I know it’s been a long time since my last THink post. So long, in fact, that I’ll give a quick recap for anyone new here [ welcome! ] … THink is my personal project where I take portraits of people with tattoos, and they allow me to interview them at the same time. Ok, now you’re all caught up.
Today’s post is an interview I’m incredibly excited + honored to share. Meet Lisa Congdon. A San Francisco-based artist who creates + illustrates everything from books to wallpaper, and paints some of the most vibrant pieces you’ll ever see. Lisa is predominantly self-taught, and didn’t even begin painting until she was 31. (This lady is a wonder!)
I first discovered Lisa + her work on January 1st, 2012, when she started her 365 Days of Hand Lettering Project, and a bunch of our mutual friends were buzzing about it throughout the Twitterverse. When I went to check out what all the fuss was about, I was completely floored. Lisa’s work is completely original and carries such a vibrant spirit of warmth along with it. I absolutely adore it — past words, really.
Eventually, Lisa + I connected because I discovered that she was planning a trip to Iceland, and I emailed her a list of recs following our adventures there. Fast-forward a few emails later, and suddenly I’m in Lisa’s San Francisco studio, with a camera in my hand, asking her about her tattoos! Lisa welcomed me in and showed me total kindness, allowed me to watch + photograph her as she worked, and shared some of her personal stories + experiences with me. It was a total honor. Really. One of those moments where I was filled with absolute gratitude.
And so, enjoy some little snippets into the life of this amazing artist, and hear a bit from her, too!
Caroline: So! You and tattoos. The beginning. Where and when did you get your first piece? Do you still love it?
Lisa: Ha! That is a funny question because I actually sort of hate my first tattoo. But I think that is true for a lot of people who got tattoos when they were younger, before they really knew who they were or what would feel important to pen on their body forever. My first tattoo is the Chinese symbol for water. It’s on my upper back, where a lot of people get first tattoos. Water is really an important force in my life (I am an avid swimmer and have spent a lot of time in the water since I was small) and I love the symbolism of water, which is why I got the tattoo. I actually have a few other water-themed tattoos on my body. If I could do it over again, I wouldn’t have gotten this particular tattoo. Even so, it’s part of me, and it represents a certain period in my life, so I will never cover it.
C: Are you incredibly picky about who you allow to do work on your tattoos? Are you loyal to the same artist, or have you gotten them in various locations?
L: Yes. Only three people have ever tattooed me, and I have 11 tattoos. Three of those people are pretty well known and I was referred to them because of their work. Once I went to someone on a whim without doing research first, and I will never do that again. The quality of her work is not the same as the other three. I have been going to the same woman now for several years. She is phenomenal. She did my California tattoo, my ship and the portrait of Wilfredo, my dog. She’s also tattooed my girlfriend. As long as she’s around, I’ll probably never go to anyone else.
C: Any estimate how much you’ve spent on your ink work so far?
L: Oh gosh, $3500? Maybe more? But that’s been over the course of almost 20 years.
C: Which piece is your favorite?
L: That is a difficult one. I have so many tattoos that I love. I do have one that you don’t see in the photos you took because it’s on my torso, and I’m a bit modest about showing that in the blogosphere. It’s a gorgeous Japanese koi, and it was the first really big tattoo I got, so I love that one. I also love my California tattoo on my left arm — that was a 40th birthday present I gave to myself five years ago. But my real favorite is probably the portrait on my arm of my dog Wilfredo. He’s my guardian angel.
( I love how fierce this portrait of Lisa is. I also love the way it features her ‘California’ piece — which is my personal fave. )
C: Do any of your tattoos have stories behind them that you’d like to share?
L: I have the word humility tattooed on my left wrist several years back. It is a daily reminder to me to not let my ego get in the way, to stay humble and gracious and to be kind to others. It doesn’t always work, but it’s a constant reminder. On my right shoulder are two swallows with the words truth and courage in banners. Those were early tattoos, and I got them at a time in my life when I was trying to be more truthful — in my actions & words, to myself, to others — and also to be more courageous. Fear ran my life when I was younger. Then one day in my early 30’s I woke up and decided that needed to change. I wanted to take more risks, be bolder, be myself more. I feel like many of my tattoos have helped to give me strength to be a better, more authentic person.
( *side note: I am obsessed with how Lisa adds illustrations to old photos, like the ones seen below. Just unbelievably stunning! )
C: Have you designed any of your own tattoos?
L: Nope, not one. But I have designed tattoos for many, many other people. But that could change soon. I have a design I created that I am thinking about getting on myself this summer.
C: What’s next? Do you have plans for your next one?
L: I am getting married soon and I think my partner and I are going to get our wedding date tattood on our collorbones in some cool lettering. But we’ll wait till after the wedding. Gotta say our vows first.
C: Any words of wisdom or final stories you’d like to share?
L: I think part of being human is figuring out how to express yourself in ways that feel authentic. We all do it in different ways. And tattoos are one form of expression. Tattoos are a funny thing when you think about them objectively, and I can see why some people would never want to get one — they are a huge commitment, and they are not appealing for everyone (in fact, they are not appealing for the vast majority of people). But for many of us they are deeply personal, extremely important daily reminders of who we are, where we come from, who we have loved, where we have been, and who we aspire to be. Sometimes I see older women with tattoos, and it makes my heart melt, because that is going to be me some day. I am going to be that old woman covered in tattoos. And that makes me happy. They are a visual history of me & the life I have lived.
Lisa, thank you so much for agreeing to be a part of this project. It has been such a joy to get to know you — thank you for letting me [and now others!] into an extremely personal part of your life. I absolutely admire you as someone committed to kindness and honesty, and your abilities as an artist only augment the incredible soul that you are. Thank you for being such an inspiration! xx