Visual Biographies: Justine Cho, Tattoo Artist

Alchemy Tattoo Collective is a library of conflicting narratives. Located in the historic Cinderella Building on Cherokee Street, the shop preserves both architectural history and the histories of the clients who enter the well-curated space.  

“A lot of people come in with a story to tell,” Justine Cho explains over the symphonic hum of needles against skin. “Many want to commemorate something—a milestone, something they’ve overcome. Ironically, I feel like getting a tattoo brings about a sense of healing. Even though I’m causing them pain—and, you know, stabbing them—I’m helping them complete a cycle and send a message to the world.”

Cho’s story opens in San Diego. Her education led her up the coast to the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she poured herself into abstract painting and learned how to make messy, expressionist art that was “confined to its moment of creation.” Still, Justine longed to see a style of art unlike anything she had ever appreciated before.

So she decided to create it herself.  

Derived from experimentation and application of the skills she acquired in Santa Cruz, the intricate dot-and-line work Justine originated would serve her in ways she didn’t yet realize. After brief stints as an office worker and the lone barista at a start-up cafe, Cho found herself in Chicago for her husband’s job. It was here that she visited a tattoo exhibit at the Field Museum that “for the first time ever, lit a fire inside” her.  It was here that she fell in love with the history of tattooing; what each design represents.  

“Ironically, I feel like getting a tattoo brings about a sense of healing. Even though I’m causing them pain—and, you know, stabbing them—I’m helping them complete a cycle and send a message to the world.”

I watch Justine trace the outline of a peony across her client’s thigh. Flora and fauna appear consistently across her portfolio, and she frequently takes reference shots and sketches nature’s “intrinsic perfection” while on hikes. Cho’s appreciation for the organic form is reflected in her own body modifications. When I ask her which of her tattoos is her favorite, she gestures to her back with one hand. “I got my first one here. It’s a geometric pattern of diamonds that surround a lotus flower. The lotus represents overcoming trials and suffering, and I return to that mantra throughout life.”

Ink stamps books and bodies with the same level of intention. Justine Cho is both a biographer and the author of her own ever-unfolding narrative.

Words by Kennedy Morganfield
Edited by Haley Harris
Photographed by Noah Trevino

Published in Armour Magazine Issue 23: Armour & Co

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