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On Being a Barfly, Playing with Clay and Going to “Bummer Jail”, with Alex Joukov

Alex Joukov is a Vancouver-based tattoo artist and illustrator with an intriguingly eclectic aesthetic: from cutesy-creepy black-and-white stick-and-poke designs to absurdly humorous and colourful paintings.

Joukov’s been on our radar for some time now (past “Vancouverites” interviewee, Shawn Dalton, gave her a shout out for providing the eye-catching artwork on his Marrow Amaro label and they have collaborated numerous times since), so a one-on-one conversation with the intriguing artist seemed long overdue…

We’ve already chatted a bit about our mutual barfly experiences, and you’ve told me about some of the interesting characters you’ve encountered that may have subconsciously influenced your artwork…Can you please share one such story that stands out for you?

I don’t think it’s any one character, it’s usually a melange of strangers. I guess I just like to be surrounded by miscellaneous bar din. I wish I could find the same satisfaction in cafes, restaurants, public pools or whatever, but I think we all know that alcohol draws a certain “pizazz” out of people. This is why I could never live in a small town, the bigger the city the better – you just always encounter such a concentration of weirdness. It’s just people living their lives, but sometimes people have unexpected tendencies. It’s very entertaining. It’s chaos.

Although there is some aesthetic crossover between your tattoo designs and artwork, you keep the two very separate (different Instagram feeds, mostly different designs, black-and-white versus vibrant colours, different studio spaces). Why is that? And what do you get from one medium that you don’t get from the other?

I wish I had an extravagant secret reveal for this one but it really just comes down to practicality. A tattoo studio has to meet a cleanliness standard, parts of it need to be kept literally sterile in order to give clients safe, healthy tattoos. It’s also a high-traffic place, people are coming into it daily, it has to be comfortable for strangers to walk into it and not feel like they’re invading your personal space. These things are hard to achieve in an art studio, where there are stacks of reference material, tools, supplies, remnants of comestibles…just general art “mess”. So I keep the physical spaces separate for that reason.

Black versus full colour is another pragmatic choice! Since hand-poking is my method of tattooing, I prefer using black ink. It’s a lot more predictable when applied and most people have no issues with it like allergies, etc. although recently I’ve been thinking about introducing some colour. My illustrations are colourful because I think it’d be a shame for them not to be – who doesn’t like bright, fun colours?

Tattooing is by far the most challenging medium I’ve encountered. You can’t just scrap a tattoo. The stakes are so much higher when you’re permanently altering a person’s body. In my art practice I feel like I really get to create scenarios and evoke emotion through detail and composition; tattooing is a bit more aesthetic-based, I’d say it’s more design than art.

Obviously pop culture references are a source of inspiration for you in your tattoos and paintings, along with a bunch of other seemingly random characters and objects that somehow work together. How do these bizarre scenarios come together in your head and how do you make sense out of them? Tell me more about your process and what’s going on in that brain of yours!

Haha, I don’t make sense of them. I don’t think that’s ever a goal. I think I get joy out of creating dream-like chaos through collage-style painting that is confusing yet intriguing or maybe intriguing because it’s confusing, or vice versa. Every piece starts with a pencil drawing in a sketchbook. Sometimes I have an idea of what I want to portray so I’ll sketch out the main points of interest then build from there in an almost stream-of-consciousness-like manner. Often I figure out how to tie things together as I draw. I never want the “meaning” of the painting to be too on the nose, so I tend to augment the source until it makes less sense. I’ve also developed a personal visual library I like to reference, so instead of painting a literal emotion/idea I’ll represent it with related iconography.

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You also mentioned that you are planning on doing less tattooing in the New Year and spending more time in your studio to focus on making art. Can you tell me a bit more about what we can look forward to seeing from you in the near future? For instance, I noticed a ceramic piece on your Instagram feed recently…

The ceramic piece you saw is actually Sculpey clay! I fell into a bit of a rut with illustration and painting this year, so a fellow artist volunteered to teach me a bit about sculpting. It really helped pull me out of my creative block. I started getting a lot of ideas for sculpting projects. The main problem has been finding time. Tattooing full-time has been a blessing and the best job I’ve ever had but it’s SO time-consuming. I want to step back a little and commit more energy to making art. As much as I love tattooing I don’t want to be doing it forever, I want to just make art.

Speaking of new projects: I’d love it if you could tell me a bit more about the book of illustrations you are in the process of making, Bummer Jail.

So let me fill you in about Bummer Jail. I have stacks and stacks of sketchbooks and whenever I need a little creative push I like to flip through them to see if maybe there’s an overlooked idea in there somewhere. I also always get really inspired when I look through other people’s sketchbooks and drawings. I thought it might be fun to share some pages of my sketches, in case anyone is curious. There are a lot of early stages of flash and illustration development in it so if you ever got a tattoo or a print from me you will likely find some familiar doodles.

The “book” consists of mostly newer selections but there is a page or two that date about 2 years back, maybe 3? I’ve made a lot of zines in the past but never a bound book, so this was a learning experience. I made a teeny tiny run of these, just to see what the process is like, and now that I kind of figured it out I’m going to make more, as long as people want them. I have a couple of copies available now and the next batch should be good to go after the holidays.

I feel like the majority of dialogue around being a woman artist (and tattoo artist!) has been centred around its disadvantages, which is obviously important to address. However, I want to flip the conversation, and ask you: what are the advantages of being a woman in the arts, in Vancouver and in general?

Honestly, this might be an unpopular opinion but I think I’ve mostly only experienced advantages. I’m alive at a time and place where the art scene is at its most progressive stage thus far. This is obviously not true for every marginalized group, not in the art world and even less so elsewhere, but speaking strictly of conventional gender norms in art I would have to say I’ve benefited from being a woman. People are trying to make up for hundreds of years of sexist injustice, so there have been a lot of doors opening for me based on my gender alone. I think this is a good start. It would be great to see this trend imbue the top tiers of artists. Right now the majority of fine artists who’ve made it big are men. Hopefully, by the time my generation gets to that age bracket we will see a more mixed group of successful people.

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