Some scribble love poems into notebooks or cards; Amanda Wachob‘s are designed to be worn on your sleeve. Or rather, just underneath. Today the Brooklyn-based tattoo artist is in the midst of a second afternoon of sold-out appointments inside the Whitney Museum Shop, where she is installed at a sunlit table overlooking the Hudson River. Her weeklong residency, which culminates on February 15, pays tribute to St. Valentine and the holiday’s communion of sorts: the classic conversation edible hearts made by the century-old confectioner, NECCO. After poring over the company’s archival images and continually evolving phrasebook (passing over the beeper-code-era “143” and the now-presidential “Tweet”), Wachob singled out her favorite sayings (and a couple emojis), reimagining each as delicate line art inspired by vintage candies. Arranged on paper, the messages comprise a poem of winsome hieroglyphs; inked onto thirty strangers (who snapped up the one-of-a-kind tattoos, at $400 a pop, via presale on Wachob’s website), the effect is like shared DNA linking otherwise distant relations.
“For the longest time, I wanted to put something out that would tether people together in a maybe very small but meaningful way,” Wachob says of the project, nearly two years in development. (It began when “the Whitney slid into my DM,” she adds with a laugh.) Two painters in the museum’s collection helped steer the concept: Byron Kim, with his monochromatic canvases of skin tone, and Njideka Crosby, whose precise renderings of African weddings fabrics included a tiny sweetheart print. The motif lingered with Wachob: “I just feel like it’s time to put something lighthearted and positive and kind into the world.”
Wachob’s Sweetheart print, uniquely hand-colored in an edition of 50 ($150), collects the series of tattoos in poem form; a black-and-white version is also available (edition of 100, $15).
For a largely decorative medium, the series is also an opportunity to slide into public discourse. Parse the sayings one way, and you find a community-organizer manifesto: “Step up,” “do good,” “start now.” Spun another way, there’s Valley Girl flip (“AS IF”) and millennial self-acceptance (“I’m me”) alongside old-school swooning (“Sweet pea”). More important for Wachob is the way tattoos can spark serendipitous—yes—conversation, increasingly rare as smartphones fill every crack of time. She’s heard of clients, having met in a queue or on a plane, making friends, brunch plans, even television scripts after an icebreaker about her work. “I started to hear stories like that, and it made me have a bit of a revelation,” she says.
Dutch Master for a new age: a floral tattoo by Wachob.
It helps that Wachob’s tattoos have an instantly recognizable quality—and a devoted following on Instagram. Art school–trained with a degree in photography, she honed her skills at street shops in the Lower East Side. But it wasn’t until word of her next-level experiments in painterly techniques—watercolor washes, marbleized abstracts, Old Master–style florals—that the world snapped to attention. Since then, Wachob says with gentle understatement, “my books have been a bit crazy.” What does she mean by crazy? “I started a waitlist three years ago, and within about a week I got over 2,000 applications for an appointment,” she explains of the unexpected deluge. Even after cherrypicking a few select projects, she only recently finished the last commission. The scene is much the same at her annual walk-in day, where she holds court at her friend’s place, Fun City Tattoo—Manhattan’s oldest shop, she points out with pride. “It’s pretty insane. This past time, people started lining up at 3 o’clock in the morning,” she says “It’s just kind of unbelievable.”
A lace-patterned lemon by Wachob.
That rock-star fandom is balanced with art-world bonafides. In recent years, Wachob has tattooed lemons and oranges (a play on permanence and ephemerality) at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, embarked on a series of large-scale paintings using ink and temporary tattoo paper, and teamed with a neuroscientist for a data-driven project at the New Museum. But this installation at the Whitney Shop—trading her Williamsburg studio for a room already filled with ink (art books) and pithy messages (Lingua Franca collab sweatershirts)—has an intimacy that fits the purpose. In the opening time slot yesterday, Dyeemah Simmons, the Whitney’s coordinator of teen programs, gamely offered her left arm for her first tattoo: “Love me.” Another woman, recently divorced, confessed that “what she could really use was to just feel connected to people,” Wachob says—starting, of course, with the artist herself. Every day, she is photographing her subjects (though she considers them as much collaborators), and the plan is to publish a book through the Whitney Shop. It will be one more means of tracing that unifying thread. Or as one of the tattoos puts it: “You & me.”