Current Issue__ Nothing Else: Minka Sicklinger
Minka Sicklinger is drawn to her art
Photos: Amanda Hakan
Like a relic of another time, Minka Sicklinger fumbles with her ancient looking flip phone to respond to text messages. It buzzes, she picks it up, and starts typing one button at a time. About 4 full minutes later she flips the phone shut and breaths out like she's just cracked a safe. One text sent.
Many people will be familiar with Minka first as a tattoo artist. Her beautiful and detailed tattoos portray natural images like deer skulls and wild animals, mythical creatures like goddesses and mermaids, and touches of ritual and indigenous imagery--all-seeing eyes, Aztec-inspired triangles. The delicacy of her work is apparent in the fine lines and subtle adornments she includes in many of her pieces, she draws heavily from the textile patterns and jewelry that she collected as a kid. She has tattooed an impressive group of people--members of bands, New York's artistic underground, many of her ex boyfriends and her own mother. But Minka is particularly stringent about defining herself as an artist, rather than being restricted to a single medium. She works on skin, canvas, even skateboard decks.
Her apartment is filled with trinkets. Every inch of every surface is covered with traces of her in drawings, etchings, figurines and musical instruments. “I feel a connection to the objects I collect. If I see something and my brain blows out my ears, I know I need to have that thing in my life,” she says as she thumbs a small deer figurine sitting on top of her dresser. "And if I can afford it, that's even better."
Like the indigenous communities that inspire her art, she has a general mistrust of technology. She worries digital communication is cheapening human connection. So Minka gives a lot of weight to physical presence, both in terms of people and objects. “I think that human conversations are some of the most valuable gifts I’ve been given in my lifetime," she says. "Getting to know a person just by speaking with them is something that has sustained me many times when I’ve been struggling with something difficult in my life.”
The ability to survive as an artist without embracing digital media and graphics is something of a rarity these days, but Minka’s hands are the primary tools she needs to make a living. For years Minka had to fight to maintain immigration status to stay in the US, build an archive of work to grow her career, and perfect the technical aspects of illustration and tattooing. She has learned to do what she is passionate about, her workload will never be light. “I want to live as an artist so I have to put the work in. I think it’s one of the hardest professions you can do, because it’s all self-motivated.”
The battle has been rewarding and fruitful, her illustrations have been featured in window displays at Bergdorf Goodman, in the pages of Dossier magazine, and printed on Victoria’s Secret beauty products. What may seem like a random assortment of client work is the result of nothing short of careful and thorough day-to-day labor. The balance between needing to make money and maintaining the integrity that allows a person to be proud of what they produce is a tricky thing for any artist. “I’m making a living as an artist in New York somehow, so no one can complain about that.”
Even as we sit speaking with her she goes over lines on an illustration sitting at her desk.“I can’t control it too much,” she says, “I never stop working. I’m always thinking about what I have to do, ideas and what they’re going to look like. And then I dream about it half the time too.” The portrait of an artist who works at the whimsy of their desires and passions is not Minka. She carries herself with a balanced air of urgency and concentration.
But, the exhaustion that comes with being a perfectionist, is the shadow of working to do something that you truly care about. Drawings can be traced and retraced on fresh canvases, but tattooing is an entirely unforgiving art form. "I say no all the time, because if someone is unsure about what they want I would never be able to deliver something either one of us is happy with." Minka explains the process is like an exorcism. She imagines the image in its entirety before she makes a single mark. “When I tattoo someone I am eternally putting a piece of myself into them. It can be a laborious and traumatic experience because I am exerting an enormous amount of emotional and spiritual energy for each piece.”
For all the ways Minka speaks with great care and love about her life as an artist, she is acutely aware of its darker side. She says, "Sometimes I wish I could switch it off and go wait tables again." Minka spent a significant part of her young adult life sustaining a selection of unrelated jobs that seemed easier than making art. She explains a momentous shift in her life pulled her back to drawing. She doesn't specify what changed her perspective, perhaps a death or loss, perhaps it was something that changed within Minka herself that can't be put into words. But it is clear that a switch was flipped. Her creative process makes her struggle, her account balances dwindle, and her emotional state sweat, but drawing is her calling. And after ten years without making a mark on paper, she began to draw again. "Something broke that had been stopping me from being able to express myself visually without thinking about it too much," Minka says. "There is nothing else I could do that would be as honest or fulfilling."