Queer Abstractions: An Interview with Sydney Hunter Kleinrock, Brooklyn-based painter and tattoo artist

Designed by Zawar Ahmed

“A body is always twisting and changing form, and looking at it from different angles, you see different things, and there are some shapes that really don’t work with that. I try to think about forms that play with the natural curves of the body as opposed to cutting them off.” 

Sydney Hunter Kleinrock (she/they) is a queer painter and tattoo artist living and working in Brooklyn. A former fashion school student, they incorporate textiles into their practice, exploring the overlap between the numerous mediums. Much of her art delves into the expansive nuance of queer relationships and scenes of everyday life, drawn out through abstract representation. In this interview, we discuss their experimental artistic crafts, composing work for the evolving body, and queerness as a foundation for life and art. 

Cathryn Seibert: How did you get interested in tattooing or start tattooing? And how much do you tattoo? 

Sydney Hunter Kleinrock: Well, I got interested in tattooing because I wanted more tattoos and I thought I would be able to give them to myself. At the time, I wasn’t making a lot of money and [tattoos are] pretty expensive. I was like, “This would be great if I could do it on myself, then I wouldn’t have to go to shops.” And there were a couple drawings that I wanted to get tattooed of mine, and it feels weird to go to a shop and be like, “Tattoo my drawing on me.” Also, my friend Ella was a tattooer at the time—still is. They kind of pushed me to begin and they showed me the ropes. They told me about keeping things hygienic, and I really enjoyed the process. And then my friends wanted tattoos, and people that weren’t my friends wanted tattoos. It kind of just spiraled out from there. And I tattoo three days a week and it’s my full-time job and I love it. 

CS: What sort of resources did you use to get into tattooing?

SHK: When I initially got tattooed, before I started [my own tattoo practice], I subconsciously picked things up that I didn’t plan on picking up. There were a lot of things about the booking process and making my client feel comfortable, but I kind of took what I liked and didn’t like, and tattoos from sessions [I’ve had], and I would ask questions before I was tattooing, just out of curiosity when I was getting tattooed. And I remember that stuff. I feel like Ella helped me a lot with the logistical stuff. And then afterwards, there is a book by Tamara Santibañez, Tattooing as Liberation Work. I read like seventy-five percent of that. And that was super helpful in terms of learning about consent and trauma-informed tattooing. And then for the actual tattooing, it was really just trial and error and tattooing people, tattooing myself. 

CS: Could you share about your other art practices, how you got started with those, and how they connect to your tattooing? thank 

SHK: I’ve been painting since high school on and off. I kind of dabble in all the different, at least 2D art forms, of painting, sometimes printmaking, drawing, obviously. And then sometimes I do textile work along with my paintings. I went to fashion school, and so that’s where the textile comes in. I feel like the two practices talk to each other. Sometimes I’ll be focused on a subject or theme and maybe I’ll paint, and then I’ll see how it translates into a drawing that can be tattooed. Or I’ll draw something that can be tattooed and be like, “Oh, what would this look like in a painting form?” I actually did a tattoo recently of these drawings of little faces. And I tattooed [that]  and I was like, “Oh, that would be really interesting, like in a painting.” So now I’m working on this painting where I’m doing faces on it.

But yeah, they kind of work with each other. I’m trying to get them to see that more. But sometimes they do, and then sometimes I am just sitting down and drawing flash specifically for tattooing. I’ve always had a consistent drawing practice, and it felt like it really naturally just led into drawings for tattoos. I do a lot of drawings that are kind of, I don’t even know how to describe them… I’m so bad at talking about art. I can make the art but then I can’t talk about it. I guess [I approach flash drawing by taking] a whole kind of scene, and then I pick out things that would be nice and break them up into flash. And I feel like that is probably the most natural way of going about things for me. I just had a show of paintings in Western Mass., alongside my tattooing practice. I love oil painting, which is funny. It’s nice to work with both sides of the brain. Tattooing is very precise, especially handpoked, like dot by dot, and then oil painting is just like, ahhh.

CS: I’m curious about how you draw for the skin or body as the space that you’re doing your work on. How would you say that differs? I know you’re talking about it being very precise, but is there some kind of process you go through of being like, “Oh, this just really wouldn’t work how I envision it?” Or how do you adapt things?

SHK: I started thinking more about shapes like, “What would look good on a body from afar?” Because there’s definitely some drawings that are super cool and interesting, but… A body is always twisting and changing form, and looking at it from different angles, you see different things, and there are some shapes that really don’t work with that. I try to think about forms that play with the natural curves of the body as opposed to cutting them off. And I can usually tell when a drawing does that. I think it’s also helpful to look at other tattoos, other drawings to see what you like, what you don’t like. And then sometimes I’ll want to draw a tattoo for a specific body part. So like a hand or a sternum. And then think, “Okay, that would be kind of a triangular shape,” and then start with that and see where that leads. And always just trying to keep a sense of balance and composition throughout. 

CS: My next question is about your tattooing and art and queerness, and I have yet to really establish a very specific question about this because I feel like it’s so variant per person and situation. Do you find a link between these things? How does [queerness] manifest in your work or your process?

