"Gentle" Jen Mathiesen lives and breathes art. From tattoos to film to finding inspiration in the outdoors, she's passionate not only about pursuing art but encouraging others to do so as well. She has been tattooing for sixteen years, and currently works at Mantra Tattoo. We recently caught up with Mathiesen, who talked about experimenting with various media and the importance of art education.
Westword: Where are you from?
Jen Mathiesen: I’m from Utah. I've been here for thirteen, fourteen years.
What made you come to Colorado?
Tattooing. I got a temporary job at a shop downtown. It was supposed to be a month and I ended up staying.
What was the art scene like in Utah?
They had a huge art scene, a huge tattoo scene. I started tattooing in Utah, so I had a couple years there before I moved out here.
Do you find that it’s different in Colorado?
It’s hard to say, as far as comparing the places. I was tattooing in a small town there and had a really old-school apprenticeship in a mom-and-pop type of shop. Here I’m in the city, involved in everything art pretty much. And I work with up to ten tattoo artists at once.
Were you interested in art as a kid?
I doodled a little bit. My dad is an artist and he tried to make a career out of art and then he said, “There’s no career in art,” and redirected to psychology. I kind of ended up being exactly the same as him, except I made a career out of art. I never actually realized that was the direction I was going to go until I was already in the middle of my life being encompassed by art.
How did you become interested in tattooing?
I started tattooing when I was nineteen out of an idea that fell in my lap. I never really thought of tattooing as a career before. It wasn't even a thought in my head. I needed a job, and I started looking at tattoo shops and it evolved from there once I realized I could do that. That was in college. I had a worked for a lot of years, but while I was in college I took a little break to do just school and I was just trying to do something that I enjoyed more than just the daily grind of things. I started apprenticing and I kept going back to the same place, because there was only one tattoo shop in town, so I just bugged them until they finally hired me.
So you have to be persistent to get into the industry.
Oh yeah, it’s not an easy industry to get into. A lot of hard work.
What were you studying in school?
Medicine. I was trying to be a veterinarian.
What was the point when you decided you weren't going to that anymore and you were going tattoo instead?
I was tattooing and I dropped out of college for external reasons. I just went into tattooing full-time. Like said, it was a mom-and-pop biker shop. When I stepped in, I was an apprentice...you mop, clean, do art, draw, set up and break down for people, make machines.
Do you feel like that paid off?
For sure. There’s a lot of people I know that got into the industry in a lot of different ways. There’s so many different ways to become a tattoo artist and everyone has a different story. I really appreciate my traditional, old-school apprenticeship. I know how to make needles, tune my machine, all those things.
Is there a style that you lean toward?
In tattooing, I really like total opposites. I tattoo really fine lines, intricate detail work, and then I really like portraiture, which is completely opposite. Portraits are made by shading and very minimal line-work. Nowadays, with the Internet and people being able to influence each other, there’s a universe of different styles. Today the idea of a watercolor tattoo is totally different from a watercolor tattoo ten years ago. There are so many different genres and styles of tattoo. I’m always learning.
Is that an important part of being a tattoo artist?
Oh, yeah. You’re never going to be the best, ever. And you’re always going to be better than you used to be. But that’s with anything. That’s the point of life, right?
Do you work in other media?
Yeah, I do. I love to do everything. Everything in my life is art. I think of tattooing as my medium. That’s what my trade is in. Outside of tattoo art, I’m kind of a jack-of-all trades and a master of none. I tell myself I need to focus more on one thing, because I like to do oil painting, acrylic, watercolor, pen, sculpture. I’ve been dabbling in crayons. Not like traditional kid's crayons but conte crayons, pastels, stuff like that. I like to carve and engrave. I’m inspired by everything.
There are just as many right-brained thinkers as left, yet when school budgets get cut the left brain classes are a priority to keep and the right brain courses are the ones that go, such as art, drama, and music. The arts are just as important as any other classes. We need to invest more into our future and keeping kids interested in going to school and learning no matter the type of thinker, right- or left-brained. A big percent of people's career dreams and aspirations are right-brain driven: tattoo artist, writers, culinary artists, musicians, makeup artists, broadcast, radio, advertising careers, barbers, stylists, any one that works in film. I could go on forever.
Is there anything outside of art you like to do?
I love to wakeboard. That’s one my main hobbies. It takes up my spring and summer. I love music, I love film. I also love anything outdoors, rafting, fishing hiking, and I love my kitties and pups.
What’s your favorite movie?
I love Night Watch and Day Watch, Night of the Living Dead, almost anything zombie, alien. Anything Guy Ritchie, Audrey Tautou, Guillermo Del Toro, Bruce Campbell. I love a good documentary or a good TV series. Lately I've been watching Black Mirror and Danger 5 on Netflix. I enjoy playing video games every now and again. My taste in music is just as all over the place as my taste in film. Actually, my taste is all over the place for just about everything.
Do those other media influence your tattoo work?
For sure. Everything is an influence. Your customer is the biggest influence. That’s the biggest difference for me between tattoo art and other art. With other art, you have to completely make something of your own creation. And some customers want that. But most people want something they bring in. They have ideas, they have direction, so you’re totally influenced by what that person wants on their body forever.
Do you get to do any traveling with tattooing?
I don’t get to do that very much. Me and my boyfriend — he’s a tattoo artist as well; he’s been tattooing for about 25 years — his kids just moved out of the house. I've been a step-parent and we've been working full-time. After they graduated and decided they were going to move out, we were going to start doing conventions more. They just moved out, so we definitely want to start doing that, maintaining Denver as a home base but doing the whole deal with going across the country. I’m definitely interested in easing into it.
How long have you been tattooing?
Since 1996, so about sixteen years.
Do you remember the first tattoo you ever did?
Yeah, it was on my boss. He was pretty intimidating but he made it not intimidating at all. It was stressful, but not as stressful as it could have been.
Do you feel like Denver has a good community of artists?
Oh, yeah. It’s amazing here. It would be hard to leave. I was only going to be here for a month. Massachusetts was just making tattooing legal the year I came here, so I was just going to stay here for the month and then go to Massachusetts. There were going to be a lot of shops popping up and job openings, but I never left. I’d never been here before and I never left. The tattoo industry here is crazy amazing. There are so many different shops, so many amazing artists.
Why do they call you "Gentle" Jen?
One of the guys in the shop gave me that nickname. A lot of people say I have a super-light hand. But I've had customers call me "Jackhammer" Jen, so it just depends on pain tolerance and the area. Everybody handles it totally differently.
For more information, check out Mantra Tattoo online and follow Jen on Instagram @gentlejenmantra.