It’s quite a career change from designing textiles in New York to travelling the world painting Japanese tattoo-inspired designs. Gina McQuen tells us how it came about. Inspiration, it seems, comes from unexpected places.
“It was a chance meeting with a Brazilian Jiujitsu world champion at an erotic party, actually. He told me the story of a Japanese master going to Brazil to teach the Gracie family [of martial arts experts]. The guy who I met had been taught by Hélio Gracie and his fascination with Japanese culture ultimately passed to me.”
This meeting happened after a successful career that Gina had become disillusioned with.
“I studied as a textile designer – textiles and surface pattern – in Taunton [Somerset, UK], and I worked at that for 20 years. I worked in New York for five years. And when digital came in, I did a photoshop course and I found myself on the computer all the time. And my passion just went. Everything we did in textile design was all hand painted on paper and luxury fabrics. And that stopped.”
After the meeting at the party, Gina set to work immersing herself in Japanese culture.
“I went to the British Library to study samurai and one thing led to another and I discovered Horiyoshi III, the oldest living tattoo artist in Japan. And his work just blew me away. He blew me away! So, I decided to research the masters of Japanese tattooing.
“Inspired by this, I got a marker pen and I started hand drawing samurai warriors on my 10-year-old sofa. And it looked pretty good. I thought, wow, I need to really research and find out everything I can about leather, everything I can about the products that will adhere to the leather to make this art functional.
“I hand painted a section of the sofa then sent it to Horiyoshi in Japan, and he sent me back an original painting. And then I just went on from there.
“And then people get to know about me through Instagram. And a lot of customers would send me jackets, furniture, bags… And I would paint them and send them back. One thing led to another, and I’ve had enough commissions to keep me going. I’ve just done a commission in Porto. There were nine padded leather panels to paint.
“They’re actually at the back of the restaurant, mounted on the walls. And the customers lean against them. So it’s functional art. I did a dragon panel going into a phoenix panel, going into cranes, and then finishing up with rabbits and foxes. It all has some meaning. There are lots of stories and mythology, behind traditional Japanese tattoo. That is what I really love.
“It really changed the whole of the restaurant. When you walk in it has got a completely different feeling about it. It’s really added a lot of value to it.”
“I also did a piece for a David Bowie exhibition. I found out he was really inspired by the kabuki theater of Japan. So I did this chair and it was all different images inspired by kabuki.”
So why did she choose our favorite material?
“For me, it’s all leather now. It’s the longevity. I wanted to learn how to look after it. And because I wanted to produce art that looks like tattoos, well… It’s pretty close to skin. And my technique is very similar to tattooing. You do the lines first, and then you do the shading, then you build it all up from there.
“It has to cure for about two weeks to a month, depending on the size. All the paint goes into the leather and really becomes a part of it. After the curing, you get a leather protection cream, which stops it from fading in the sun. This is how you look after your leather anyway. Any leather that you buy, you really should look after. It’s all about sustainability. Never throw anything leather away. Because you can repair. Once I follow this process it will last as long as the leather that it’s on, because it almost becomes a part of it.”
Does she have a favorite piece?
“It was a secondhand sofa, a two-seater, which was given to me. It was the tan color and I wanted to test my skills so I recolored it gray, and then hand painted with white. It looked like lace. Oh. It looked really beautiful, very detailed. It looked very delicate and people couldn’t understand how it was done. They didn’t realize it was painted.”
Where will Gina’s talent take her next?
“There are quite a few exciting projects. I’m going to New York to paint a couple of sofas and hopefully towards the end of the year I’ll be traveling to Lisbon and Barcelona. But in the meantime, I’m working on a new project. Headboards for beds. I love art that is practical.”