Missy Rhysing was not exposed to art until she got her first tattoo. She immediately fell in love with the art form, and began working toward becoming an artist; she's now known for her work combining modern and antique imagery in portraits of women. Rhysing is co-owner of Ritual Tattoo & Gallery, which recently opened. Last week we spoke to her husband, Aries Rhysing, who talked about the importance art in their family; this week, Westword caught up with Missy Rhysing, who talked about her introduction to art, the influence of old things in her work and being the co-owner of a shop with Sandi Calistro.
Westword: Where did you interest in art begin?
Missy Rhysing: With tattooing, really. I was not exposed to art at all until I started getting tattooed. My family is not artistic, I don't have any artists in my family. I started getting tattooed by Aries, my husband, and I kind of just fell in love with it. I think it's a really unique art form.
What about tattooing drew you in?
For me, getting tattooed was really personal. The first few things that I started getting were for my son and for my mother-in-law, and just things that I felt inspired by and that aesthetically I found to be really beautiful. I think it's a magical thing. So I got really sucked into it. I started getting tattooed and within a year I wanted to start trying to tattoo. And I had never really drawn anything before in my life, so it was kind of a failure in the beginning. But I just worked really hard at it and I just felt like the experience of getting to tattoo somebody would be such a magical thing.
Is there a point where you make a conscious decision to get tattooed all over and get immersed in the lifestyle, or does it just kind of happen?
When I started getting tattooed I was 23 and I had just had my son. Then I started looking at tattoo magazines and started seeing all these women with crazy tattoos. I was in San Francisco, maybe six months after my son was born, and I saw this girl in a tattoo shop who was covered chin down in traditional Sailor Jerry tattoos. I had never seen anyone like that before. I come from a very suburban, middle-class family, and that woman completely rocked my world. I was like, "I want to do that. I think I want to get really tattooed." And then I got a bunch of bad tattoos. I got a bunch of tattoos that now I'm in the process of covering and lasering, so I really didn't think a lot about it when I started getting tattooed. I probably should have. I try to educate my clients now to not make the mistakes that I made.
You define your style as modern traditional with antique and Victorian references. How did you develop that style?
I really only started doing that four or five years ago. My teachers, my mentors, were super-traditional. I came from a lineage of tattooers who were really deeply rooted in Sailor Jerry, straight-up traditional style. For the first seven or eight years that I was tattooing, I was doing almost strictly black traditional. Honestly, I got bored with it. I love it, still. A lot of times when I get tattooed, that's the style that I get because I love the bold line work and simple shading, and it looks beautiful forever. But when it comes to tattooing, I got bored with it. I started using multiple line weights, doing different subject matter, using palettes that aren't the typical red, gold and black of traditional, and kind of started tweaking what I was doing a little bit. I had guys around me, like Seth Ciferri and Adam Barton, who were, I think, the modern creators of the new traditional style. Those guys were such huge influences on me. They were hanging around my shop a lot when I was coming up in tattooing, so I started following their lead and doing traditional but adding a little something new, a little twist to it.
In the last few years, working in New Mexico, people really weren't into what I was doing. I don't know if it's because they didn't understand it or because the roots in New Mexico are really more of that Hispanic art style, which I love. But I didn't get a chance to do a lot of it there. I was kind of just working on friends and doing things on people that showed some sort of interest. But when I moved here, the tattoo collectors in this town -- there's so many. They're going around from artist to artist, collecting a unique piece from Sandi [Calistro], getting a Japanese piece from Josh [Ford], or whatever. And here, it just kind of started to blow up for me, and I'm really grateful. Continue reading for the rest of the Q&A with Missy Rhysing.
What are some of your artistic influences or things that inspire you?
Anything kind of old, vintage-y kind of stuff, antique jewelry, ladies of any kind. I do a lot of referencing and researching old photos from the turn of the century, late 1800s kind of imagery. Animals influence me a lot. I really believe in the energy of animals. I like symbolism and spiritual meanings in tattoos but I don't like to use straight symbols, like a chaos symbol or a Japanese Kanji or something like that. I rather take, "What does a deer mean to the Lakota people and what does that stand for?" If someone comes in and says, "I want a tattoo that means strength for me, I want the Kanji for strength." I like to take it and maybe make it a little bit more illustrative, think about how we can turn it into a pictorial tattoo rather than just a symbol. I like old things; my house is filled with antiques, old typewriters, trunks. Things like that definitely influence me. And other tattooers. A lot of tattooers in Europe and Australia that are doing sort of a similar style to me are very influential.
Do you think the tattoo industry is male-dominated?
Yeah, absolutely. The first guys that I ever asked to be my mentor told me, "I would never teach a woman how to tattoo. There's something about women, they do not make good tattoo artists." And now you see people like Kat Von D in the media, and I think it's changed the perception. It doesn't have to be a male-dominated craft. I think it still is. I definitely feel that. I feel some weird energy sometimes from old-school dudes in the tattoo community but I don't let it bother me. I think it's definitely not a realistic viewpoint.
How did that affect you as far as getting established in the industry?
I think, if anything, it has actually done me some good. I probably tattoo 90 percent women. Sandi and I both tattoo a lot of ladies. I think they feel comfortable around me and know that I value them. I think lady tattooers also have a unique perspective. Generally, people can look at the lady faces that I do and say, "I can tell this is drawn by a woman, because it looks like a woman." So I think it kind of sets us apart.
When I talked to Sandi in January you guys were finishing up the new shop. How is it going since you opened?
I love it in here. It all came together so organically. We didn't even sit down and sketch out a plan for how things were going to go or what style we wanted. We kind of just both brought our stuff in here and we've slowly been adding antiques and putting up our own artwork. And I love it. I feel like the energy is so good in here. All of our clients love it. It feels like a tattoo shop, but it doesn't really. A lot of people say it feels like a boutique or a gallery.
How was the transition from being an artist at Kaze to be being an artist and co-owner here at Ritual?
Before I moved to Denver I owned a shop for maybe ten or eleven years with my husband, and I never thought I'd do it again. I didn't want to be married to a business and I didn't want to have employees, deal with payroll, that kind of stuff. When we knew that Kaze was going to end, Sandi and I got together and started talking about whether we would want to do it. We work so well together and we both had the same vision of what we wanted to do, and I think the boys at Kaze had a different vision, so it was really natural for us to split off and do our own thing. Having a partner like her makes it a lot easier. We can split up all the things we have to do for running a business. I think it's going to be great, I'm really excited.
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When I talked to Aries, he talked about your family. Do you feel like people consider you unconventional parents because of your profession?
I think people do. I feel like now it has become much more acceptable. People see tattoo shows and things like that -- even though I'm not really into those -- and they can see that they're normal people doing this profession. I remember ten years ago parents would get a little weirded out by us, but now I've found that my sons have friends who are from different walks of life and it's not that big of a deal.