Sophie Mo is a London-based illustrator, designer, and tattoo artist. Her specialities lie in blackwork tattoo design, taking inspiration from the worlds of Japanese culture, cinematography and music. She is a tattoo artist at Parliament Tattoo at Finsbury Park in London. Her custom designs have been commissioned privately and commercially by brands like Abrams books, Airbnb, BBC 6 Music, Bulleit Whiskey, Dais Contemporary, Little White Lies, Microsoft, Ozone Coffee, REN skincare, etc. In 2020,  Sophie was part of the team at Little White Lies, who won the Wooden Pencil award for Best Illustration, Entire Magazine & Newspapers category, at the D&AD awards. To top things off, Sophie is Domestika's best-seller course teacher.

Could you tell us a little more about where you grew up and how you would describe your upbringing and the social and cultural background when you were growing up?

I am from Eastern Europe. I grew up between Vilnius in Lithuania and Minsk in Belarus, which is a shock to many, considering my accent doesn't sound from either of those places! However, I never felt like I fitted in or belonged to either. Even when studying art, I always tried to find references and inspirations from other cultures, primarily Asian ones.

Was there much of a scene in those areas growing up regarding art or tattooing?

There was definitely an alternative scene in my town growing up, which I felt was more fitting. I tried to get involved with it, but I was quite an introvert, mostly because I was bullied heavily in school. As a result, I was not very impressed with people as a concept, haha! So I spent a lot of time on my own. But I also made some friends with people who were more into the music and fashion I liked. Still, I think I kept it to myself most of the time. 

Would you say that being brought up with the difficulties you faced, such as being bullied or finding it difficult to fit in, has influenced your artistic and personal style?

Now that I grew up, I believe that, if anything, I've learned to be a bit more trusting and explorative of the space and environment around me, which is something I have strongly avoided for a very long time. I think that internally, I tried to riot against my surroundings, as most teenagers do. Now that I finally feel like I have found my ground, my perception of what I let influence me has changed completely. I've learned how to use the environment around me to my benefit rather than take it as a threat or something I desperately need to escape from.

Were you doing much creatively when you were in those more difficult phases of your teenage years?

I've always been creative. I've drawn from a very young age, ever since I can remember. There was a short period in my life, around sixteenish or so, when I got into photography quite heavily but quickly realised it wasn't for me. But I did have fun trying! Then I went back to drawing and illustration. It has always been a "saving distraction" from the negative mind space I found myself in quite a lot.

How did you develop your style as you moved forward with your drawings and illustrations? 

Funnily enough, I think I've done a bit of a full circle! I was really into Japanese animation as a kid. I used to trace cartoons I was obsessed with, mainly Sailor Moon. Then, because of other people's opinions and being told that anime is for kids (it isn't) and it's not 'cool enough', or it wasn't back then, I convinced myself that it was stupid and tried to move on something else.  

Then I was like, okay, what's cool then? I've forced myself to find inspiration in places and things that weren't working for me. I felt like finding inspiration was some sort of compulsory extra job every artist had to have, even if you weren't feeling it. Gladly I no longer feel this way, and I manage to appreciate the little things without feeling like they all have to be references! But speaking of referencing in use, I've gone back to getting a lot of it from Asian cultures and their visuals. Not exclusively, as I don't want to lock myself in that box, but it heavily influences me. 

Also, apparently, it's cool now! Not that it matters, but I think it's pretty funny that something that so many other kids and I were laughed at has now made such a strong comeback and that everyone wants to dab into it a little bit. I feel like it's become a bit of a trend even? Not in the wrong way. I am very much 'in' that trend. I try not to care for what category people put me in (not always successfully) and create cool things that bring me a sense of pride and happiness.

Picture by Derek Bremner

I've noticed that you do a lot of collaborations and projects, such as REN skincare and the work with the Andaz hotel. What is it about these kinds of partnerships that you enjoy doing so much?

I think collaborations with brands involving physical products and new surfaces are really fun! You do stuff that you'd never even thought about doing, and you are challenged to work with materials you probably never considered touching. I wouldn't say it takes you out of your comfort zone, but it makes you learn new things and learn how to apply them to other areas. It's always interesting, and it keeps you mentally stimulated! You get to make great partnerships and create relationships with the people you work with, which can lead you to projects you wouldn't have access to if it weren't for those collaborations. 

I've seen that you were involved in the "Little White Lies" first-ever animated publication. Would you say that you regularly seek new ways to push your boundaries and be creative?

I was lucky to be guided and mentored by "Litlle White Lies" art director, Laurene Boglio, to create it! One day we came into work, had a meeting about a new issue, and were told that we had to learn physical motion graphics. Cool! I don't think my eyes and brain ever hurt so much from doing anything. But it was awesome to learn how to do it and bring it to life. We actually won an award for the magazine, one of the best illustrations across all books and magazines! 2020, if I'm not mistaken. So it's well worth it in the end. At the same time, seeing it come to life was bizarre and surreal regardless of the award. And that it worked! You can hold a physical copy of the magazine. And with a bit of an extra paper tool that comes with every magazine, you could make images move without it being in digital space whatsoever. How awesome is that?

So, you've found yourself living in London now for several years. What is it about this city that keeps you here?

London keeps me constantly mentally and physically stimulated. I get in my head a lot and get restless, especially when I'm in quiet spots, like in the countryside. It's definetly not for me. London is the first place that I felt like I wasn't so much of an outcast? It felt right! What London has to offer in the creative industry and tattooing is incredible. I have also been based in Hackney for over five years and lived in London for about ten years. The sense of community here is incredible. And you get to meet so many people, gigs, pubs. My mind feels comfortable here—most of the time.

How much do you think that tattoos are a private thing? And how much do you think they are a public thing, on the show for other people?

I think it's very personal these days. I don't think people keep their tattoos private because they don't want to feel judged anymore, at least not as much. I think, if anything, pretty much everyone's tattooed these days, and it's up to a person whether they'd want to have them on show or not.

I would say that tattooing used to be regarded as a sub-cultural activity. Now, it seems to have become more mainstream. What are your thoughts on that?

I actually did my dissertation on this! 'Tattooing as a form of art and its growth as a tool used in marketing and media', or something along those lines. But, I mean, it's just the natural progression of it really, whole industry blew up and became a lot more accessible. Tattoos have always been exciting because they're a bit of a taboo, but now they have become quite saturated. 

Let's move on to the last 18 months now. Coronavirus pretty much brought the creative industry to a complete standstill. How did you find the uncertainty of not knowing when things would return to normal? Did this affect your mental health?

I think the uncertainty didn't necessarily bother me that much, thankfully. I wasn't too concerned about the work instability as I had enough freelance work to get me through. I tried to constantly remind myself that all of it was completely out of my control.  I got diagnosed with bipolar disorder halfway through the pandemic, which isn't super COVID relevant, but I think the lockdown has definitely speeded how quickly things got really bad. I spent quite a lot of time in-home treatment, having to see all kinds of mental health department staff constantly, so most of my attention went into trying to try and handle that rather than being like, oh, shit, do I have a job? I had other stuff going on that I needed to work through to come back to said a job and to be able to function properly.

Would you say that your diagnosis affects your art form in any kind of way?

Over the last year or so, my artworks have gone a little bit darker. So I think in a way yes but also not. There was certainly a period when I was very frustrated and negative, and I projected that in my illustration for sure, which was quite relieving. I have my bad days when I feel like doing something a little weirder or gnarlier? So I think my diagnosis influenced it a little but hasn't entirely defined it.

Thank you for opening up and sharing that with us.

Yay, sharing with the group! This was like a fun group therapy session!

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