Skin Story: Asha Harper

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Asha Harper is a multidimensional creative being, as well as a footwear designer at Nike. We spoke to her about her career, tattoos and astrological signs. 

All photos by Brenton Salo (@brentonsalo)

When did you start getting tattooed, and what made you want to?

I started getting tattooed when I was 18, that's the legal age in the UK. I wasn't quite rebel enough to try it out before, mostly because of my mum. I guess the opportunity never sprung up until I went searching for it. 

At the time I was going through a transformation - funny because that seems to be the re-occurring theme for when and why I get tattooed. It has always been a sacred ceremony for me and one that somehow reminds me of who I truly am. 

What do your tattoos mean to you?

In my eyes my artwork represents the intimate experiences I've had in this lifetime. I feel like they also connect me to previous lives I've had. Taking learnings from both help me to open doors to a deeper understanding of self-discovery, whilst trying to accept that I might never be found physically. They are a personal blueprint reflecting the times of where I've been, where I'm going and what I'm seeking. 

I've never really been infatuated by the 'meanings' of my tattoos, actually the opposite. My tattoos are a creative extension of me. Never did I think I'd have this many, but I love that I have the confidence to embrace what feels natural without the fear of being judged. 

Meanings for me are symbolised in moments. It is more about the multi-layered energy exchange and trust you have to establish with a person you hardly know, whilst they etch into your skin. There's something about the vulnerability of it all. During my sittings I try to master the genius of being present. My mind seems to ease into the process gradually, putting me in a state of stillness, whilst my body entertains the teachings of pain and what it means to be marked by something so permanent. 

My sister sent me a screen-grab of a written passage the other week. It talked about the influence tattoos have on our bodies and how they affect our chakras and the 12 houses in astrology that make up our vessel. The information definitely made me want to dissect my own correlation to see how random synchronisations can really be. 

If you have a favourite tattoo, what is it and why?

I feel like this constantly changes for me depending on my mood. Usually I'd say my neck piece. Today it's my forehead tattoo which reads 'sapientia melior auro', meaning wisdom is better than gold. Knowledge is like an eternal stream which enriches our fertile minds with brilliant ideas so that we can become the best versions of ourselves. This tattoo sits in my first house which represents the head and face, and also the parts of the mind that are in charge of conscious thought and activities. The first house is about how an individual depicts themselves towards their general surroundings, essence and presence. 

What made you want to pursue a career in design and fashion?

I've always been an artist from since I can remember. I feel like this trait was heavily influenced by my dad. When I was younger I remember watching him sketch out houses he wanted to build back home in the Caribbean. Mapping out rooms he'd want to convert in my childhood home, which he would then bring to life. His passion for building was infectious to see, and somehow it inspired me to start drawing. My dad has always pushed me when it comes to being creative. Probably because I was a quiet child. He understood that this was how I wanted to express myself. 

Throughout my life I continued to chase my passions in art and design. I studied Film, English and Fine Art which eventually became the stepping stones to my Art Foundation. Little did I know that this year in particular, would be one I'd never forget. One that would fuse me with other like-minded individuals passionate about different ways of expressing art. One that would unlock many creative talents through practice, knowledge, discipline and vision - whilst still being able to embrace the weird. This course would later open a door I would stumble through to become a footwear designer. 

Working in the fashion industry, how have people reacted to your tattoos?

I don't really get many reactions on my tattoos at the places I've worked. When I do it's mostly praise or "ooh you got another one". I feel like there are unspoken words amongst creatives, where they are able to let each other be who they need to be and get on with it. 

It's almost like when you go to a gallery and look at a painting, and allow the work to speak for itself. I'm lucky that I've worked in teams that understand the energy and vision of people as they are. Unable to be defined, just like the universe. 

Have you experienced people holding pre-conceived ideas of who you are as a person because you are tattooed?

Absolutely, especially when I travel in business class for work. I get asked if I'm an athlete, a singer, entertainer, or a tattoo artist. I mean being a black woman with tattoos in the most obvious places, mixed with a British accent in America is always going to be interesting. 

Then I go to places like Asia - I mean it's not just about the tattoos, it's my whole look. I see people looking like they're trying to work out algebra in their minds whilst observing me. Some take pictures, some point and laugh, some call their friends. Then I got to Mexico where the majority of people love the tradition of tattoos, people are more willing to approach me and ask about my work. Authority on the other hand, always stare, but there's nothing new there. There will always be pre-conceived ideas of who I am as a person, but that will never stop my Leo rising energy. It represents the way in which I present myself to others. 'Le Soleil'. I'm cool with being misunderstood, so I can vibe towards the connections that are meant for me. 

Has being heavily tattooed ever impacted job prospects for you or your career progression?

This was my mum's main concern. I remember her asking "who would hire you with a neck tattoo?" Now I ask her, "who wouldn't?". I've always been cautious with the brands I try to work for. Dr. Martens set the tone in helping me lean into my rebellious side as a factory engineer and designer. Our purpose lies in the purest versions of who we are. Once I'm being myself it only encourages others to do the same. 

Is the fashion industry's response to tattooed people changing?

Industry doesn't change, people do. People's perspectives are shifting because of exposure. When you constantly expose people to things over and over their minds become more accepting. Today you rarely walk past someone in your field that isn't inked. That doesn't tell you who they are as a person and what they're capable of bringing to the table. Which is why I feel like the relationship between tattoos and the art and design industry will always be evolving. Definitions and meanings to things have to grow, just like everything else. We're at a time in our lives where we've had to dig deeper than face value to understand who people really are. We're at a time where we are trying to break the molds of discrimination whilst holding ourselves accountable. We're at a time in our lives where everybody is fighting for some type of human right to make this world an inclusive one. The world is changing, which means we have to change too. 

To see more of what Asha is up to, follow her on Instagram @ashatamia.