Discovering tattooing in the early 70’s and embarking on a traditional apprenticeship, a rarity for women at the time, Vyvyn Lazonga became one of the first women in tattoo history to open her own custom studio. She has continually strived to elevate tattooing to a higher level of artistry, her custom works inspired by ‘elements of the natural world, cultural motifs, the spiritual and the sublime’.
What was your first encounter with tattooing?
I had never seen any large pieces of work, or things that were very artistic; I thought of tattoos as blueish black shapes. But one day, I saw this really great artwork in a men’s magazine – it was an article about Cliff Raven. A lightbulb went off in my head. I discovered a local tattoo shop, and I got my first tattoo. All they had were traditional designs – there weren’t too many choices. I wound up getting a skull with bat wings on my arm.
When I would catch the bus, the tough kids thought they could pick a fight with me because of my tattoo. I learned right away just to cover that tattoo over.
By the end of that summer, I found out that a shop had opened. I rushed down to see if I could be a helper-outer, and the studio owner, Danny Danzl, accepted. It was just me and Danny; with him being an older gentleman and me being a naïve little thing, we were quite the pair!
Can you recall the first time you made a tattoo? What was the experience like?
My first tattoo I did was a star and crescent moon on my thigh. It was simple but symbolic for me, and I couldn’t mess it up too badly. My hand was shaking, it was scary, but I did it. Danny went away and left me to do my first tattoo, then came back a little later. He was patient and kind, and I will always have fond memories of him.
You entered the industry at a time when there were very few women in tattooing. Did you feel you had to break down any barriers?
When I was working under Danny, I was pretty well protected; it wasn’t until I went out on my own that I realised how protected I’d been. But in that era, there was no real community or communication between tattooers. I was like a social outcast – I wasn’t really looked upon. I didn’t care about any of that.
It was a slow progression watching the industry grow but especially for women. Back then it was the time of the women’s movement, and the Black Panthers, black rights, the Students for a Democratic Society – so many new things being born socially. Women were an anomaly because traditionally the industry was mostly male.
It’s been a long hard road for women, but at least today things are not so difficult. I was heavily tattooed in the mid 1970’s and won a National contest which I feel put tattooing on the map for women. At this time, being a heavily tattooed woman was intense. People seemed to be polarized about seeing me – I got a real education about society’s double standard. Sometimes I was asked to leave the restaurant I had just entered, because I guess they were just so freaked out.
Who were your peers? Did you look up to any other women in the industry?
It was a different era back then; it almost feels like the horse and buggy days compared to how all of us communicate today. The only way we would hear about other tattooers was through word of mouth. Everything we did back in the day we really worked hard for, from machine maintenance and building, to creating new designs. Most of the “flash” was drawn up by hand and painted with watercolours by the tattooist, and of course most tattooers had their signature style. Once you got to know another tattooer, if you were lucky you could trade flash and share photos via mail.
I didn’t know about any other female tattooers, except Bev Robinson from Australia. My mentor would correspond with Danny Robinson, Bev’s husband. I think the first time I heard of another female tattooer was about 9 years after I was already tattooing, and her name was Maryjane Haake from Portland, Oregon. Later still, I got to meet Suzanne Fauzer, Patty Kelly and Winona Martin on the Queen Mary at Ed Hardy’s Tattoo Event. I didn’t even hear of Kate Hellenbrand until about 15 years after I started out – we were like the grandmothers of tattooing!
You attended the final National Tattoo Association expo, the first of which took place in 1979; what was special to you about these early tattoo shows?
It was cathartic for me. I don’t even know if I can explain how it felt watching an industry iconic convention just fade away. It was a special formula that they created; social, family-oriented, and inclusive. National was truly a gem in the analog of tattoo history.
When did you open your first shop?
It was 1979. It was the first time anyone had taken tattooing off the Skid Road. It was in a nice, hip neighbourhood. I learned a lot from having that shop – it was hard. Because of the way I was raised and my era, and my artwork – all of it – it was always hard for me to find where my tattoo tribe was, to feel connected. In the beginning, I didn’t have anyone I could hire – that was almost impossible. It was much harder for me than it would have been for a guy. I always had the attitude of, ‘I’m just gonna do it, no matter if I have any help or not!’. Now I realise that a lot of that was from the early days of the women’s movement where they felt they had to do everything and do it better to prove that they were as good as men. After decades of doing this I realised I was doing the impossible. You can’t do it alone. But in the early days, I didn’t have any choice, and that was the hard part.
Which artists or art movements influenced your tattooing?
I always pushed the boundaries of tattoo art. I used to look at everything, because we didn’t have the internet back then – I would go to bookstores, to the library, to the art museum. It was like a treasure hunt! I was inspired by the constructivist era, art from the early 1900’s and Eastern European art movements. It was a real education for me.
I was so driven, just had to do it no matter what. I did learn old school stuff from my teacher Danny, but a lot of stuff I learnt, I had to unlearn. With me being ambitious and driven with what I wanted to do, I learned a lot of new things too, that were outside of that realm.
When did you consciously make the shift from tattooing flash to creating your own larger scale works?
I think even before I was ready to do large body work I was inspired about how designs could look framing the human anatomy. One of my first large pieces was done on a friend of mine in 1979, wings on the back, with no black outline. It worked because the design was large and graphic enough. I’ve tried some things on myself with no black outline and totally messed it up; I learned from my mistakes right away. I would work on large pieces at home and still put in my time at the shop doing walk-ins. I am so grateful that I got this education and I think every aspiring tattooer should have this kind of foundation. Personally, I don’t feel that I was a proficient tattooer until 20 years had passed, but I’m constantly questioning my art; not that I feel incompetent but because I’m always critiquing my own work. Everyone wants to do custom work nowadays, but I think they need to put in their time with learning and honing their skills by repetition.
What are your thoughts on modern tattooing? Where do you see tattooing 50 years from now?
Nowadays “you’re only limited by your imagination”, and it’s very exciting to see all of these great artists, especially some of that technical, digital art from eastern Europe. I don’t know where I see tattooing in another 50 years considering the state of everything in the world and artificial intelligence… I don’t think that AI will be able to do what we do, though. In the future I see tattooing becoming more intentional, sacred, because the more we become automized and the more we debase the earth, the more we will value the earth, our bodies, and become a kinder more evolved species.