Tea Leigh is the kind of artist whose creative passions flood through all aspects of her being with a beautiful intensity. From her gifts in music, illustration and hand-poked tattoos to her passions for supporting fellow artists. In her music the autobiographical lyrics of her indie folk melodies are richly affecting and unfold like a story book. Her 2012 album MAKE THINGS, via SoundCloud, featured soft acoustic guitar and dreamy, poignant vocals of which are equally powerful live. The intriguing balance of fragility and an edgy style that emanates from her music reflects in her tattoo illustrations as well. Her hand-pokes include such things as whimsical flowers, switchblades and animal skulls. Of this tension between strength and fragility she says.
"I'm not a delicate person, I'm not petite and I'm a bit quirky.
But with my art I get to express a delicate side of myself.”
Tea had been drawing and illustrating for many years prior to hand poking, the transition from paper to skin made sense as process which personally feels more organic and natural to her style rather than machine tattoos. Her work is finely detailed and intricate, the result of practice and fine-tuning her craft. In addition to hours of tattooing daily she is constantly drawing, her hands are noticeably different sizes as a result and she does hand exercises and stretches every day to keep things moving.
Each of her tattoos is a one of kind piece of art, she is keenly aware that she is creating something of permanence. Quality is something she refuses to sacrifice—continuously striving to improve her talents is a strong driving force. This artistic integrity reflects in a recent decision to decline a feature with the New York Times after finding out it was to be a trend piece. "I never thought in my life that I would have to turn down the New York Times "
The Spoiler’s Hand stopped by her appointment only studio in Brooklyn, NY. Creative Director, Felecia Wolff, got the magazine’s name tattooed on the back of her calf, adding to previous work done by the hand of Tea; a line from Tom Wait’s ‘Fish and Bird’ accompanied by an albatross and blue whale above her knees, as well as a tooth and a saying of her grandmother’s on her fingers. The relaxed vibe of Tea’s studio feels a lot like stopping by a close friends house. Dreamy music drifts through the waiting area where art books and film cameras scatter a coffee table. The influence of her Texas roots is apparent in the potted cacti plants and assortment of bone decor. Customers either choose a piece from a flash book featuring a collection of tattoos Tea has dreamed up, or request custom work. She gets excited at any chance to bring her flash art to life but also enjoys drawing custom tattoos.
“I also love doing custom work because there are so many unique stories that come with someone wanting a specific image on their body.”
She is constantly seeking to improve and grow, welcoming opportunities to expand her subject matter, such as moving away from delicate florals in order to explore bold graphic elements and more complicated animal imagery. With over 26 thousand combined social media followers, her tattoos are increasingly in demand and she is usually booked out several months in advance. However, she had to overcome many challenges to be able to make a living from her art. Not only is the tattoo industry highly competitive and a male driven front, there is a stigma to being self-taught and choosing hand-poking over machine work. The method is often incorrectly associated with an amateur style of “stick and poking”. Regardless if created with machine or hand-poked, the quality of the work is of the most importance—in fact, many of Tea’s finely detailed tattoos could easily be mistaken for machine work. When Tea first began sharing her tattoo work online she had to contend with faceless criticism and negative comments. She is grateful to the small community of friends she has now who push her to improve, offer honest critique and are supportive of each other. She refers to her mentors advice that
“ ‘There is no crying in tattooing’.
You can’t let negativity stop you from doing what you love doing!”
Top — Tom Wait's 'Fish and Bird' inspired tattoos on Felecia Wolff
Bottom — Tea Leigh playing an impromptu song
As we sit cross-legged on the couch outside her studio discussing Felecia’s tattoo design, her face lights up when the conversation turns towards what her friends are up to and other artists that she admires. Despite the growing popularity of her social network, she often uses its advantages for spreading the word about fellow artists and makers. Her obvious passion for wishing talented emerging artists to succeed is refreshing to hear in a world in which many artists try to get ahead at the cost of others. Her demeanor becomes much more reserved when speaking specifically about herself and her own art.
“Honestly I just feel so grateful for this experience"
As our interview comes to an end, I notice an acoustic guitar propped in the corner of the room. Picking it up, she says it was her first guitar on which she first played Twinkle Twinkle Little Star at age 7. I ask her to play a song for us. "Okay a whole song??" She laughs nervously and then begins to sing. I had listened to her album several times prior to our meeting, but I was truly not prepared for the smooth power and presence of her voice. While she struggles with stage fright before her live shows, a calm intensity washes over her now as she gets into the song. Her emotive lyrics are enchanting and emit an honest energy that reminds me of the importance of pursuing what you love.
Many artists can relate to the fact that following your dreams is often entwined with fear and self-doubt. We asked Tea what advice she would give for our readers on overcoming this to which she said:
“For me what I do in my mind when I’m giving myself a peptalk—and it happens at least once month where I’m like ‘what the fuck am I doing!?’ That insecurity is something that every creative and every person in life deals with. But I think about where I was before this, how miserable I was when I wasn’t making my art. Even when I’m up late at the studio, working long hours, when you feel like shit, you have to realize that it’s just a moment. The way you feel is always going to be changing, you’re going to get worse and you’re going to get better.”
Having worked an assortment of unfulfilling jobs on the way up, from a nanny to Thrift World employee, she knew making sacrifices to get closer to where she wanted to be was worth it. “If you’re going to be really poor for a little while working only part time in order to make time for your art, do it! Also another important thing is...I’m sure some people look at me and how I portray myself and think that I have my shit together, but every day I have insecurities and stresses. Nobody on this planet has their shit together. That’s important to remember. Realize that regardless of what’s happening with your career path, know that you are strong enough as a person.”
Top — Tea Leigh preparing a stencil of the magazine's name in her handwriting
Bottom — Applying the Transfer to our creative director's calf before tattooing can begin