Wen Pham's World June 07 2022

Wen Pham, owner of Double Happy Tattoo, is a tattoo artist and illustrator born in Australia to Vietnamese immigrant parents. As a child born before the time of iPads and computers, they spent their childhood watching animations and drawing cartoons on every surface possible. Their favourite places were forbidden places like the walls of their parents' house and on school books.

At 15 years old, with their penchant for drawing in weird places (and much to the displeasure of their parents) Wen decided to become a tattoo artist. At the age of 17 they started a tattoo apprenticeship in Melbourne, which led to working for various tattoo shops and owning several studios – including one in Berlin, Germany where they lived for 6 years.

Outside of tattooing, Wen has completed commissioned artworks for restaurants including Pokeworks in LA, Mochi in Vienna and Ca com banh mi in Melbourne. They have also worked with Wizards of the Coast and have collaborated with many artists around the world.

Interview by Viet-My Bui. Photos supplied by Wen Pham.

It's great to finally chat to you, Wen! What are your earliest inspirations and memories of making art?

I remember drawing since I was about 12. My dad would buy me Sailor Moon playing cards and I would copy the drawings from them. I also loved writing my own stories and making illustrations for them. I spent a lot of time re-watching Disney movies, especially Cinderella – I loved the little mice and her animal friends!

Tell us about your creative journey: Are you self taught or do you have an academic background? Did you always want to be a tattoo artist?

I started a tattoo apprenticeship when I was 16. I knew that's what I wanted to do since I was 15. I was always drawing on myself at school. I also drew on my school bag and on my clothes – I like customising everything! I started making paintings a lot later in my 20s. I taught myself because I'm stubborn and I don't like being told what to do. I learned by experimenting and making a lot of mistakes.

You have forged a long-standing career as a tattoo artist, and now have your own studio! How does your tattoo practice inform your art practice? Does your approach differ between the two sides of your work?

Yes I do have my own studio! It's been so great having my own shop. I also had a shop in Germany where I used to live. It's nice to make my own rules and create a nice space for myself and my clients.

With tattooing, my clients usually come to me with an idea. In a way it is restrictive, but I also see the restrictions as a challenge. I love bringing their ideas to life and seeing the excitement in their faces when they see the final artwork and the tattoo. I enjoy the social aspect of tattooing – I really enjoy getting to know people and having great chats and laughs.

With my paintings, I do love the creative freedom I have. I need it to balance out the restrictive nature of tattooing. In tattooing we have to worry about pain threshold, bleeding, the client moving, skin types, contouring it to the body and also longevity as tattoos fade and get fuzzy over time. When I paint, I don't have to worry about any of that! I also enjoy by being on my own in the evening, immersed in a painting.

Everything in my life needs a balance.

Your artworks often include adorably anthropomorphic creatures enjoying delicious foods or going about day-to-day activities. What lends you to depict these characters in these cosy scenes? Have you always been drawn to animals?

As I mentioned earlier, I always loved animations as a kid. One of my favourites was The Rescuers, with the two little mice going on a mission.

I'm unsure why I was always drawn to little animals. They're just so cute, I guess! I think the idea of a tiny creature with its own little life really brings me joy. I spent a lot of time when I was younger playing with little toys and making small houses and objects for them. Maybe it was a way to escape reality since my childhood wasn't easy.

You have spoken about how your Vietnamese-Australian upbringing has fostered an interest in different Asian cultures. How do you go about researching and incorporating different aspects of these cultures into your work? How much of your own Vietnamese background is woven into your concepts? And why is this important to you?

I think it might have something to do with my tattoo work. There is so much history in Japanese tattooing and I had to study Japanese aesthetics to draw tattoo designs. I started incorporating more Vietnamese and Chinese elements into my work since I wanted to represent and celebrate things I knew and grew up with.

As I got older, I learned about internalised racism and it upset me that I was hiding who I was because I thought being Vietnamese was uncool.

I think it's important to celebrate our own culture and to show other Vietnamese people – especially kids – that being proud of who you are is essential to your self esteem. I want to set an example of that.

While your pieces can be so endearing, sometimes they have a darker, horror-inspired feel to them – showing your versatility as an artist. Is there subject matter that you're interested in exploring in future works?

Yes, as well as furry little cute hamsters and cats, I do love horror and gore elements too! Sometimes, I like to make people feel a little conflicted when they see my artwork. Again I think its a balance thing: I need to explore the darker side of things as well as the happy stuff.

I was stoked to learn that one of the deadliest cats in the world is a cute little cat called the black-footed cat, they're absolutely adorable!

I would love to explore painting more indoor scenes and fuller backgrounds. I started exploring that during the lockdowns and it was so fun! I like adding fun little details that you have to look closer to see. I would love to one day illustrate a children's book.

We are so excited for your upcoming solo show, Wen's World! Tell us about the concept behind the show and how you created/selected pieces for the exhibition.

I'm so excited too! This is my first solo and I couldn't be more stoked that it's at my favourite gallery ever. I daydreamed about showing my work at Outré since I was a teenager. It's seriously a dream come true for me.

For Wen's World, I wanted to show a few characters that would exist in my little animal kingdom. Some are the royals, so they look super fancy. Some are just common folk going about their business such as eating banh mi and cooking food at home!

Walk us through your creative process. How do you translate your ideas onto paper and what mediums do you use?

I firstly research the animals on Google so I can study the anatomy. I gather a few references so that my drawing doesn't end up being a copy of a photo from Google. I sketch the bodies and clothes of the animals on the iPad. I use Procreate which is such a fantastic tool. I used to use so many pieces of tracing paper, and cut and stick things everywhere, it was so messy! Once I have the outline finalised on the iPad, I make a colour mock-up so I have an idea of what will work on paper.

I use a light box to trace it onto the watercolour paper.

My main medium that I use is watercolour. I am exploring acrylic gouache as well since I love the opacity and texture. Watercolour will always be my go-to though. I love the fluidity and layering. I’m also very impatient so I like that it dries very quickly and the palette can be re-wetted as I go.

You obviously have a penchant for tasty food! What are some of your homemade or restaurant-made favourite dishes?

Oh I do love food, so much! It's the highlight of my day.

At home I am totally addicted to Mi Goreng. My husband is an amazing cook, so I'm so lucky I get to eat his delicious food. I'm very lazy with cooking so if it weren't for him, I'd be eating Mi Goreng and peanut butter and jam sandwiches every day.

I love going out to eat ramen, sushi, pizza and I like anything soupy and noodly.

My favourite meal of all time is my parents' pho. They're both really good at making it, it's their way of showing love. To me, eating pho is like having a warm hug inside your belly.

What routines and rituals do you need in place to create art? And what fuels your creativity outside of the studio?

I definitely need lots of snacks and hot drinks. I like turning on a podcast or a show on Netflix so I'm entertained while I'm drawing. I need to wear earphones too so I don't get distracted by noises. Usually I'm the most creative at night, because it's quieter and I can hear my own thoughts more.

Outside of the studio, I like watching animations and I love looking through books – which I don't do enough. I just love creating art. I get so excited about it because I get to go into my own world!

Thank you so much for your time Wen! We look forward to entering Wen's World.