Art is a reminder that there is more to life than a mere colored canvas or a bedazzled piece of cloth. It reminds us, directly or indirectly, that life is anything but simple or empty. Art encourages us to sense something we can’t see and to understand something we can’t explain. To some, one can only and truly feel art when you step in a little closer and listen to what it’s trying to tell you. It’s a two-way street though. And more often than not, it requires faith.
But can art be a way to God?
For Vietnamese artist Quyen Dinh, who already knew from the get-go she wanted to be an artist, her love for God is even bigger than her love for her craft. “Turns out that when you use the gifts that God has given you, you are doing His will,” she said.
The self-taught artist describes herself as an all-or-nothing person — you either get all of her or nothing at all. “Being extreme is never a great quality as there is always a large con but, of course, also a large pro,” Quyen said. “This is best exemplified in my relationship with my parents. I have sacrificed my own wants to be closer to my parents. I want to be there for them as they get older. This is definitely a Vietnamese value that is ingrained in me to a fault.”
Quyen was part of the boat people who fled Vietnam during the war. She was a jolly kid growing up. She played with their neighborhood kids, spent the afternoons and weekends on bikes, swimming, playing video games, and doing mall outings. But at a young age, she already knew the value of discipline. “I had a very strict father who put education first,” she said. “So my at-home studying regimen was, in fact, a regimen. I hated it then but now I’m grateful for that tough love as it’s instilled much work ethic into my adult life.”
Fast forward to today, Quyen is a tattoo flash artist based in Orange County, California. She paints tattoo designs but doesn’t actually tattoo people. Although she knows the basics, she prefers to focus on creating the designs for it. Her artworks are widely popular online among body art enthusiasts and tattoo artists alike.
From Star Wars-themed paintings, The Office-inspired artworks, and of course, portraits of Jesus Christ — Quyen does an old school style called the Americana traditional tattoo popularized by the tattooed hero, Norman Collins aka Sailor Jerry.
If you’re not familiar, the Americana traditional tattoos are highly saturated, with outlines bold and black meant to look like a drawing and colors generously applied on the skin. Usually, the motifs include skulls, snakes, ships, eagles, and hearts. That’s the inspiration behind Quyen’s tattoo flash paintings.
Apart from that, the 44-year-old artist also does toymaking. Her toy sculptures include any pop-culture sculpture idea you can think of — superheroes, robots, clowns. Every piece shows the touch of the Americana traditional style. With the style she’s known for, Quyen doesn’t shy away from producing nude sculptures and paintings.
On the first day of Women’s Month, Vietcetera celebrates women and their contributions to the world. We met with Quyen Dinh as she talked about her journey as an artist, how her Vietnamese heritage pushes her to excel, and her thoughts on art censorship.
You’re a self-taught artist and studied film at USC. How did you get into the tattoo world?
My career trajectory was never planned. I was just a lover of tattoos and took a much-needed break from painting my pop-surrealist collection to make some tattoo designs for myself. I post it online because, why not? Turns out, it was a move that would change my future completely.
Which came first — your passion for tattoo art or toy figurine making? How do you manage your time doing both?
I don’t think one necessarily came before the other as I was interested in both things as a child…. tattoos and sculpture, that is. Time management is one of the biggest challenges. I did have to “sort of retire” from 2D art in order to have the time for toymaking.
How would you describe your personal artistic style?
Although I may be known for certain styles, I really don’t have one as I love all kinds of styles and had always created art in many styles as well as in many types of mediums. I started out drawing realistic charcoal portraits as a kid and up until my college years. I never thought I could be good with color or non-hyper-realistic art.
You mentioned in your profile online that you’re part of the boat people refugee generation. Did that, in any way, influence your way of expressing art?
My background and culture have influenced my work in the sense that I work hard. We came from a war-ridden country that lacked opportunity in general, let alone opportunities for artists. So growing up, my parents had always told me that all it takes to be successful in America is to work hard. As an adult, I realized that may be only partially true. It’s not just about working hard, it’s also working smart.
Do you have a network of other artists and how do you support each other?
I always had creative friends around me whether it be in fashion, film, or hair, but I never had a true art buddy that came over for productive art nights. I’m happy to say at the age of 44, I do have a few artist friends now and it’s been a blast. We offer advice, constructive criticism, and just emotional support in general.
Tell us about your process.
The steps for any project, in this order, are: Brainstorming, gathering reference photos based on ideas, and creating the piece using reference photos. In 2D work, I do create a “sketch.” Whereas, I just jump into sculpting without a “sketch.”
How do you price your work?
I think of the price and then double it because I often sell myself short.
What are your thoughts about art censorship and how does it affect you as an artist?
I think when it comes to art unless it’s hateful or completely debases, if you don’t like it, just don’t look. Nudity that is not pornographic in art should not be censored. I think it affects me enough as my work takes me a long time to create and only a few seconds to be deleted. It’s truly frustrating. Good thing it’s only been a couple of pieces as my art doesn’t often offend anyone.
What’s in the pipeline that you’re really excited about?
Well, I’m currently participating in an art contest so that would be truly exciting to win the competition. I’m just excited about the future in general. I always have a ton of ideas to execute but I like the unplanned surprises that the future holds.