SHK: I feel like it’s the kind of thing where like, I’m queer, so I feel like that automatically is a part of it regardless. In some of my art there’s a lot of relational themes, and sometimes romance and partnership. And as a queer person, it’s going to be represented in a queer way, at least some of the time. And so I mean, there is that kind of surface level aspect to it, but I do feel like using queerness as a way to describe things not being so black and white or being seen from an alternative lens or perspective. I feel like that can be a way to describe my art and how I see the world and how it translates into my work, which I feel like is a little bit harder to describe, but I hope is conveyed.

And I also think just within tattooing, specifically the way that I try to create a space for my clients where they can feel like they’re welcome, they’re able to be themselves in whatever gender expression or sexual orientation that takes. And prioritizing consent, although I don’t think that’s [exclusively] a queer thing. And you know, creating a space for bodies or skin tones that aren’t necessarily welcome in a lot of traditional tattoo shops. Which, again, isn’t explicitly a queer thing, but I do think it is related somehow adjacently. 

CS: I am interested in what you were saying about the themes of your artwork, like partnership and romance. Could you talk any more about that or generally where you get your inspiration from? 

SHK: I feel like the last series of paintings I did wasn’t necessarily focused on that. So I’m like, kind of out of that headspace. It was interesting because the last person I dated was a trans man, [and I would] paint him a lot. And although it didn’t actually look queer on the outside because I was painting a man, our relationship was very queer. He identified as agender and I think it’s more personal than anything. But he was a big inspiration for me. I feel like I worked through a lot of our relationship things through painting at the time, whether positive or negative. And we had a pretty complicated relationship, and the paintings that revolve around him or our relationship were obviously queer.

I guess the pomegranate painting and the corn painting that I did [were also queer]. There’s like lots of silhouettes of people interacting and scenes of life. And I feel like when I painted those was the time where I was in pretty deep isolation, and it was kind of just imagining different scenarios and daydreaming about living life, and it always is just something that I focus on, so it comes up in my work. I just really like the interaction between two humans and the different silhouettes that it can create. And so that’s something that interests me. I feel like it’s a very easy access point for displaying connection, as well as something that can easily be abstracted, which is a place where I like to play around with things that can be identified and things that can’t. I’m trying to merge those things all the time. That’s kind of where I’m always headed. Sometimes. Always, sometimes. Taking recognizable things and distorting them a little bit. 

CS: What challenges have you faced when you have been tattooing, or in your artistic practice generally? 

SHK: I would say the biggest difference between my artistic practice and tattooing is I usually approach art with a very firm sense of, it’s good to make bad art. It’s really awesome to not know what you’re doing, like, “Explore, experiment. Nothing matters, blah blah blah. I never know what I’m doing.” And that was my initial attitude, and that is not what someone wants to hear when they’re being tattooed. And really just learning how to be confident, how to be sure of myself, and although I’m confident in my art, I’m confident in this way where I’m fine with the outcome being whatever it is and it’s not attached to my ego, but when I’m dealing with putting something on another person that lasts forever… Essentially, you have to think that it’s going to come out good, believe 100 percent, that it’s going to come out good and the other person has that trust in you that it’s going to come out good.

I think time management with tattooing [is another challenge.] It was okay in Western Mass. because I would take one appointment a day, but in New York, I take three appointments a day, and it’s really difficult to know how long a tattoo is going to take. Learning how to talk to all different kinds of people, I feel like I’ve become a much better conversationalist. I used to be very bad at small talk and now I have a list of questions that I can ask, which has been really helpful during tattooing and outside of tattooing. And also, learning to be more assertive and more opinionated — obviously balanced with making sure the person knows that they’re in complete control of what happens — but sometimes there is such a thing as too much choice, and it does help if you give a little bit of input. I used to shy away from that a lot, but recognizing that, “Oh, I am an artist, I do see things that people don’t see, I can give you suggestions that would be helpful as opposed to thinking that we’re all on an even playing field.” So that has been something that I’ve learned. And also just dealing with different skin types. I’m working with color right now. That’s a big challenge. A color on a bottle does not translate to a color on skin, and once it’s in there, it’s in there. So that’s definitely a humbling one. 

CS: Do you find a division between your work for other people, [between] tattooing and your painting? You’re talking about this personal relationship with your partner that was being shown through your painting. That’s kind of a reflective practice versus tattooing, [which seems like] something that’s for consumption to be shared. Would you say both are vulnerable? 

SHK: Yeah, I mean, I think they both are vulnerable. I just don’t necessarily share what [the vulnerable part] is. I mean, a lot of my flash is things from my thoughts or feelings or moments I’ve had in real life, and people don’t necessarily know that because I don’t share it. It’s kind of like when you hear a love song, you just relate it to whatever you’re experiencing, even though it’s actually about the writer’s relationship. Or maybe it’s not, maybe they just wrote it for the general public. Like, I think my flash definitely exists in both of those realms. Like, I’ll be thinking about something personal and then I’ll draw it and then someone gets it tattooed. I’m like, “Well, I’m tattooing them.” I’m not like, “This is a drawing of me and my ex.” It’s just a silhouette of two humans, you know? And I feel like me sharing that –– it doesn’t really need to be said because although it came from a personal place, I’m putting it out there as art that can be interpreted how the person wants to interpret it, and if this person feels a connection with it, I feel like the original meaning isn’t that important.

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.

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