spotlight // Tea Leigh
My first introduction to Brooklyn based hand-poke tattoo artist Tea Leigh was made the way many modern communications are: via the internet. After stumbling upon her delicate and often austere designs (of plants, bones, and phases of the moon to name a few popular subjects), she soon became one of my favorite Instagram feeds.
During the period between the first spark of my Insta-crush and the time I sat down with Tea on a recent visit to Los Angeles, something unexpectedly extraordinary happened; she and her friends were robbed. A few days before our meeting, and on her very first day of her very first visit to California, Tea lost her all of her sketches and her laptop, and her friends, of art and apparel brand All Bad Days, lost cash and other precious things as well. At the suggestion of their online fans, a fundraising site was built and by the miracle of social media and perhaps the pure grassroots power of art supporters, Tea and her friends raised all the money to recoup their loses in a 48 hour span. In a strange sense, her losses and subsequent outreach only raised her stock as an in-demand artist. Now fully supporting herself through tattooing and music making, she has successfully branded herself and her work. And did we mention the girl has only been doing her infamous stick-and-pokes for a year? At this decided on-the-rise moment, we were lucky enough to sit and chat with Tea about moving for boys, getting bad tattoos, inspiration, and why Brooklyn rules so fucking hard.
How long have you been in Brooklyn?
3 years. I moved here from Boston with my ex-boyfriend, who is still a friend of mine, luckily. Sometimes the best things happen when you move for a boy.
You’ve got an impressive online fan base. How did that start?
I have always been an illustrator. I’ve always been drawing. My friend asked if I wanted to do a stick-and-poke forever ago, and so I did. It certainly didn’t turn out well but I was intrigued enough to stick with it. Since then it’s turned into this beast via social media. It can move you along whether you’re ready or not and you don’t really have the option to adjust to that. It’s a new kind of pressure that none of us know what to do with but I’m riding the wave!
Explain the concept of a “stick-and-poke” tattoo.
For some people, “stick-and-poke” is getting drunk at home with your friends using a sewing needle and India ink. One day I was like, “this is really fucked up.” I’m putting something permanent on your body and it doesn’t look great. I want to really know what I was doing so I got serious […] My family is partly Native American and my dad is very spiritual. He’s been a shaman in my life and he always told me I’d do something with my hands. I’m not healing people but I’m putting an image on someone that’s going to stay with them their whole life. They’re not in this place with noisy machines. My tattoos are hand-poked and that feels more natural to me. I like not using electricity.
What was your first tattoo you poked?
Well the first one that made me think, “yes, this is what I want to do” was a wolf, howling at the moon. It’s like a circle on my friend’s thigh. I remember seeing it and thinking, “This is definitely it.” I was still just practicing at that time, but I saw that and was really proud.
What inspires you about living in Brooklyn?
Brooklyn is the fucking best place on the planet. Sometimes it makes you wanna die but there’s a magic that you can use to your advantage. There’s so many things I love about the city. I love that the trains are never on time. I love the people. In Brooklyn it’s easy to be a “yes” girl, doing all the things all the time. There’s an amazing community of women doing badass shit. We all network together and there’s no competition.
Tell us about your music.
My dad is a vocalist. He basically sings opera. I remember being little listening to him and “seeing” the music, which I later learned was synesthesia. That always resonated with me. I first picked up a guitar when I was 7 and played “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in high E. I started singing and made really bad music for a long time. When I moved to Boston my music really took off. Soundcloud really opened that up and pushed me forward. Ideally I would like to make music and tattoo equally,which is very hard to do right now.
Any tattoos you’ve gotten that you regret?
I wouldn’t say regret, but I got this one on my arm for a friend who passed away. I was drunk and got it done in her super fucking dirty house. She didn’t know what she was doing. We’d had a lot of PBR and tequila but Johnny would have thought it was hilarious. It’s like, “There you go, mother fucker.”
Photographs by Lani Trock.
Words by Ashley Tibbits.