When Chella Man was just four years old, he began to lose his hearing. By the time he was a pre-teen, he was almost entirely deaf. There were no other deaf (or even hard of hearing) children living in the small Pennsylvania town where he grew up, so he struggled to feel represented in his community. And that’s just one of the ways the now 21 year old felt isolated from his peers. As a deaf, queergender, Chinese-Jewish-American, there were essentially no spaces where Chella felt represented, that is, until he ‘became his own representation’.
“Be your own representation,” has become a motto of sorts for Chella Man. The artist, actor, model, and activist never felt quite right in his body—he was born female—so he made a conscious decision to change it; to become the person he had always dreamed of being. In 2017, that decision led him to begin taking testosterone and prepping for top surgery—a gender reassignment procedure that reshapes the chest. And he chose to share all of this with others, too, by posting about his experiences on Instagram and YouTube.
Viewers clearly appreciated his candidness about his transition, his gender dysphoria, and his deafness, because he’s since amassed an impressive 364,000 followers on Instagram and 247,000 YouTube subscribers. Thanks to the reach of these platforms, Chella Man hasn’t only become his own representation, he’s become a role model for other deaf and queer folks around the globe.
Another part of Chella Man’s journey has been tattoos. He tells Inside Out, “my tattoos remind me that my identity is valid and of [the] decision to be my own representation.” He also just loves the art form in general. In a 2018 video explaining the meaning behind each of his five pieces, he said, “As an artist I love tattoos because you can just forever wear the way you see the world on your own skin. I think that’s beautiful.” Ahead, we chat with him about his own tattoos, designing tattoos for others, and his journey as an artist.
On the story behind his first tattoo: “My first tattoo is an outline of three circles on my right hip. I used to sign all of my artwork with three dots rather than my name, so on a whim one night I decided to get those dots as a tattoo. I don’t remember it hurting at all, really, and I tattooed it myself via stick and poke when I was 15 years old…classic.”
On his favorite tattoo: “I really love the linework piece that extends from the backwards ‘I love you’ tattoo on the top of my right arm. I just closed my eyes and drew the lines on my arm with a Sharpie and then got it tattooed. It symbolizes my non-linear gender journey and journeys in general. Then it ends with a self-love reminder from my past—the ‘I love you’ tattoo which is in my handwriting and is purposely backwards so that when I look in the mirror I can see it clearly.”
To learn more about the meanings behind all five of Chella Man’s tattoos, check out the video below.
On what’s been inspiring his art recently: “Rather than being inspired by a specific artist right now, I have been recently inspired by the old frescos from the Renaissance era in Northern Italy (Chella Man is currently participating in an artist residency in Italy). The realism combined with golden pigment is strikingly beautiful.”
On designing tattoos for others: “Since I left high school, I have been designing tattoos for other people. It’s completely humbling to know someone trusts my art enough to decide to put it on their skin forever. I take commissions through my website so I’m continuously designing new tattoos for people.”
Into Chella Man’s tattoo designs? Then you’ll definitely love his collection of Inkbox semi-permanent tattoos, available here.
On his journey as an artist: “I’ve always wanted to be an artist. I want to say I started practicing art as soon as I could hold a pencil. I started by doing silly animal doodles and junk sculptures from scraps I found lying around the house. But, my art has now evolved into more of a social or political statement. I pull inspiration from my own life experiences and the experiences of others. In situations when others feel unequal or mistreated, I create art to emphasize that emotion. To step into another’s shoes for a moment can change the way someone lives in a positive manner, so I try to create art that expresses the emotions one could have if placed in a certain situation.”
On his advice for anyone interested in getting their first tattoo: “Make it count. Have it mean something deep to you.”
On deciding not to get any more tattoos: “I know they’re not tattoos in the traditional sense, but I consider my top-surgery scars tattoos, too. They’re art on my body, and they’re the last tattoos I will ever get. I made the choice to get them just as one would make the choice to get a normal tattoo. My scars feel final to me. They’re part of me. Thanks to them, I am complete.”