Stop Asking for Permission: An Interview with Multi-Media Artist sunnie

April 28, 2021

Sanaz, also known as sunnie, considers herself a performance artist above all else. We sit on the rooftop of her modern minimalist apartment building. She prefers a more in-depth dwelling, although this is home for now. The sun scorches as we settle into the only semi-shady outdoor seats.

Sanaz, also known as sunnie, considers herself a performance artist above all else. We sit on the rooftop of her modern minimalist apartment building. She prefers a more in-depth dwelling, although this is home for now. The sun scorches as we settle into the only semi-shady outdoor seats. sunnie fans me with her portfolio, tucked into a duotang, and casually lights a smoke. I pull out my cell phone, which doubles as a recording device. As I press record on a voice memo, I ask sunnie what inspires her as a handpoke artist working out of  a private studio in Vancouver.

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After rambling on about how “tattooing is the only thing [she is] good at,” we stop recording, pausing the voice memo. With the permanence of documentation no longer looming over, we talk about her course of life and self-perception. She divulges into how “even in this moment, i respond, am being responded to. i learned it - have a checklist of diverse ways of responding to surroundings. Some of it is how society wants us to respond. [Others are] how we want to respond to things. We are acting.” She assures me that “acting does not mean that it is fake.” sunnie refers to herself with a lowercase i - an indication of her humble nature.

sunnie by Alexis Zygan

story begins in Montreal: the city Vancouver residents move-to to fill the void. She pursued the Cell and Molecular Biology program at Concordia University. Her parents expected her to become a surgeon and purchase stability in the form of a single-family dwelling in Coquitlam. However, she felt a magnetic pull towards inducing paradigm shifts through the freedom and flexibility of analysis and creativity. “i am still a scientist!” she corrects.

sunnie graduated with a joint major in Art History and Studio Arts. In the same month of she graduated, she unexpectedly lost her studio apartment. After couch-surfing for weeks, a room was offered to her in a time of desperation, to temporarily sublet. This space would end up changing her life forever. “i fell asleep more on the living room couch than my temp bed /on that couch i got my first handpoked tattoo--on that red couch/ i did my first tattoo.” After sneaking a glance at a top-secret sketchbook, her roommate Lawrence identified her artistic potential in insignificant scribbles. While most aspiring tattooists begin by practicing on oranges and potatoes: he believed in her ability to such an extent that he offered his skin as a canvas. Although Lawrence was not the first person to encourage her to tattoo them; he was the first to succeed in convincing sunnie to experiment on human skin.

After graduation, sunnie continued to work in Montreal until being dismissed. The unexpected news instigated her to express a declaration of rage by meticulously smearing black-tar charcoal on pearl-grey paper. Stumped on how to pay bills amid unemployment, she put a portfolio together, priced her pieces, and decided to make handpoking her main hustle: “i could not go back to the red couch, i tattoo on a red bed now.” At that time, she had just moved out of her roommate's into a work-live studio. This space served as a liminal zone to strengthen her skills, while preparing for her eventual move to Vancouver.

As an Iranian immigrant, sunnie grew up isolated from the culture of tattooing. She didn't even know you could make a career in handpoking, and had internalized her parents’ disapproval of tattoos. That being said, the support and love she received from the handpoking community prevented parental perception from sabotaging her practice. sunnie emphasizes, “[these people] embrace, teach, and correct instead of criticizing me. [They] validate me, [and] check up on me. It is honestly other people that keep me going; people believe in me. i am blessed.”

sunnie started tattooing with a machine gifted to her by her roommate. However, the machine was too quick; a distraction that prevented her immersion into the present moment. sunnie explains that she simply “softly erases the skin,” to reveal art that has always been hiding underneath the surface through handpoking. Although she had no idea at that time, tattooing would not only give her financial stability, but also end up nudging her to take up other artistic practices, such as painting and poetry. She could easily stay in her room for days, allowing her abstractions to surface. As a tattooer - connecting with people was a necessity because it pushed her beyond her introverted inclinations. sunnie shares: “i connect with people, their secrets and essence — physical and philosophical — ink is accepting of me and others, of our space and taste. Tattooing is perhaps saving me from extreme self-isolation.”

When her time in Montreal adjourned, she moved to Vancouver due to her love for sushi and proximity to family and friends. When she first landed in Vancouver, she lacked the connections and funds to secure a tattoo space. Handpoking had become more than a career at this point; a way to stay sane while settling into a new environment. sunnie is grateful for the trust people had and have in her. Sharing how “[they] started inviting me to their space, for me to tattoo them/ i operated mostly by word of mouth/ same strangers would invite me to social things to talk tattooing/ now i am very shy.” To ensure hygienic protocols, she would thoroughly inspect the cleanliness of the space before beginning the procedure; packing her tattoo equipment into a grey and gold suitcase. She speaks fondly of an experience tattooing a client called Sean, in a van by the Spanish Banks. A year ago, she was invited by Vasia, an established handpoke artist, to join her studio space: an invitation she gracefully accepted. Stepping outside of her observant zone to socialize was worth the stress that came along with the interactions. From time to time, she still tattoos out of her client’s chosen space.

sunnie has been tattooing for three years now. Although she found her path in the arts, she considers herself “still doing surgery — although a little less bloody, i still heal — truly i work systematically/ i research — i’m thorough.”  As a tattooer, sunnie approaches every project with pristine precision by first taking time before responding to every email, ensuring the subject aligns with her values and vision. Then, above all, she makes sure she feels intuitive inviting them into the ethereal space they will potentially co-create.sunnie has learned a lot over the past three years. More than anything that she no longer needs anyone’s permission to pursue her passions - especially not her superiors. She considers her cultural background, “creating dissociation of identity/-- simultaneously cast aside and celebrated.” In the future, she hopes to tattoo more Farsi scripts on people - specifically قر, pronounced ghuur - “when your body subconsciously moves to the music/ we call that ghuuur! it’s  magic!.” sunnie declares, “i am iranian/ i am a woman -my entire existence is political/ my art is an act of resistance towards/within the patriarchal system we live in- everything i do/call it art or not- this interview is an act of resistance -i am claiming my space, physical and philosophical, as an Iranian immigrant - a woman.”


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Originally published in AlsoCoolMag. Read the online version here.