Artist Highlight: Ze Lai

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We spoke to handpoke artist Ze (@chinadollpokes), who works out of Lost Fox tattoo studio in London, about the inspiration behind her artwork and how her heritage informs her tattooing. 

Photo credit: Sydney Themis @sydneythemis 

You told us that you found tattooing during lockdown, while studying at uni and running a design business. Was tattooing an escape for you from the craziness of a pandemic world?

Tattooing was definitely an escape from the chaos of the pandemic and really, the lifelessness of the lockdowns. I think we were all picking up new hobbies in order to stimulate our brains during lockdown; be it watching endless Tiktoks, baking sourdough bread, or learning how to make kombucha. For me, tattooing became my source of interest and it just picked up from there! 

You have mentioned before that you aim to create designs inspired by your experience as an Asian-American person. How does this life experience inform your artwork?

Being Asian-American is an interesting identity in the sense that I’m in between the dichotomy of two very different cultures. I’ve always used art as a way to explore my identity within blurred lines, and it’s actually been a very healing tool. So when it comes to tattoos, which is essentially art on bodies, people seek out artists that make them feel heard and represented. 

For myself, I have attracted many Asian, Asian-American, and Asian-British clients who can appreciate those small cultural nuances hidden in a lot of my designs. At the end of the day, it’s this shared experience of wanting to further explore our cultural identity that fuels a collaborative relationship between my designs and my clients. 

As someone born in California, how do you find working in London? Was there a culture shock for you moving from the States?

I moved to London 4.5 years ago and it was definitely a shock to the system! There have been a lot of adjustments for me, especially in my vocabulary and socializing habits. The city is so full of life, and yet it can also feel very isolating at times. In reference to the previous question about cultural identity, I never felt more desperate to find people I could identify with until I moved here.

Here in London, there are endless amounts of people moving in and out of the city; so it can feel difficult to pin down a group of friends long enough to feel like family. After 3 years here, I have been very fortunate to discover the underground tattooing community which can feel very difficult to ‘get in’ with at first… but really everyone is a  sweetheart. My studio Lost Fox has become my home, and I absolutely adore working in this industry in London. 

Your work is really adorable and delicate, where do you find inspiration for your designs?

When I was younger and a bit more angsty, my art was very intricate and quite dark. This may surprise many people seeing my current style, but what’s really driven my tattoo style is the mindset that they should be fun! Doing hand poke, we’re also more limited to the type of lines and shading that we can execute so I definitely always take that into consideration while drawing.

As far as inspiration for the actual designs, I’m constantly visiting antique shops and taking inspiration from porcelain designs and vintage art. Recently took a trip to the British museum which was incredibly inspiring, and I think my next stop is the V&A.

Is machine tattooing something you would like to pursue in the future, or is handpoke still the way for you?

I used to think I’d just be hand poke all the way, but recently I’ve taken interest in machine tattooing as well. I was recommended by an industry peer to start learning machine earlier on in my tattooing journey so I wouldn’t develop a fear of it and limit myself.

However, I don’t think I’ll ever phase out handpoking as it really is just a totally different skillset that I’m still trying to perfect. Not only that, I love the fact that hand poke gives my clients the option for a less painful experience and an easier healing process. 

Photo credit: Sydney Themis @sydneythemis.

Check out more of Ze's work on her Instagram @chinadollpokes