Anji Marth works in a scope of mediums that can be, at times, dizzying: tattoos, painting, drawing, sculpture, jewelry. She even dabbles in taxidermy and just published an adult coloring book. But with range comes a difficulty to explain herself in the way that many exhibiting artists are asked to do.
When asked to explain her body of work, she offers, “It’s never like, ‘I’m exploring the visibility of depth in a conceptual space.’ It’s more like, ‘I had a nightmare about this thing that stuck its arm down my throat, so here’s a picture of it.’ That’s my artist’s statement.”
But the one thing she does know is that out of all her mediums, her one true love is tattoo.
Technically, the fascination started in her teens. “The very first experience I had with tattooing was, a friend of mine and I had safety pins and India ink and we did little hand poked tattoos on each other. But I don’t think that counts. We were just both into punk rock, and it was the punk rock thing to do.”
When Marth was 17, she got her first real tattoo: a symbol from “The Book of the SubGenius,” the scripture of the popular parody religion of the same name. “I thought I was the coolest person that ever lived. I thought it was the coolest thing. I got it and I looked in the mirror at it when it was done.” And then, she thought, “It’ll look great when it’s not floating all alone in the middle of all this emptiness.” And so over time she filled the emptiness.
Marth says she’d had brushes in her hand from early childhood. “My uncles and my grandparents pretty much raised me until I was five or six years old in this household with a bunch of creative people. My grandmother was into arts and crafts. My uncle was an oil painter. My other uncle plays classical guitar.”
Even with all of these artists creating around her, there was a time when Marth didn’t register that they were creating these art pieces. She first understood it as a five year old in the living room looking at coffee table books of Hindu art and Salvador Dali’s work. “I remember the TV being on in the background and looking at the pictures in those books and realizing that somebody made them. It wasn’t just there.”
As she realized that she’d seen someone do the thing that put those images in the book- and even painted herself- her “little baby mind” was blown. “I hadn’t made the connection that the things I was making or my uncle was making were something.”
The realization launched an exploration of art that encompassed whatever she could think up. She drew people she knew, “eyeballs coming out of elephant faces,” even painted over her own black and white photography. “I was really just kind of learning what things were shaped like.”
Then, the exploration was halted in the form of a girlfriend. The girlfriend was going to school for a fine arts degree and it intimidated Marth. “I felt outclassed. This is all stuff I learned from myself or family members and here she is getting this education. I felt like I was not good enough because I wasn’t being educated.”
Marth didn’t easily shake the inadequacy. She drifted away from the visual arts and focused on writing. Only once she and her girlfriend had broken up did Marth realize something was missing. “I started living on my own and realized I hadn’t done a painting in three years. I had been writing during all that time, so I did a zine chapbook with illustrations and poetry.”
Tired of the factory jobs she’d been working, Marth intended to make a few copies to try to sell on the street. In a serendipitous turn, a friend she was telling of her plan had just been fired from Kinko’s and stole a handful of copy cards. “He said, ‘Oh, no, you don’t have to pay for that. They just fired me. Make as many as possible.’ So my early career was completely based on corporate theft.”
From corporate theft, her career went back to love when she and a tattoo artist boyfriend moved out to Seattle when Marth was 21. From the moment she’d gotten that first tattoo and became obsessed with filling the emptiness, Marth had known she wanted to be a tattoo artist. “I remember getting tattooed and every time thinking, ‘I could do that better. I could draw that better than that.’”
So when one of the tattoo artists she met in Seattle offered her an apprenticeship, she was over the moon. “Oh, it was a drive. The very moment he said he would give me an apprenticeship, that was it. The rest of my life was figured out.”
For the first part of her apprenticeship, Marth worked without ever picking up a tattoo machine. She was doing what she affectionately refers to as “shit tasks.” Mopping, scrubbing tubes, scrubbing toilets, scrubbing floors with a toothbrush, making needles, drawing everything her boss drew. A tattoo apprenticeship is grueling for both the student and the teacher, and when her first boss was expecting a child with his wife, Marth had to find a new teacher. It was during that apprenticeship, a year and a half into Marth’s education, that she gave her first tattoo to a woman specially picked by her boss.
Because she screamed at nearly every tattoo she got. “It was an extremely tiny doodle on her ankle. It took me an hour, but it should have taken ten minutes.”
Upon getting enough tattoos under her belt to finish the apprenticeship, she began to develop her look. “At first, it was all things they picked off the wall or internet. About five or six years in, I started custom work.”
Today, a customer can come in with a subject or an emotion or a picture, and Marth will turn it into something they’re proud to display on their body. “What I start with is a palette. I find a color scheme I want to do.” If she’s in love with maroon and they ask her for flowers, she’ll research maroon flowers with big blossoms. Another time, a client asked for an albino rattlesnake while Marth was in a peach mood. She went to the zoo and took sketches and pictures of the rattlesnakes to find out where peach fit into the color scheme.
Other times, she’ll develop an idea with the client. Like the time she did a calf tattoo of a pig in a calico dress polishing a piece of excrement. “He works in the industry and does a lot of tattoo repairs, so he was like, ‘I feel like I’m just polishing turds all day.’” She sat down immediately and began sketching. “Can I make the pig like a warthog? Does this look enough like a turd?” They tattooed it immediately on the spot. Marth describes it as a perfect tattoo day. “Somebody with a sense of humor that matched mine and had confidence in what I was doing.”
Outside of the artistry, her passion extends to craft and practice of tattooing. While she considers herself to be somewhat self-taught as an artist (she was never formally educated, but surrounded by mentors and creatives), she considers it impossible and unethical to be a self-taught tattoo artist.
“With tattooing, you’re breaking the skin on another human being’s body and exposing both of you to their blood. So bottom line, it’s fucking dangerous. If you’re tattooing and don’t have blood borne pathogen and cross-contamination training, you are putting your clients at risk. If you’re tattooing at home, you’re insulting the time and energy we’re putting in. You’re making it all pointless. I get passionate about that.”
So maybe for Anji Marth, whose work is displayed on people’s bodies—fans and peers alike, that passion is the only explanation she owes.