In Conversation: Thao Tran
Thao Tran is an artist based in Naarm, Australia currently tattooing out of Anderson Street Tattoo. When we were planning for New Balance’s Lunar New Year capsule, we took the opportunity to sit down with Thao. She is a strong woman with a proud heritage which comes through in her work. We wanted to discuss her art and how the experience as a child of Vietnamese immigrants helped form her into the artist she is today.
UP THERE: Hey Thao, firstly thanks for taking some time to chat with us. For those at home, could you introduce a bit about yourself?
Hello folks at home, I’m Thao Tran. I’m a tattoo artist based in Naarm/Melbourne. I’ve been tattooing for around 10 years but I’ve been drawing ever since I could scribble on my parent’s walls as a kid. Now people trust me to scribble on their skin, forever…
I’m always trying to grow as an artist, seeking inspiration from all forms of art and wherever possible.
This is a bit left-field but bear with me… Birdwatchers talk about their ’spark bird’. It’s a moment that ‘sparked’ their passion for birding. I’m interested to know if there’s a moment which made you want to dedicate your life to art?
I love that you brought up “spark birds”! It’s amazing how people can have pivotal moments which imprint on them and change their life’s trajectory. For me, I have to go way back to when I watched “Mr Squiggle” and “Art Attack” on TV.
I remember seeing this flimsy puppet with a pencil for a nose, start with an incoherent squiggle on a talking blackboard. He would draw a few lines with his nose, turn the board upside down and then BAM — an elephant! It was pure magic. He made something beautiful from nothing — he gave it a life of its own.
It was the same with Art Attack, the show would teach you how to make something like a puppet out of stuff laying around the house. I was a kid growing up with refugee parents, so we didn’t have much. The idea you could create anything you wanted from so little acted like a doorway. It opened my eyes to the world in a way I never thought possible.
Don’t get me started on Mr Squiggle! I definitely kept watching that outside of the target age bracket…
Is there something specific about tattooing that drew you to it?
I think the art and design world can sometimes feel inaccessible. It seems like a small group of people telling the general public what's valuable.
Tattooing has been around for thousands of years. Different cultures have different relationships with it, but at the core it often tells a story. It’s so personal too, it’s valuable to the wearer. Tattooing is a creative medium that’s for the people.
It’s also just fucking fun, I get to build such good connections with my customers and I get to work with my best mates!
Tattooing definitely feels democratic. I think that feeds the outsider stigma — the idea even commoners can participate threatens the exclusivity which some art relishes in.
Your work seems quite empowering of both women and asian culture. Can you maybe speak to why that’s important to you?
As a gay, asian, female artist; representation is so important. Recently a couple contacted me after buying an artwork — they were so happy to finally see POC queer people in a way that wasn’t fetishised or sexualised. They were moved to finally see themselves represented in an artwork.
That meant the world to me, that’s why it’s so important.
That’s art — that reaction, the emotion. It also touches back on the point you made about how inclusive and personal tattooing is.
Is there something you’ve always wanted to do as an artist – a “dream job” of sorts?
As a tattoo artist it would be a dream to have a client as a blank canvas and work on a whole body of tattoos for them. I love all the tattoos on myself but sometimes I wish I had the foresight to get a huge Japanese body suit.
Outside of tattooing, I would love to find way to collaborate with fellow creatives in other mediums I admire, like fashion and music.
Lunar New Year (LNY) is the biggest annual travel event on earth, with million of people from the Asian diaspora returning home to be with family. Was that something your family did?
Most of my mum and dad’s family live overseas, growing up it was hard for them to afford the travel. I think the important thing my experience in the Asian diaspora taught me is the power of community. We celebrated with other families who also couldn’t return home.
Whenever family gets together there’s bound to be some interesting times. Any fun moments with the fam?
The last time I visited Vietnam with my family, my uncles got super drunk and were just yelling tattoo ideas at me. Safe to say they weren’t good, but I loved it anyway.
In recent years we’ve seen major fashion companies giving LNY a lot more attention. How’s that felt from your perspective?
I think it’s very clever marketing, it’s fashion companies acknowledging a section of their consumers. I like seeing innovative designs that the creatives come up with but what I like even more is the collabs between Asian artist and big brands. Perhaps it’s a good start for more exchanges to happen outside of Lunar New Year.
Do you feel like there’s a point where LNY products go from being a celebration to a cash-grab?
You could say the same thing about any other holiday. Everything is a cash-grab in a sense — these products wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t profitable. They also bring genuine joy to people though. Maybe there’s no real turning point between cash-grab and celebration.
This one’s a bit more superficial but what do you think of this New Balance collection. Is there a shoe calling you more than the others?
I love the beige 550s, they’re such a classic shape. There’s something so familiar and nostalgic about New Balance, but they’re also fresh as fuck. I feel like with this colourway in leather I can wear them to work, and then out to a dinner and they’ll make the outfit.
So with a new year just around the corner, what’s on the horizon for you?
Work wise I have a couple of group art shows coming up — one with my amazing workmates with a futuristic theme. There’s another group show with a gallery that I’ve always admired called Outre. I’m also planning some tattoo guest spots in Europe.
Mainly I want to be more present and just allow myself to enjoy life.
The New Balance 'Lunar New Year' capsule collection will be releasing this Friday, December 23 – one month ahead of official New Year celebrations. The collection includes the M2002R and BB550 styles, each pair with a different spin on the over-arching theme.
All pairs will be releasing online at 12:00am on Friday, December 23.
Remaining pairs available in-store later the same day.