Alena Chun is a bit of a legend in Portland’s tattoo community. North Portland, Oregon shop. Icon Tattoo, Chun is well-known for being a regular on the scene and sharing photos from her work frequently with over 20,000 Instagram followers.
In the past decade, tattoo designs have multiplied rapidly. Chun, however, is just one example of the many tattooists who use the American Traditional style. It is distinguished by its bold black lines and iconic images of skulls and roses, Sailor Jerry was an early pioneer in the field before lending his name as a rum producer. Jersey-Shore Ed Hardy, a modern designer for -stars’ T-shirt label, was an inspiration.
Tattooers working in the style today are not just influenced by the aesthetic—they literally trace the lines drawn over a hundred years ago. This can create tension: when you’re perpetuating a design that old, it’s important to question the message behind the imagery, says Chun.
American Traditional designs often feature inappropriate imagery and, at worst, racist depictions. We spoke with Chun about what carrying on and course-correcting the tradition looks like, how social media has changed the tattoo industry, and how she fell into the world in the first place. This edited version of our conversation was condensed to make it more concise.
PORTLAND MONTHLY – How did you get started in tattooing?
ALENA CHUN was actually the apprentice of Icon. I was a newbie to art and didn’t really have much to offer other than a passion. They decided to let me try it. I started off in 2007 hanging around, cleaning, watching people tattoo, and working on drawings, before learning how to do more specific stuff like scrubbing tubes and making needles and filling machines. Then I got into tattooing. And so I stayed and finally got tattooed. I took the matter over in 2020 right before the pandemic.
Are you more drawn to the art side of tattooing?
It’s not my intention to be an artist. You can make a painting. Please enter your email address All that and more Please enter your email address You want to invest in it. When you tattoo someone, your choices, their desires and the dimensions of the client are all important. There are also limitations specific to each craft.
What has the impact of social media on tattooing?
In that I was a tattoo artist before the advent of social media, I am an unusual generation. However, I don’t have the same career as those who were in tattooing for a longer time before it became popular. [It used to be] More information about your shop, including traffic. This is a completely different situation.
Is that more freedom?
That’s what I believe. It’s also changed the industry. Traditionally, [tattooing] It was a stigmatized job that is very common in the society. And now it’s become this desirable job—people see it as a cool thing.
I think it’s helped me grow a lot as an artist, too. In the early days of tattooing there were very few websites. My first exposure to tattoos came from what I saw around me, and books. It’s easy to follow others around the world. It has been a great way to get work.
Are there any negative effects?
It’s really annoying to be able to measure your worth as a person based on how many people like you or follow you. This is a difficult thing to avoid. What sells on Instagram is a super consistent body of work—a strong style—but I would argue that Instagram has undervalued versatility. People no longer have to choose one thing.
Not the tattoo, but the medium is the medium.
Exactly. This is a lot of work. This is a difficult task because you need to create social media content.
Was it a positive experience for you to get tattooed as a woman from color?
In my early days, very few people knew of tattoo artists. Portland is a city where I do not know of any women who tattooed. The industry has seen a significant shift in this way. The industry has had many problems with gatekeeping, and this is not solved.
My friend wanted me to learn and I think I’d say that I am very fortunate. Many people were forced to endure abusive and traumatic situations in order to complete apprenticeships. This was especially true for women, queer, or other people of color. If They were given the chance. I had a great chance of not having that. However, it is a serious problem. It’s still not solved, as I mentioned.
Do you like the American Traditional way of life?
It’s just so cool. The ability to view designs 100 years old and then recreate them is possible. There’s no way you can’t acknowledge that that’s pretty sick. However, I believe there should be things left from this era. Some of that imagery is racist, which I wouldn’t touch. I believe that the purpose of American Traditional tattoos would be to preserve and honor some of the techniques and imagery while removing the ones that don’t work anymore.
There’s this concept with getting tattoos—and I think, in general, in society—where it’s so focused on uniqueness. What’s beautiful about American Traditional is these images can be recreated so many times and the uniqueness is the hand of the artist, right? The content is not necessarily what the image contains. It could also be a rose. I can look at every Icon employee and tell who did what rose. You can recreate these images [asking]How do I make it mine?
What does this thinking have to do with Icon’s operation?
The shop will be a place where I can bring the goods. [from old-school tattoo shops] It is my goal to create a safe space where everyone feels comfortable. However, I do not believe it is up to the individual to determine if they are a safe space. It’s not my place to be safe for everybody. Someone came to me wanting a tattoo of white supremacists. I would tell them that I am not their artist.
It’s not a strange situation in tattoo-world.
We’ve had people come in for white power tattoos, for sure. It’s not super common, but they’re around. They aren’t as far as we think.
You’ve cited your Chinese and Korean heritage as an influence in your work. Can you talk about the dialogue between that and the American Traditional designs you’re inspired by?
I’m half Asian/half white. It’s not difficult to be biracial. Most people know this. The process is about finding oneself and understanding your place in the world. Unfortunately, there are many impostor symptoms. As a youngster, it was a difficult process. When I got older, I wanted to be able to draw more Asian inspired images or to redraw pinups of Asian girls. When I began to work more like this, I found a lot more clients of color who wanted to explore their identity via tattoos. That has been so meaningful, and also affirming for me—to give that to clients and provide the thing they want. Their ability to obtain it from an Asian person is crucial. Also, I have been learning about their families. It has been an integral part of me, which I find pretty amazing.
Is there a specific design you’ve tattooed that you see as a landmark example of that reclaiming?
It doesn’t seem like there are landmarks. It’s necessary to have an ongoing discussion about what imagery, quote-unquote “OK” to use. In the general sense, I think that’s a conversation that should basically never end. The person asking for it will determine who gets it. It also depends on how much money they make from it. My opinion is that tattooing contains a lot racist imagery.
And then some of the designs that aren’t blatantly racist, but were appropriated in the past—you’ve had an interest in reclaiming those?
Yeah. I should say, first, I think the only person who can reclaim something is someone who’s been directly oppressed by that image. [Being an Asian person,] This should be mine to draw if you want it to.