Judging from afar, it’s easy to see how some might perceive 27-year-old Tamara Santibanez to be a slightly intimidating character. Covered in tattoos, donning sharp jewelry with the nails to match, and often sporting a timid gaze that many might confuse as menacing, she certainly emulates the feel of her work—Chicano flash of Chola prisoners writing love letters, watercolor series inspired by bondage and black leather, dainty handkerchiefs adorned with ballpoint punk logos, and an endlessly impressive repertoire of black and white tattoo’s which have made her one of the most coveted tattoo artists in the country, let alone New York City.

But like with most complex things, there’s much more to the Georgia native than meets the eye, and I had the pleasure of experiencing it first hand on a little visit to her Brooklyn studio. Beautiful and soft-spoken but with a ­no-bullshit sensibility about it, we sat amidst her visually-arresting workspace—with something to be in awe of hanging from every corner—and she went on to tell me about everything from her earliest creative influences, to how she got her unorthodox start in tattooing, to the importance of reconnecting with her Chicano roots through her work.

How old are you and where are you from?
I’m 27 and I grew up in Georgia, but I’ve lived in New York for ten years now.

What are some of your earliest artistic memories? Where you always a creative child?
I always joke that I was sort of molded to be creative; my parents were really encouraging of me trying a million different things. For a little while I went to those schools for “weird” kids, like Montessori schools or the Waldorf School, and I definitely gravitated towards drawing and art when I was a kid.

Tamara Santibanez

What about first artistic influences?
It’s hard to say because where I grew up there wasn’t a really vibrant art scene, but I definitely started seeking out more of those things as a teenager. Seeing punk stuff really influenced me, and metal stuff—like seeing band t-shirts and show posters and album covers was a huge influence. And at the same time I was interning at a contemporary art gallery in my hometown, and it was pretty much the one institution of that kind in the city, but the woman who ran it was really cool and progressive and she curated a lot of interesting shows that I think were probably a bit more challenging than other things going on there at that time. So that was a really great place to be, just to see contemporary artists, and they weren’t all from Georgia so I’d get exposed to a lot of things that I wouldn’t otherwise have seen.

What was your dream job as a little girl? Did you always see yourself in a creative realm? What were you doing before tattooing?
At the time I really wanted to be a fashion designer. I made a lot of my own clothes, and I think that was part of what drew me to punk as an aesthetic, like the DIY aspect of the look. And it seemed really accessible. My mom taught me how to sew when I was young, and I’d make or alter my own clothes and sketch all the time. I went to school for fashion for a little while—I did a summer program at SCAD for Fashion Design and then I started there and studied Fashion and Fiber Arts for a year. And that was a lot of fun, but then I moved to New York to do it and realized that wasn’t what I wanted to do at all.

Onto tattooing—when did you first develop an interest in it?
When I look back it’s something I was always drawn to; I guess part of it was being subcultural and just wanting tattoos and thinking that they looked cool and badass. I always knew that I wanted to have them, and I always had friends who were working in shops or apprenticing to tattoo or getting tattooed, so it was something I was seeing pretty consistently. And once I started getting tattooed that was when I saw that it seemed like this really magical thing I wanted to know how to do.