An Interview with SESH, DIY Tattooer, Yale Med Student, and Comics Artist
Cathryn Seibert, JE ‘22
This past September, comics artist SESH (she/they) completed their first stick-and-poke tattoo, a culmination of encounters with needles through in-class IV placements and their life-long artistic practice. “Once I started doing it, I was just kind of hooked and it was something that I wanted to get better at and keep working with,” they explained. Apart from their tattoo work, SESH is a Yale Medical School student and Harvard grad pursuing a clinical psychiatry practice, and she has extended her time in med school to work on a graphic novel. In this interview, SESH and I explore the link between graphic art and tattooing, as well as medicine and the body, and discuss how queerness relates to self and (im)permanence.
Cathryn Seibert: How did you get interested in tattooing?
SESH: I’ve been interested in it as an art form for a really long time, but I didn’t think of it as something that I might want to get into until I was in medical school and I was doing a lot of different things with, and to, bodies that I had not done before. During my surgical rotation, it was a lot of drawing blood and placing IVs, cutting people open and sewing people shut. And that got me thinking, I’ve been “drawing” forever. I feel pretty confident as an artist, and as I gained even more confidence using needles more generally and with sterile procedure and cleaning procedures, I thought [tattooing] was something that I should try. In med school, we actually learn to place IVs by practicing on each other. So my friend Callie and I were practicing placing IVs on one another, and it went pretty well for both of us. So (I had never gotten piercings or anything, which is a whole other story) I was like, “Oh, I want you to do my first piercings.” And she asked me to do a tattoo for her, so I did my very first stick-and-poke on her back in September. Once I started doing it, I was hooked, and it was something that I wanted to get better at and keep working with.
CS: That’s really cool. Have you mostly been tattooing your friends, or how much have you been doing?
SESH: Today I gave my lucky number thirteen. Wow. Yeah. So I think I tattooed probably nine friends before I even tattooed myself. I didn’t have any tattoos starting out in this at all. I just had a lot of friends who were really trusting, and were sort of like, “Well, we know your art, and we know you’re a good medical student.” So I did their tattoos. A friend of mine died in late January, and I did my first one on myself immediately after I heard. Now, I’m kind of addicted to doing it on myself. As I’ve done it on more and more friends and started posting it on Instagram and stuff, I’ve started doing it on strangers or people I don’t know very well.
Last weekend, I did a zine fair for the first time, so I was going and promoting my comics, and I made sure to put on my little sign that I was learning to tattoo. So I had a lot of interest coming from that as well. I’m hoping I’ll get to tattoo some more people through that.
CS: That’s so interesting how you got into tattooing by thinking of the needle as this tool that can be used in many ways. Would you say it was an emotional thing that made you tattoo yourself for the first time? Was that the first tattoo you’ve ever gotten, the one you gave to yourself?
SESH: Yeah, yeah, it was. I think part of the reason why I hadn’t gotten them in the past was just that I am kind of an indecisive person, and the idea of permanence freaks me out a little bit. And after he died—I shared a lot of love for punk and DIY culture with him. He had a stick-and-poke that was done by Ke$ha on his ass. It felt like a natural way to honor him. And I was also thinking a lot about what permanence really means and how it’s an illusion most of the time, and that I shouldn’t be so hung up about it, probably.
To build off of what you’re saying about using a needle as a tool, I mean, this is actually something that I talked about with my therapist last week. I’m going into psychiatry after medical school and I’m really interested in sensory grounding as a tool in psychiatry. And I think tattooing is one thing that a lot of people gravitate towards after major life experiences. [Tattoos are] a way to sit with and commemorate something that’s happened, and I’m interested in the way that physical sensation might tie into that. There’s also a lot of acupunctural techniques that are being used in psychiatry more and more, and I really want to get into that and start learning that as well, as sort of an extension of my practice.
CS: What kind of resources have you used to get into tattooing? I know you said that you learned a lot about sterile practice from medical school.
SESH: In terms of the sterile practice side of things that was pretty much covered by school. I think one of the hardest things for me to get used to—when I was on my surgical rotations and in the O.R. [operating room], everything is draped. You’re only allowed to touch stuff that’s blue. Your hands have to stay between your nipples and your belly button at all times, or else they’re contaminated. So even just raising your hand too high or too low, they kick you out of the O.R. and make you go change and wash your hands again. It’s this whole ritual song and dance. I’m nowhere near that intense when I’m tattooing people, obviously—it’s not even technically sterile—but I try to take a lot of what I’ve learned from sterile procedures when I’m tattooing somebody.
In terms of actually learning tattooing techniques, I think that the most valuable resource for me has actually been the stick-and-poke subreddit. I would Google, “How do I get my lines to be cleaner?” or tips for shading—stuff like that. And that’s where I found a lot of good advice. I didn’t really realize how much you had to stretch the skin in order to get clean lines until I read about that online. And then following artists on Instagram has been really interesting, too. A lot of people post little clips of them working, so, that’s useful for seeing the angle that they’re poking and the pace that they’re going at, and getting ideas and trying to figure out how they make something look a certain way.
CS: I’m interested in how [your work with comics] blends with your tattooing, or the overlap between those two.
SESH: As I said, I ended up tattooing a lot of friends when I really didn’t have much tattooing experience at all, so they were sort of all going off of my art style, which has mostly been comics for the past ten years. So I think a lot of them wanted something that looked like my kind of comic style. Going into it, I was sort of like, “Oh, look, I don’t know what my tattooing style is going to be like.” In hindsight, it feels pretty obvious that it would kind of cleanly make the jump from my comics work. I would describe it as—not loose, but definitely off-the-cuff and stylized black-and-white, wonky geometry sometimes, but predominantly representational.
