Evan Kim Talks HOTMESS, JonBoy, & Opening His First Tattoo Shop
I first met Evan Kim in a yellow North Face tent when Luka Sabbat and the HOTMESS boys took over Milk LA in Oct 2017. I had never had the chance to see his work prior to then, and found that he would be having a pop up for some flash tattoos throughout the weekend. After an initial moment of hesitation, I had the chance to sit down, see his work, and speak with him. And after five minutes—I was immediately sold. Fast forward to now, I have three tattoos by the man, and don’t plan on getting any work done by another artist.
He recently opened up his first tattoo studio in the heart of NYC and now is going through the journey of owning his own shop. I had a chance to sit down and speak with Kim during my recent trip to New York and hear more about his journey, his POV on the tattoo community, and how his style has evolved throughout his career.
Describe your upbringing in Korea and the transition of moving to New York—how did you get started on the journey to becoming a tattoo artist?
Growing up, I was shy and quiet and never said much in front of other people. I never believed I had any talent until I started creating plastic models in middle school and I think that’s where it all started. Ever since discovering my interest in art and anime I naturally found myself becoming interested in creating animations. In a sense, the anime show “Neon Genesis Evangelion” was what pushed me toward my dream, and at age 13 I realized I wanted to be an animator. The name ‘Evan’ actually derives from the ‘Evan’ in Evangelion because I felt as if the show was a big influence on the creator I am today.
Since my revelation, I continued to draw and create. It was not only my hobby but also my way of escaping from school and academics which I found to be boring; it provided me a sense of relief and peace. However, after my first year in college, I had to enter the Korean Army (in Korea if you’re over 18, you must join the army) and for the two years that I served, I was unable to draw. I was devastated from being apart from doing something that I loved. Once my time in the army was over and I went back to college, I sensed hesitation in what my dream was. In Korea, jobs like animation creators were not seen in a positive light and were often looked down upon because it did not apply to the basic standards of their society. Due to this aspect, all of a sudden my ten-year passion for art and animation disappeared.
With a semester left in college, I abruptly decided to go to New York. Without any reason or regret, I dropped my dream of becoming an animator. Although going to New York was a decision I made for myself to take a break, within a week I realized that New York was where I belonged. New York was a place that provided me hopes in the midst of feeling lost. Being surrounded by the art within the city (ie: the streets, subways, and music) it re-inspired me to find my dream again. Despite struggling with English and being unfamiliar with a different culture, I found excitement in this new life, which allowed me to dream every day. After a little over a year of being in New York, I started working at a tattoo shop in Jamaica, Queens that my older sister had introduced me to. I simply worked as an artist who designed pieces rather than a “tattoo artist”. Ironically, I’ve never had an interest in tattoos, let alone understand why people would even choose to get them. Yet, it wasn’t until I started working in the industry that I learned to appreciate the beauty of it all. The thought of someone having my design embedded onto their body changed my mindset and perspective on tattooing; through this revelation, I was able to discover a new dream. While at this shop, I met mentor/master but also one of my now closest friends, JK (@jktattoony). We had the same views and got along well enough to also become roommates. He taught me about the beauty behind tattooing, the kind of drive to obtain, personal care, and what the soul of a tattoo artist should be like. My first tattoo was a three quarter sleeve dragon tattoo by JK himself. After receiving a tattoo of my own, I made up mind to become a tattoo artist myself. Even before I got married, JK was like my other half and was a friend who I considered closer than family and we spent more than six years together. The journey to New York and JK’s influence on my life contributed to me aspiring to be a tattoo artist.
Who are some of the people who have had the biggest influence on your career within the industry?
Within the tattoo industry, the biggest influences in my career aside from JK would have to be Jonboy. While working at West 4 Tattoo, Jonboy helped me jump ahead in my career. He introduced me not only to the ethics and art behind tattooing but also the introduced me to the entertainment industry that is apart of tattooing. Jonboy always has had the ability to make the people around him feel good and he knew exactly how to showcase his tattooing abilities. Having him as a partner led me to easily start fine line tattooing, and having him as a friend allowed for both of us to exchange knowledge and insight to push each other forward.
Describe the community within fine line tattoos—why are they viewed negatively in the tattoo world?
I believe fine line tattoos and its community are still in a progressive state. Before I started doing fine line tattoos, I as well viewed it negatively. I used to think that fine line tattooing was impossible to accomplish because during its healing time the tattoos would smudge and deform from its original design. I hadn’t recognized that fine lining was only “impossible” due to the incorrect techniques I had been using. However, after seeing artists like Dr. Woo and their work I was able to grasp the idea that fine lining was indeed possible. It was because of these artists and their opinions where I was able to gain a better understanding of fine line tattoos and learned to appreciate it.
