Yi Stropky—the tattooer better known by his Instagram moniker, Chinatown Stropky—spent the first 20 years of his life exposed to very limited styles of art. “I became interested in art at a young age, but when I studied it at school in China the focus was realistic, classical painting and drawing,” he says. Take one look at his tattoos, though, and you’ll notice Stropky’s signature style almost directly opposes what he learned as a child.
The 33 year old, who is now based in Vancouver, British Columbia, describes his clever, minimal designs as “childlike and playful,” which tracks: His tattoos often feature abstract faces and figures and impossible scenarios like a dinosaur riding a skateboard or eating a bowl of ramen. They’re a far cry from the realistic landscapes and portraits he was first taught to draw.
And people love his style. Over the past six years of tattooing, Stropky’s designs have led him to amass a large, loyal following. He has over 155,000 Instagram followers who vie for coveted appointment slots with him every time his books open (he always books up within an hour or two). Plus, he has fans around the world—people who have supported him during his regular travels for tattooing guest spots at notable studios like Sang Bleu Los Angeles, Les Maux Bleus in Paris, AKA in Berlin, and our very own Inside Out studio in Toronto.
But, his artistic expression isn’t limited to tattoos. Stropky also spends his time writing, painting, designing jewelry and dabbling in performance art. Easily, he says, his favorite thing about pursuing art is the connections it allows him to make. “Meeting people and being able to communicate through art is incredible. I’m introverted and the added layer of difficulty in language and culture can make it hard to talk to people. Art provides me with other ways to communicate and is just such a powerful way to express our ideas.”
Here, Stropky talks to us about using art to communicate, staying inspired, and why he thinks getting to meet people is the greatest perk of being a tattoo artist.
On why he became a tattooer: “Becoming a tattooer was not planned. I always thought I’d become an artist of some kind, but tattooing was a surprise. In university, I noticed tattoos were becoming popular among my friends, and that’s why I started doing them. At first I tattooed my friends for free so I could learn, and then I was doing pieces for around $100 an hour; under market value for the industry. Then, when I started to get more clients, I joined Black Medicine Tattoo where I still tattoo today. I guess you could say I’m self-taught since I never officially did an apprenticeship, but I’ve learned a lot about tattooing from other artists over the past six years.”
On his clients’ blind trust: “I went through different phases of how I tattoo. I used to do custom tattoos but now I only do flash. [Doing flash only] is more work for me, because I have to come up with new ideas and new drawings every day, but it’s also more fun. My clients have a sort of blind trust in me. They pay a deposit and book an appointment without knowing what tattoo they’re going to get. The process is exciting and more interesting to me than doing custom pieces. Every day I go to work not knowing what I’m going to tattoo, and I like that.”
If you’re a fan of Chinatown Stropky and his clever, minimal style, we have good news: He just launched a semipermanent tattoo collection with Inkbox that you can shop right here.
On the artist he admires most: “Right now I really like Aram Bartholl—he’s an artist based in Berlin. I’ve been following him for many years, even before he was famous. His art is very playful and he clearly pays attention to things that I think many of us usually overlook. He’s most known for mixing virtual or digital realities with our physical reality in his works.”
On life as an immigrant: “The process of adapting to a new culture or a new language can be difficult. As an immigrant, I often compare myself to a little kid. When I first came to Canada [in my early 20s] I had to learn new etiquette, how to make friends, how to date. Being an immigrant is a lot like being a kid again, but harder because you’re subjected to more judgment. I often felt embarrassed when I tried to communicate using words, so I drew instead. To this day I still sometimes send drawings to my friends instead of written messages.”
On spending time outdoors in his spare time: “I live in Vancouver, but my favourite things to do in BC are actually outside of the city, because that’s where you find the nature. I really like camping, hiking, and even just sitting by a lake to read or draw. If you have the time to drive a few hours North or East, I really like Whistler, Pemberton, and Okanagan Lake. You need more than a day in all of those places, but the nature is amazing.”
On his obsession with contemporary art: “When I was a teenager I was really into everything coming from the West—skate culture, Green Day, contemporary art. I got really into contemporary artists from all over the world, not just from America, around that time. People like Joseph Beuys Duchamp, Marina Abramović and Ulay, Wassily Kandinsky, Yoko Ono, and Yayoi Kusama. Seeing these contemporary artists changed the way I think about art. Art isn’t competition, it’s expression, it’s communication, it’s something that is beyond technique. That’s why when I tattoo and when I draw my flash I’m not trying to do it in a very technical way.”