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Campus tattoo artist jankypoker works to create ‘safe space’

Self-taught Rena Jiang ’23 has become the go-to artist for students, establishes community among clients

<p>Rena Jiang &#x27;23 started tattooing during COVID as a hobby, but it wasn&#x27;t until the summer before her junior year that she started tattooing people she didn&#x27;t know, according to her friend Yohan Mutta &#x27;23.</p>

Rena Jiang '23 started tattooing during COVID as a hobby, but it wasn't until the summer before her junior year that she started tattooing people she didn't know, according to her friend Yohan Mutta '23.

When you first walk into the studio of Rena Jiang ’23, it feels like you’re there to see an old friend. Though dotted with tattooing equipment, the space is far from clinical; an open skylight and window let in the breeze of a fall day, and the white wood walls create a cozy atmosphere. Sitting on the massage table on this particular Saturday afternoon is Perry Allen ’23 — an old friend of Jiang’s — waiting to be tattooed. 

Allen shifts nervously in the chair. “Wait,” he says as Jiang ties a tension band around his elbow. “It’s a little tight, can we maybe reposition? I don’t want my arm to fall asleep.” He has selected a finely-drawn leafy branch as his design, and the two debate its placement. They decide to put the stencil on Allen’s forearm. Jiang wets a sponge and completes the design’s stencil transfer. She picks up her ink and needle, and she begins.

Known on social media as jankypoker Jiang has become a go-to tattoo artist on campus. 

“Honestly, I just picked this design because I wanted one of Rena’s tattoos and her books fill up quick, so I impulsively signed up once they opened,” Allen joked.

Jiang's business began as an experiment between friends. “It was just like a COVID thing,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that I had planned on turning it into a business. It just sort of happened that there was a lot of demand, and it was me and three other girls living bored in a house with nothing to do. So, we bought a couple of needles and we” started trying them out.

As more and more people in her social circle began to notice her work, she started booking through Instagram direct messages, she said. “It was definitely a hard learning curve,” she said. “If you look at some of my earlier work, it was definitely a little jankier than it is now.”

Jiang’s tattooing business continued expanding the summer before her junior year. “It was then that she started publicizing her work and actually tattooing people” she didn’t know, Yohan Mutta ’23, another friend of Jiang’s, explained. “Seeing it all grow has been pretty incredible because I have just seen her artwork getting better and better and (have) watched her coming into her own in terms of defining who she is artistically.” 

The number of tattoos Jiang takes on each semester has also expanded. Jiang plans on doing six to eight tattoos a week this semester whereas last semester she did four to six a week.

Though jankypoker is now a fully-fledged business endeavor, Jiang’s artistic vision still sits at the heart of her tattooing. She will only, for instance, tattoo either her own designs or small doodles clients bring in; she doesn’t take other artists’ work. 

“I do take customs sometimes if I feel like it’s something that matches my style and I feel like I can do well,” Jiang said. “But the best part is that I get to be selective. … A lot of artists don’t like … that they have to take requests for designs they’re not super passionate about because it’s what they do for a living.”

Tattoos themselves are not merely aesthetic. Jiang noted that tattoos can “be a very significant part of your identity.” While she considers tattoos to be more “like charms and embellishment,” she knows that some people “might only get something inked if it had a lot of semantic or sentimental value to it.”

Still, Jiang acknowledged the experience of getting a tattoo can be deeply personal. Each tattoo takes roughly 40 minutes, and clients will often open up to Jiang regardless of the contents of the tattoo itself. 

“I hear interesting stories all the time,” she said. “It’s a pretty chill environment, and you’re meeting someone that you don’t really know, which I feel like gives them more freedom to say things you might not want to say to people who know everyone else in your life.”

“It’s like a safe space,” she added.

Tattooing, Jiang has noticed, takes on a significance beyond the individual. “I’d say like 90% to 95% of people who book me are either queer or women,” she said. “I think a lot of people see tattoos as a reclamation of their bodies.”

As the year goes on, Jiang plans to ramp up her books and expand where she can. The ultimate goal would be for her to rent a studio post-graduation. 

As for the future of tattooing on campus, Jiang said she hopes “someone picks it up after I’m gone, but I guess we’ll just have to see.”

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