#WHOARETHEY: Kelli Kikcio
Kelli is the definition of a multidisciplinary artist, exploring all types of creative mediums like illustration, sewing, tattooing, ceramics, painting, woodworking, embroidery, and many more. Kelli is currently pursuing hand poked tattooing at a studio she co-owns, called Welcome Home Studio.
Take me through a little timeline of your life. Growing up in Canada, when did you start to dabble with creative projects, and where did that take you?
Growing up in central Canada, and as the child of two phys ed. teachers, my first 18 years revolved around sports. I was playing competitive soccer, volleyball, and basketball, and running track... my identity and self worth was built upon wins... there was a tremendous amount of pressure to succeed and be the best on my team. When I had a moment of down time, I was always making things... from jewelry, to bead animals, lego, forts, embroidery, etc. Having an outlet to express myself through something that was handcrafted was integral to finding my identity off the field/court. My paternal grandmother (baba) and mom both fostered my creativity from a young age, and with assistance from my Baba, I moved from hand sewing to machine sewing when I was about 9. I loved making my own clothes and clothes for other’s. I was so proud to be able to say that I made the clothes I wore, and to create clothes for people that I loved that were an extension of them. When it came time to choose a career path, my parents dissuaded me from following in their footsteps in becoming a teacher and encouraged me to pursue a degree in fashion design at Ryerson University in Toronto. After applying the first time, I didn’t get in, but earned a scholarship to play on the soccer team. So, I moved across the country to Toronto, took 3rd and 4th year electives (by mistake) learned much more about what a university portfolio should actually look like, reapplied, and began my 4 year degree in 2008. After graduating I worked as a menswear designer and production manager and eventually started a bespoke womenswear company. After working in the fashion industry for a few years I needed something to change.
How did your work take you to where you are now in Brooklyn?
In 2016 I first met my husband on Instagram… it was simply because my artwork was reposted by an IG account that we both followed, that we connected in the first place. Our relationship moved quickly and I soon found myself in America, living just outside of Boston, married, and fairly certain that I wasn’t interested in getting back into fashion. I had been tattooing in Toronto and started looking into what it would take to do it legitimately in Boston, but there were many barriers to entry… so once I had my green card I got licensed in NY and began working out of my friend Tea’s studio. Tea and I had met a year or so before- we had started tattooing at the same time and initially ‘met" via IG years before. During a very difficult and lonely period of time while my immigration was being processed, Tea’s generosity to share their space to help me build my clientele in a big new city was remarkably kind. Things moved to quickly and we first opened our shop in June 2017 and I moved to Brooklyn full time in October 2017.
You are truly a multidisciplinary creative. There are many mediums you have tried your hand in and are currently working in, can you tell us a bit about why this process is important to you, and all the different mediums you have tried?
I’ve always enjoyed doing many things, my creative process revolves around seeing one idea in many different forms, so I’ve continued to explore many mediums. Here’s a cute list of mediums I’ve tried:
Illustration (hand and digital)
Sewing (hand and machine)
Tattooing (hand poke and machine)
Ceramics (hand building and wheel)
Baking (I'm bad at this one)
Music (trumpet, guitar, voice)
Cooking (I’m okay at this)
Photography (barely) (film and digital)
Embroidery (hand and machine)
Leather working (hand and machine)
Clothing design and pattern making
I could keep going but the sole purpose of this list is to show that there are so so many artistic avenues to explore, and if one doesn’t feel right, it’s important to try another… and even if one does feel right, try your hands at something new.
Why did you start tattooing and when did you begin this medium?
I began tattooing in 2014 simply because I wanted to get my hands tattooed and when my local shop wouldn’t do it, I (ignorantly) figured that I could do it myself. I had no intention of becoming a tattoo artist, and although I was interested in tattooing and its history I knew that I would never fit into the industry as it existed at that time. I continued to tattoo myself on a regular basis as a means of self expression and body reclamation and soon my friends were asking me to tattoo them as well.
Let's talk about Welcome Home Studio in Brooklyn that you started alongside Tea Leigh. This is such a unique and important space given the nature of the male dominated tattoo industry. When was this idea born, and why is this studio so important?