I think because I’ve been doing comics for so long, I’ve gotten really comfortable with not taking my artwork too seriously. I don’t spend too much time on any of the individual drawings. I tend to think that stronger work comes out of being loose and generating a lot and then just seeing what of the stuff you actually like. I think in addition to that, it’s gotten me comfortable with drawing in a lot of different styles and experimenting with different types of shading. I’ve done a ton of stippling in my cartoon work, too. So I’m used to the process of really slowly working with dots and constructing something out of dots. And that’s a baseline that I don’t think I could do the work that I’ve been doing without.
CS: I was thinking, translating this graphic comic style you have over to the tattoo work on the skin, it’s very similar in the construction or the process.
SESH: I’ve done a lot of comic books in my life. I’ve done a lot of animation in my life, and both of those things feel similar to tattooing to me in that they’re really drawn-out processes and you have to focus in on tiny details for a long period of time, as opposed to when I paint, it’s very fast and loose. It’s usually over very fast.
CS: I’m also thinking about, generally, your artistic practice. When did that get started, and then how did you decide you wanted to go to medical school and get into psychiatry?
SESH: I’ve been drawing for as long as I can remember. When I went to college, I thought initially that I was going to do a studio art major or minor. I didn’t feel like the courses were helping me as an artist beyond just giving me projects to do and reasons to make stuff. I wanted something more, and ended up getting involved with two magazines on campus, the Harvard Lampoon and Harvard Advocate. I ended up doing a lot of design work for the Advocate, but I focused a lot of my energy on getting on to the Lampoon‘s Art Board. It’s a comedy magazine. Their audition process is notoriously challenging. I would go to the Lampoon for office hours twice a week and bring in comics and illustrations that I’d been working on. I’d show them to people, older students who were on the Art Board, and that’s where I found the critiques that I wanted that helped me really learn how to cartoon and do comic illustrations. I got to work with some really, really incredible artists through that, who have still been really helpful taking my work from being student-level to being professional-level. Through that process, I ended up building a lot of the skills and language associated with writing comics. So I started trying to write my own more serious comics, autobiographical stuff based on my experiences with panic disorder. I realized that that was something that I felt really well-suited to and that I wanted to continue to get better at.
During that time, I was frustrated with the arts courses at Harvard and found myself missing science. I felt like I really needed them both in order to have variety in my life. I wanted to be learning interesting things that could inspire what I was drawing. A lot of my work has been about illness, and I think that that’s something that’s always been really interesting to me—specifically psychiatric illness, but other sorts of things, too. Later in college, I decided that I wanted to do something clinical, related to psychiatry or psychology. Actually, this is kind of relevant to tattooing: I decided to do med school instead of clinical psychology after I got a really bad steam burn on my hand and was watching it heal. I was doing a lot of reading about wound healing. I realized that I wasn’t at all squeamish about stuff like that, and actually found it really cool. That’s the fun thing about tattooing. Bringing the two together, it’s both the artistic side and, especially as I’ve been beginning to tattoo myself and really watching the healing process up close, the opportunity to learn a lot more about how tattoos actually work in the body and integrate them with my dermatology and immunology knowledge from school. It feels like a really cool way of bringing my two worlds together.
CS: I would ask you more about it, but I feel like it’s just a lot of things I would not understand.
SESH: I was telling the person that I was tattooing today that I want to do a zine that’s about the history of tattooing, but also goes into the science a little bit and hopefully makes it understandable for people that don’t have a science background. So stay tuned.
CS: That’s so cool, just thinking about this transformation of this wound to its being healed.
SESH: The book that I’m writing right now is about intergenerational stories and healing and culpability. Right now, the way that I have it currently written, the last scene is me tattooing myself. There’s a scene early in the book where my grandfather copies down a version of Raphael’s Madonna, but forgets the little angels at the bottom. And so that was one of the tattoos that I’ve done on myself, those angels. I think a lot about how the process of healing itself is what makes a tattoo permanent, that that’s what actually integrates it into your body, and the poetic implications of that.
CS: You said you were recently discovering your own queerness. I think of my own relationship to my gender, and the type of art that I like to do or engage with, as exploratory or experimental. How do you kind of see your queerness as tied to your art or, to tattooing, too, as this affirming practice?
SESH: It’s been interesting for me to consider tattooing through that lens. I got my first piercing last June, and I did my first tattoo [on myself] this January, as a twenty-seven-year-old person. My own queerness is something that I’ve been aware of at least since middle school. I’ve always felt a little bit weird expressing it on my body, even through haircuts and piercings and jewelry and stuff like that. I think part of it has to do with the fact that I am a pretty straight-presenting bisexual woman who mostly dates men. I think that has something to do with it; it’s always a little bit off for me to dress the way that a lot of people that read as visibly queer do. I do dress very loud, and I’ve gotten into doing louder makeup. But it’s always stuff that feels like me, rather than a marker of identity or a marker of group membership. Gender is something I’m still figuring out. I think about it a lot. I feel pretty confident in my own views of gender and in my own gender. A lot of those views are tied to a sense of fluidity, and I think for that reason, I’ve always felt hesitant to commit to any given identity. That relates to how hesitant I’ve been to do body mods previously in my life. If I can’t decide what gender I feel like I am, how can I decide to put something permanently on my body? And vice-versa? I want to find resolution in my own mind before I express myself in a specific way. It’s all really tied up in body modification to me, my own resistance to being decisively declarative. “I don’t want to have a pierced ear because then I’m going to have a pierced ear forever.” At the same time, for a while it was part of my identity that I didn’t have any piercings or tattoos or anything like that. So that definitely feels significant as well: now that I’m actually doing it, maybe I’m entering a new phase.
This interview is part of my Center for Collaborative Arts and Media Studio Fellowship, during which I am exploring the interdisciplinary creative practices of queer tattoo artists.