Local tattoo apprentice Sai Li draws inspiration from traditional Chinese art
Sai Li wanted to get her first tattoo when she was 15, but her parents wouldn’t let her. Born in Dongbei, the northeast region of China, Li immigrated to Montreal when she was 21. She is now a tattoo artist.
Li’s work is heavily inspired by traditional Chinese art, which sets her apart from other artists in Montreal’s tattoo scene. To add to her knowledge in digital drawing, Li paid a tattoo artist working at Lili Tattoo Studio in China to teach her how to use the needling machines. She would arrive at the shop everyday at 9 a.m. and stay until 9 p.m. At home, she would practice tattooing on artificial skin using a very heavy needling machine, which helped her learn the craft quickly.
In 2012, Li graduated from the Communication University of China, Nanjing with a bachelor of plastic arts and a major in 2D animation for video games. Following her move to Canada, Li graduated from the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue in 2015 with a degree in creation and new media. Li didn’t like computer animation, so she decided to follow another career path. After earning her second degree, Li opened a Chinese restaurant with a friend, but started drawing tattoo designs for clients in her spare time. She said she has always admired the artistry behind tattooing and wanted to find a lifelong career that would allow her to grow as a visual artist.
Li was in China from January to April this year, and had the opportunity to tattoo people after just one month of apprenticing at Lili, which is quick in this industry. In Canada, apprentices must wait a minimum of two years before they are allowed to tattoo clients. Her teacher allowed her to tattoo five clients for free, and she began with lettering. According to Li, cursive writing is more difficult to tattoo than it appears, because the needle has to move in one continuous line. When asked about the tattoo artists who inspire her, Li said she admires the work of an artist named Chen Jie (@chenjie.newtattoo) from Beijing, China. “Her work looks like watercolour traditional paintings on skin,” Li said. “I want to represent traditional Chinese culture in my tattoo style and show it in a unique way.”
After her apprenticeship in China, Li returned to Montreal. She spent months emailing tattoo shops and looking for an apprenticeship in the city. One day, she was walking on Ste-Catherine Street when she discovered the Slick Styled Steel tattoo parlour. She decided to go in and ask if they were hiring. She has been an apprentice at Slick’s for six months now.
Li said she has had many clients ask for tattoos of a Japanese mask without knowing the cultural meaning of the symbol. The mask, called Onryo, represents a girl who died from jealousy and turned into a ghost. Li said she finds it strange that people want this tattooed since the Onryo are vengeful spirits whose souls try to harm humans. In Japanese culture, these ghosts are considered bad luck.
Li creates soft, delicate images of dragons, flowers and calligraphy. She loves the exchange between customers when she draws an image for them and they share secrets with her.
Check out Li’s work on her website or Instagram: @sai_tattoo. To book an appointment with Li, call Slick Styled Steel at 514-842-8999.
Feature photo by Mackenzie Lad