Welcome Home Studio was born out of necessity… Tea and I wanted to create a space that was comfortable, safe, and welcoming to both clients and tattoo artists who typically did not feel comfortable in traditional tattoo studios. For decades in America, most shops were owned and operated by cis, white, men or gangs, and BIPOC, WOC, women/womxn, non binary folks, & LGBTQ+ were certainly not welcome, nor seen, nor heard in these spaces. Tattooing is an inherently vulnerable, emotional, painful, celebratory, cathartic, and intimate experience that can manifest as a powerful exchange between client and tattooer if the tattooer is willing and able to hold space. This genuine exchange has always been of the utmost importance to both Tea, myself, and our resident artists, and despite industry pushback, we will continue to honor and host those who find our work, beliefs, and studio to be the right fit for them. Tattooing doesn’t have to be hard, aggressive, impersonal, and misogynistic, and we’re proud to be a part of this shift within our industry.
In addition to Welcome Home just being a tattoo studio, this space hosts many events and gatherings. What are some of the events Welcome Home has put together in the past to welcome all sorts of people?
When we were looking for physical space we knew that we needed enough room to host community members on a regular basis. Because of the openminded and safe atmosphere that we had fostered through tattooing, we were able to carry that into our workshop and lecture program, and have held classes like, ‘breathwork to heal the trauma from toxic masculinity’, yoga for mental health’, tarot for creativity’, ‘beginner bondage and rope tying’, and ‘self discovery and personal brand strategy’. Our attendees are likeminded individuals who are looking to care for both themselves and others in a community like setting. While our focus in 2018 was self-care driven, we will be shifting in 2019 to host regular organized panels that address privilege, racism, misogyny, SWERF, TERF, etc. , and the role that we play in these oppressive systems. These lectures will allow our community members to learn from (and financially compensate) those with lived experiences, and create action plans for change and growth. We are fortunate to have such an openminded and compassionate following and bringing everyone together has always been important to us.
You exude lots of seriousness and determination about your work because like it or not, for many non cis men, work is not taken as seriously and may only even be interacted with at a very surface level. Do you have any comments on developing this confidence and work ethic when pushing to expand the conversation outside what is the norm?
Tattoos have always been a statement, and I think now more than ever, clients choose to work with an artist who not only has an aesthetic that they appreciate but is someone who they feel that they ‘know’ or share similar beliefs with. No one wants to get tattooed by the misogynist who assaults women or refuses to tattoo POC… and with the internet, it doesn’t take much to determine whether someone is good dude or not… these type of people can’t hide behind their art or ’ successful’ shops anymore. When I look through the bigger tattoo accounts on IG, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, etc. is so prevalent, and seeing the multitude of hateful comments from cis white male tattooers and their clients is what motivates me in particular to be better, as a tattooer and an ally. Because my tattoos aren’t traditional (big, bold, heavy), other tattooers will say that they’re bad… because I am self taught I will be called a scratcher… and these are sentiments that straight cis white men won't face, even if they’re coming from the same place as me. If I ever lose confidence in what I’m doing or if imposter syndrome creeps in I always try to remember my clients who have shared such personal moments with me and who have allowed me to humbly (and permanently) mark their bodies… if someone isn’t into the aesthetic of my work, honestly it’s cool, there are enough people who see the value in what I’m doing to remind me that my work is important.
Any notable artists or people who have motivated you to build a platform for yourself and your work?
There’s this article I read that starts off, “Georgia O’Keefe was never merely a painter”, and that’s a sentiment that will always resonate with me. After seeing a retrospective of her life and life’s work at the Brooklyn Museum last year I felt so connected to her body of work and her vision… I felt like I know who she was. I’ve been told countless times to ‘just pick one thing', or to 'stay in my lane', but I’ve truly never been able to. I want you to know me as an artist, I want you to witness my voice change and mature, as I do, through my art, through my many mediums, throughout my life. I want to continue to have my hands in many places so that I never get complacent as both an artist and a human. One day I will have a retrospective of my own, but before then, my intention is to continue to grow as a person, to be a better human, to learn from my many mistakes, so that my work has a purpose and my voice is one that matters.
Anything else you would like to add or any advice you would like to leave?
I’ve rushed (often blindly), into nearly every big decision I’ve ever made… from moving, to marriage, to quitting jobs, to starting businesses, and although in hindsight I could have exercised a little more patience, I don’t regret diving right in. I’ve learned through trial and error, made countless mistakes, but ultimately am living the life I’ve always wanted because I was willing to take risks instead of wait.