Not only chefs openly display their love for citrus fruits
When I decided to get my first tattoo in the fall of 2020, I didn’t hesitate: I knew it would bear fruit. A peeled tangerine, a lemon cut in half, and two small, fat figs, all crammed into an eight-centimeter still life. It was Caravaggio meets stick-and-poke, a composition that sounds utterly unique – until you look at the crowds at the Fort Greene farmers’ market or a lively pop-up in LA. dumplings sprinkle the forearms; Mushrooms sprout from his knees. It’s always citrus season on my skin and the skin of many others.
In the early 2000s, tattoos were an obvious symbol of the chef — especially food tattoos. You know the vibe: full sleeves filled with custom-made measuring cups, a long stalk of gnarled Brussels sprouts, maybe a sketch of how to butcher a pig. Part of the stereotype stems from chefs’ early adoption of tattoos, an affinity nurtured by the restaurant industry’s countercultural mentality and lack of corporate culture. Just as chefs captured the public imagination, so too did their tattoos capture the public’s attention. Anthony Bourdain began collecting his books after the publication of kitchen confidential and lasted until his death, in turn sparked a wave of commemorative tattoos.
Still lifes of pierced Swiss cheese chunks, crusty baguettes, and gin doused martini glasses are just one example of a burgeoning new school of tattooing that’s expanding the definition of “food people” and “tattoo people.” From fine renderings of chanterelles to technicolor Jell-O shapes to a full miniature cover of The Noma Guide to Fermentation (a real thing), a wave of tattoo artists and clients is expanding the meaning, aesthetic, and demographics of “food tattoos.”
“It’s always citrus season on my skin and the skin of many others.”
In the Instagram ecosystem, where artists can attract customers and spark desire for new flash tattoos, followers are built through the intersection of style and theme. It’s possible to build a customer base just by specializing in fruit and veg or cakes, I’ve found Kelli Kikcio. The Brooklyn-based machine-free tattoo artist began offering still lifes as part of her Flash (the book of designs currently available for tattoo, sometimes in very limited quantities) about six years ago.
Initially, she staged and photographed the still lifes herself at home, even working with a food stylist to arrange dishes and foods such as plump grapes and glasses of bubbly. Customers then began swapping apples for lemons around it, making adjustments that reflected their personal connection to food. Today, Kikcio is one of several machine-free artists offering still lifes, valued for their hyper-realistic compositions and delicate lines. “The cool thing about the correlation between food and art is that “You don’t have to love a lemon to get a lemon tattoo” Kikcio says. “You can like how its shape fits a part of your body and you can give it any meaning you want. I think the still life genre has grown so much and is accepted by so many artists and clients because it is so closely related to emotion and memory.”
While some of Kikcio’s clients, like me, are chefs, farmers, and food writers, others are teachers, social workers, and artists. “It’s not the same as it used to be, when I threw a giant turnip on my arm because I was cooking,” she says. “It’s more like, ‘I exist as a human being, and that’s an experience that I enjoy and that’s part of my life.'”
As documented in books such as 2016 knife & ink, Tattoos are an integral part of chefs’ public personas: the flaming wings on Danny Bowien’s forearms, Sean Brock’s colorful group of carrots, Matty Matheson’s entire body. In 2020, chef Ana Roš and the staff of her restaurant Hiša Franko in Kobarid, Slovenia tattooed Michelin stars on their bodies after receiving two from the famous leader. (They left room for a third.) The kitchens are overflowing with ink—but so are they “Tattooed Chef” is the name of a line of frozen plant-based foods such as buffalo cauliflower burgers and cauliflower pizzas.
“I think my largest ‘I’m a chef’ tattoo is a third of an inch; It’s a little whisk to commemorate my James Beard Award,” says Sophia Roe. The Brooklyn-based chef and host of the VICE TV show counter area She got her first tattoo – a full sleeve tattoo – ten years ago. Since then, she’s had more than 40 tattoos, more than a quarter of which are food-related, from a tea bag to a bunch of chive flowers. All are ingredients, none are full dishes. “Food is my whole life, so it makes sense that I often think about getting it tattooed. Why would I want to get a big bunch of grapes tattooed on my body but not a cake tattoo?” says Roe. “I’d rather bake a cake than get a cake tattoo.”
But for others, the cake tattoo industry is booming. Ella Slaw, an artist known for his folk art-inspired Technicolor style, had unclaimed food tattoos in his Flash book for years. “Suddenly everyone wants cake tattoos,” they say. “I wrote one in my book and I know it’s going to hit the ground running.” Sklaw searches for reference images in old Betty Crocker cookbooks, hoping to avoid imitating highly recognizable cakes made by Instagram bakers Gigi’s little kitchen or popular restaurants like Claude. “Some people get them because it’s their birthday, or it can seem like a hoax to the diet industry for obese customers,” they say. “And some people just love cake.”
Sklaw’s first cake tattoo was a towering, very pink, three-tiered confection for Emma Zack, owner of plus-size vintage boutique Berriez. (The store was originally called Fruity Looms until Fruit of the Loom sent out a cease and desist letter). “The central theme is that humans are like fruit: uniquely sweet and desirable in every size, shape and color,” says Zack. The pink cake was a tribute to her beloved vintage kitchen lamp, and while she says it’s the most praised tattoo in her 30+ piece collection, it’s not the only food tattoo.
There’s a wobbly Jell-O mold, a fruit bowl, a milk carton, and a depiction of her Favorite vintage sweater: a design by the Michael Simon brand, embellished with a fruit bikini print. “There’s food art all around me, literally on my home, my clothes and my body,” she says. “I’m a Taurus, and I love food, and obviously there’s a lot of shit involved in being fat and liking food. I’m sure I can go a lot deeper with this, but in the beginning I just love food.”
“I’m sure I can go a lot deeper with this, but at first I just love food.”
Kikcio attributes this interest in part to the shift in stigma in both the food and tattoo industries, which is simultaneously expanding aesthetic demands and consumer demographics. “I think the isolated objects people were tattooing with bold, traditional lines ten years ago were related to the limitations that tattooing was supposed to have at the time,” she says. “Now we’ve changed the technique and can tattoo fine lines and tiny textures. Instead of just throwing a few of your favorite fruits at it, I can create a messy tablescape that looks like your table was abandoned after inviting your four best friends over.”
If magically brought to life, the full breadth of Evelyn Wang’s Flash book could double as a grocery store: plump tomatoes on a stick, a raw egg dripping through its cracked shell, so many dumplings. Her Instagram name, a pseudonym for many artists, is balanced @raw.egg.yolk. Some designs end up with real “food people” — Wang says tattooing a pointillist-style cherry with whipped cream on a baker at Win Son Bakery was a “high profile moment” for her — but for many it is it matters personally.
“Food has always been such an important part of my connection to my Chinese culture, so it was really amazing and intimate to connect with my clients about our shared Asian-American culture in general,” says Wang. “You feel like you’re reclaiming a food that you might not have wanted to identify with before because you were bullied, or you feel disconnected from your culture in general and you can reconnect with it through food — but Jell-O It’s also just like that.” Really cool to look at.” A case of chef’s knives may still indicate professional experience in the kitchen, but for most the realization is clear: we’re all food and tattoo people now.