Artist Leora Gottlieb, 25, works with a lot of nontraditional mediums. She does hand poke tattoos, crochets, and experiments with ultraviolet reactive materials. Gottlieb is also an art teacher at a charter school in Prince George’s County, where she just finished her first year. She has been slowly working on a tattoo on her own leg.
What’s it like to tattoo yourself?
I have never gotten another tattoo so I don’t really know what it’s like, but I do stick and poke, so there’s no machine involved. The reason that I do it is because it’s safe to do at home versus a machine, where you have all these parts you have to keep clean. I did a lot of research before I started, which was about a year ago.
This placement right here, I chose because I knew it wasn’t going to hurt that much and because it’s somewhere that I can easily hide. So it’s actually not that painful. For me, I feel like since I’m the one in control, it’s almost less scary in a way … I’m thinking I know exactly where the needle’s gonna go at a certain moment in time.
Are you trying to turn this into a business?
I have one friend who likes to call himself my human sketchbook. I think I’ve tattooed him nine times. Every time he comes over, he always begs me to tattoo him. But now I’m actually trying to figure out pricing and things.
I started teaching and tattooing in the same week.
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So what do you like about teaching?
I like that I get to inspire the same creativity and passion for art in some of the kids who grab onto it … The problem solving is the biggest aspect of art education that I think people don’t really understand. When you’re making things with your hands, and having to make an idea into reality, that’s a lot of problem solving. It’s nice watching the kids figure that out, where they have the ‘Aha!’ moment, you know?
I always get these crazy aesthetic experiences when I see a really cool shadow, which I never really noticed before I started drawing observationally. When I see shadows that are really cool, I get chills almost. I want to make the students realize how to be more observational of the world around them and see those aesthetic moments.
What is your background with Judaism?
I was b’nai mitzvahed with my dad, which I thought was cool. I think the culture and family values are really important and I think it’s a big part of who I am, but I don’t necessarily follow the religious aspects of it. I had this idea … [to create] Leora’s Menorah’s. I have so many things I want to do.
Since tattoos aren’t technically allowed by Jewish law, has your family ever brought that up?
My bubbe and zayde are not super fans of the fact that I tattoo myself, but I still show them, and I’m like, “It’s not that bad, look.”
It’s interesting because some people have Hebrew tattooed on them, so it’s like, how does that work? Here’s a funny Jewish thing. My bubbe and zayde taught my sister Ariel how to say “leftover blintzes” in Yiddish, because they’re obsessed with Yiddish. The way you say it is “Ibbigublibbine blitznes.”
So I got them both to write it down in Yiddish [and Hebrew]. They both spelled it differently. Me and Ariel, at least, want to get that tatooed on us. Bubbe and Zayde don’t like the idea very much, but it would be a cool way to commemorate them, you know?
What’s your favorite medium?
It changes. Right now, I would say my favorite is tattoo and macramé. I don’t have a lot of it because I’ve given and sold a lot of the stuff that I’ve made. I make these really cool kaleidoscope things. I go to a lot of music festivals and raves and stuff, so that’s where I sell and trade stuff.
What makes tattooing art?
I wouldn’t just say that for tattooing, I think a lot of the stuff I do would not be considered art, it would be considered a craft. And I kind of take offense to that a little bit. A lot of people think that art has to have meaning, but what is meaning? You can’t really say that something doesn’t have a meaning to a specific person because art is meant to be interpreted by the viewer. All of the art I do has meaning to me. It’s therapeutic, you know? With my mandalas, the symmetry and everything is really satisfying. The crocheting, the macramé, all of it is a learning experience.
It’s like a therapeutic meditative space that it creates when you’re creating it, and also when you’re viewing it, or even holding it or wearing it.
Below, Leora shows off both sides of her totem pole, which she and her friends use to keep track of each other at music festivals:
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