Portrait | Ilona Fiddy
I creep past the shopkeepers at Conscious Consumption, a head shop on Bloor, into a inconspicuous doorway at the back. The door opens and Ilona welcomes me into the tattoo studio she shared at the time with her mentor, Engel. As she begins talking I realize the whole thing was a fitting and fascinating set of cultural juxtapositions. “My name is Ilona Fiddy. Fiddy, British name, Ilona, weird name that my parents got from a book that I think is a Greek Hungarian name.” Sitting comfortably on a rolling office chair Ilona wears a vibrant blue Nor Black Nor White tunic on top of black pants, Air Jordan XI Low’s, and gold bangles and is flanked by her mentor’s traditional sketches of flowers and lettering. With her long brown hair cascading over the tunic down to her waist and a quiet take no shit confidence, she really comes across as quite regal.
Ilona is a multidisciplinary artist in Toronto working in (among other things) graphic design, illustration and most recently tattoo. But she says it best, self-described on her website as:
"A multi-disciplinary maker of anything, equal parts bookworm and dancehall queen, eating/reading & reigning supreme in south-easterly parts of the frozen north. A lady & a scholar, with an insatiable appetite for beauty, in art, in life. A designer in two dimensions or three, tactile illustrator, cheeky copywriter, & vocal referee for conceptual development.”
Her inclination for cross-pollination between mediums is a reflection of the no holds barred mentality of her New Media degree at Ryerson. “Its not that New Media is [more] accessible [than other art] but the base of it is teaching people to create art from [Postmodernism]”. To bring you up to speed, the Postmodern school of thought seems be at the crux of all creative programs these days. Going hand in hand with the democratizing effects of globalization and technology, Postmodern art is rooted in themes of recycling, appropriation and collage that are argued to result in the break-down of the barrier between “high art” and “low art”, between fine art and pop culture, for example. Now years out from her degree Ilona’s ability to mix painting with sign-making, installation with illustration is an example of a Postmodern perspective on art; nothing is off limits. “There was still a sensibility from that program that I took with me”.
".. just to know you’ll be in an environment where this small part of yourself will be understood and there will be certain things that won’t be questioned … You can’t put a price on it, it's so valuable”
After her time at Ryerson she began freelancing in graphic design. “I guess predictably there wasn’t exactly a job to go right into.” She then worked full time at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (TSO) as a Digital Media Coordinator. “That was probably my longest full on nine to five job.” After which she went full on into freelancing, everything from installation design and illustration to graphic design and making small housewares. But it wasn’t until a little over a year ago when she narrowed her focus and began practicing handpoke tattooing. Though tattooing was something she wanted to do for a long time she cites her parents’ potential disapproval as a big barrier to the medium. “My parents are just like really conservative … there was a lot of fear I had to get over before I could do [tattooing].” In addition to her parents, once she started Ilona was also hesitant about finding support from tattoo shops as hand poking and machine tattoo artists are generally at odds with one another. But she found relief once serendipitously connecting with her now mentor, Engel Cruz, as their shared background both culturally and professionally created an immediate level of understanding and respect. “I was nervous cause I started tattooing not in a traditional way, not in the most kosher way. I was just a littlescratcher [and] they’re not really into that in tattoo shops … So it was good to find someone who started in a similar way but made it work. He’s been tattooing for like 20 years now [and] he just started single needle practicing on his own skin in the Philippines when he was a kid … It’s hard to explain too. It’s not to say that another environment would be negative or hostile but I think with a lot of tattoo shops, lets be honest, its a lot of white dudes saying white dude things … [and] just to know you’ll be in an environment where this small part of yourself will be understood and there will be certain things that won’t be questioned … You can’t put a price on it, it's so valuable”
Working alongside Engel also created a space that was culturally respectful in the work that was being produced. “There a lot of things that are common [in the tattooing world] that I wouldn’t do.” For Ilona, being Filipino herself has created a strong bond to the imagery, aesthetic and technique of handpoking as the medium’s origins reside in Polynesian cultures like Japan, Samoa, The Philippines and Hawaii. However, once adopted into Western cultures the evaluation of the handpoking practice and of it’s traditional imagery and patterns has fallen to the wayside. “I think that’s [a reason] why I feel connected to the handpoking. For sure I want to continue [practicing it] my whole [career] but I don’t like [that] there’s definitely a devaluation of handpoking … as though it is primitive .. and that [machine tattooing] is science and progress.” So when Polynesian patterns are appropriated by machine tattoo artists who don’t understand the significance of traditional handpoking technique and imagery it completely disregards the value of that cultural practice and its history. “It’s like okay you’ve taken it, you’ve isolated it, you put it out there [and] you don’t say where its from. It’s hard to explain how that feels so much like a taking and like a silencing. There’s so much more to it than that.”
"It’s hard to explain how that feels so much like a taking and like a silencing."
To explain further she draws a parallel to the gendered hierarchy of the Western world. “It connects [to] the idea of dispassionate empirical knowledge, science, [and] math as a very masculine thing and anything that is of the earth, of nature, is wild, is uncontrollable, as a feminine thing.” So in Western society, which is inherently patriarchal in its assessment of value, anything labelled as feminine is seen as inferior. Therefore handpoking, a process that results in a more organic line and aesthetic, is seen as lower in quality than machine tattooing despite being equally as artistically valuable, technically rigorous and medically sanitary. This same divide is evident in the Western perspective on technology and modern medicine. Western societies see the way that they have progressed as the singular best way of progressing, when holistic medicine in China, for example, has produced amazing societal advancements. “It’s weird that that is taken as such a factual way to divide things, all of these words are all just symbols and we apply meaning to them. We put the importance in it.”
"... the dynamic of power in this world right now doesn’t work like that."
And in this stance, she differs from the Postmodern approach where nothing is off limits. Though the Postmodernist art argues for the fluidity between high and low art, cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation are two concepts that have a distinct divide. “In tattooing some tattoos are very meaningful in a very ancient way, in a way that shouldn’t and can’t belong to other people. Some people are like, 'It's a sharing' but the dynamic of power in this world right now doesn’t work like that." Though it has invaded art schools and creative programs, Postmodernism has yet to truly breakdown the divides we create between people, so taking from one culture without recognition, understanding and respect is just that. What Ilona is calling for is a pluralist approach to tattooing, art, and culture that appreciates the multiplicity of experience and values as different but equal. “Its not like I want to be better [than other people] I just want to do my own thing and be able to do tattoos that reflect my background [and] the backgrounds of the people that I tattoo].”