table, and laying in bed. The cheeky caption reads “Slouch Life.” “I hated autobio comics, like: ‘I feel that way, too, but it’s just making me feel worse,’” she says, “So I guess I just wanted to approach it with an air of humour, and that was my reaction to the way I was feeling, and thats how I worked [my feelings] out. The problems are real but you should be able to step back and laugh at it a little bit and realize how ridiculous things are sometimes.” (See her panels in Bad Boyfriend to laugh out loud, and cry internally).
What makes So’s tattoo work so interesting is the dark edge that is present in her illustrations and comics. Shaggy vampire bats and dark haired ladies with cold eyes dominate her online portfolio. She can be both cutesy and gruesome in one drawing. Her somber aesthetic translates beautifully to blackwork tattoo. “I wanted to keep drawing for illustration rather than drawing for tattooing,” she explains. “It took me a while to get the effect that I’ve got in my illustration and bring it across tattooing. I definitely had to learn how to adapt designs for tattoos, because sometimes shapes of things aren’t going to work on somebody’s body. I still really wanna maintain my illustration style throughout tattooing.”
“Tattooing was one of those things I was like ‘I want to learn how to do this,’ and I just did it every day. I still have so much to learn but if you wanna get shit done you just gotta do it,” she says of her learning process. The transition to tattooing was creatively and financially necessary; it allowed So the freedom to pursue her art and make ends meet. “I’m proud that this last year was kind of when I took the plunge, like ‘Ok I’m gonna be an artist full time.’ I think I could have done it a long time ago if I had just done it but I was too scared that I wouldn’t have any money or anything. If you just do it, you figure it out and you force yourself to make money.”
I ask So what it feels like to put her hard work on someone else’s body. “I’m always scared when I finish a tattoo and I’m letting it go,” she laughs, “I hope they take care of it and I hope it heals well because it’s my art walking around. It’s nerve wracking, but also super exciting [to] see someone walking on the street…I’m like, ‘Oh I did that!’”
So’s wisdom to artists looking to take the leap into self-employment is to “just go hang out with people you think are cool and talk to them and tell them that you think they’re cool. Chances are they already think you’re cool, too.” Her final nugget of knowledge before we bundle ourselves up against the relentless downpour: “Please, get tattooed on a full stomach!”