Many kids grow up drawing on each other’s arms, but few make a whole career out of it. Yet for Abby Nowakowski, becoming a tattoo artist was written in the stars. Raised by young parents adorned with numerous tattoos, she was constantly immersed in the world of body art, which led her to get tattooed as soon as she reached 18, and her journey didn't conclude there. 

The queer interdisciplinary artist double majored in Studio Art and Art History at the University of Guelph before settling in Central Frontenac. On top of printmaking and illustration, she taught herself how to create hand-poked tattoos, which she shared in this interview with Arts Help. The hand poke technique involves dipping tattoo needles in ink and manually poking the skin instead of using machines. 

Abby Nowakowski. Image courtesy of Nowakowski's website.

Now, in collaboration with Agnes’ Artist Project Space, Nowakowski is exhibiting we are magic: a love letter to our tattoos to demystify the art of tattooing. With the awareness that clients may hold onto past, present, or potential traumas and the aim to empower them with tattoos of their choosing, Nowakowski's work ties in with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Good Health and Well-Being

"For many, including myself, getting tattoos is getting closer to your true self. It gives you a sense of agency and ownership of your body. Some tattoos symbolize special memories and loved ones, while others mark moments of survival and triumph," she expressed in the interview with Arts Help. 

Waiting room, 2023, installation. Photo by Zier Zhou/Arts Help.

Also on display is a special publication with the same title as the exhibition, featuring 13 love letters from past clients who write about what their tattoos mean to them. Each one tells a story and is significant in its own way. For client Hannah Sourisseau, her rose-pattern tattoo represents a love letter to her summers. Spent with friends by the water and lovers under the sun, she learned all about love, resilience, and community. 

"I wanted it to be a bigger conversation. I don’t just want to focus on me as an artist; I want to show what tattoos can do for us all," Nowakowski said in her Arts Help interview.

Decorative objects, 2023, installation. Photo by Zier Zhou/Arts Help.

 Making sure that clients are comfortable is a top priority for Nowakowski, who incorporates trauma-informed care into her practice. According to the artist, she sees open communication between the client and artist as key and consent as a living document to be reviewed not only at the start but throughout the tattoo session. Since tattooing can cause clients to feel vulnerable and emotional, Nowakowski regularly checks in with how her clients are feeling and whether they'd prefer to alter the environment or slow down the process.

Tattoo parlour, 2023, installation. Photo by Zier Zhou/Arts Help.

As for her sources of inspiration, Nowakowski has always been a big fan of folk art – art for the people, by the people. This style is a little less avant-garde and a little more every day, with simple shapes and colours. She shared that Maud Lewis, a Canadian folk painter known for her vivid landscapes, is one of her all-time favourite artists.

Wildflowers and woodland creatures are common motifs in Nowakowski's designs. She loves spending time outdoors and notices all its charms, which explains why she’s drawn to representing the natural world and her connections to it. 

"As a queer person, there are limited spaces where I feel like myself like I belong, but there's always space for me in nature," expressed Nowakowski in her conversation with Arts Help.


Inspiring designs, 2023, installation. Photo by Zier Zhou/Arts Help.

In a nutshell, Abby Nowakowski's exhibition we are magic: a love letter to our tattoos at the Agnes Etherington Arts Centre showcases her creative spirit as well as her commitment to clients with diverse lived experiences. Her sunny disposition and consideration for the well-being of others shine brightly through both her art and her conversations. People are sure to leave her studio with a permanent and positive experience – maybe even magical if they choose to believe so.Clients can book appointments with Nowakowski, whose studio is now inside the gallery and free for the public to visit. She didn’t expect to be fully booked already, although there’s a waiting list for those interested in getting a permanent hand-poked tattoo in front of an audience. The space also includes a comfy seating area, a temporary tattooing station, and a cozy corner for writing and reflection.

This exhibition will be held until March 28, 2024, in Kingston, Ontario.

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