From then till now, I went through many trials and errors and had to change everything I was previously doing. I think fine line tattoos are seen negatively because unlike traditional American and Japanese tattoos, fine line tattoos lack history. Therefore, it is still considered to be a style that is still in progress. Even today, fine line and small tattoos are constantly transforming and growing. Some artists who specialize in fine line tattoos like Jonboy, Dr. Woo, Romeo Lacoste, and ilwohongdam are just some examples of artists who are continuously improving their own unique styles. I take pride and find it honoring to be a part of this community.
Do you feel like the culture of tattoo artists has now become saturated?
I do feel as if the cultures of tattoo artists are immensely increasing but I do not believe it is necessarily a bad thing. Back in the day, it was difficult to even learn about tattooing but nowadays, through the use of the internet and Youtube, it is easier for people to pick up the basics of tattooing and gives people more opportunities.
Not only has the mechanical aspect of tattooing changed, but so has society’s perspective on it. Society, especially Asia’s, used to associate tattoos with gangs and criminals but gradually as many athletes, singers, actors/actresses, and other celebrities received tattoos, it became a normal concept.
Furthermore, thanks to social media like Instagram and Facebook, tattoo artist are able to get more exposure to the rest of the world, which I see as a positive trait. I believe that it is inevitable for the culture of tattoo artists to become saturated because there are only going to be more artists and more styles in the future. And I don’t believe that tattoos are going to be a temporary trend, instead, I see it becoming an immense yet special culture within society. Although I will admit, it will be challenging to remain relevant for a long time in a culture filled with an overwhelming amount of old and new talented artists.
How would you describe the evolution of your own style?
At the beginning of my career, I started off creating Japanese style tattoos. My mentor JK played a huge influence in my initial tattooing style but it was also a style that I was familiar with due to my background and Korean culture. But while working at the street shop I became absorbed with the traditional American style because of all of its interesting components. I enjoyed the edgy designs, the various meanings of those designs and the simplicity of expression. For many artists with years of practice find the traditional American style to have a deeper meaning and history. The common trait within both the American and Japanese style is the line work. I believed and still do believe that the overall best foundation of a tattoo begins with the line work.
Take us through your journey of starting at West 4 Tattoo and now opening up your first studio. What have been some of the highlights? Were there any setbacks along the way?
Having worked at West 4 Tattoo and getting to make relations with the people who worked there not only gives me both honor and pride. I am always thankful and apologetic to those I worked alongside with at West 4 Tattoo, Jonboy, Ok, Michelle Santana, Drag, and others. They were the ones who stuck by me during my toughest times and I consider them to be my best colleagues and closest friends. I will always be apologetic to the fact that I was unable to portray the feeling of gratitude I have for them. After I left West 4 Tattoo due to personal reasons, the crew split up and the fact that I could not do anything truly devastated me. However, my departure from West 4 Tattoo was also what led me to open up my own studio. I made this studio with the hope of creating a space and home for other artists. I wanted artists to run the shop rather than having the shop run the artists. Through the help and cheers of many people, I was able to prepare and open up my studio. Without the individuals who guided me along the way, I would never have been able to accomplish this goal. During this time, I also realized that I not that qualified as a businessman and it was a setback in my journey of going solo because I was questioning every decision I had to make and often got confused along the way. But I think any setbacks I dealt with have helped shape the artist I am and made me stronger as a person. I also feel as if these struggles have taught me how to become a dependable and stable owner and partner for other artists I may take in.
What pieces have you created that you feel most proud of throughout your career?
The first piece that comes to mind is the riflescope and machine gun tattoo I inked on both of Luka Sabbat’s arms. It was a challenging piece that gave me assurance that the direction I was going in with my specific style was the direction I wanted to move in. It was an honor and blessing to even tattoo Luka and the fact that he liked it as well brought me reassurance and happiness. Another recent tattoo that I am proud of was a bomb tattoo on UFC fighter, Josh Emmet’s wrist. I remember him receiving a KO in a match in the UFC and it makes me proud to know that a tattoo I created is on his wrist. All tattoos have their own meaning to it, whether that be a memory, a tribute/dedication to someone or something, etc. If someone receives a tattoo from me and genuinely loves it, that in itself makes me extremely satisfied and proud of myself as an artist.
What’s next for Evan Kim?
My hope is that I will not be an artist that will be forgotten but instead an artist who is always improving. I do not want to be categorized with one specific style but want to be able to attack various styles without hesitation or fear. In the future, my utmost final goal would be teaching other aspiring tattoo artists on everything I know. In the end, I want to be able to inspire them, teach them all the knowledge I’ve obtained over my career, and share ideas with them. All I’d wish for in the end is to be known as an admirable mentor who was able to leave a meaningful enough impact on these artists. And this is the direction I am currently walking in. From yesterday to today and until the end I am going to continue doing what I am doing. Tattooing is what I love and what I do best. I’d like to say my happiest moments truly are when I am tattooing and my lifetime goal is to remain living my dream.
Stay tuned to Milk for more from our favorite tattooers.