When she was 18, Manuela Soto could be found hunched over a stranger’s kitchen sink, cleaning off the blood from the needles she used to ink a hentai-style portrait of a girl with big eyes, bigger tits, flaunting a Gucci bikini, onto their skin. A self-taught tattoo artist without much of a childhood, Soto put miles of distance between herself and the life she knew in Switzerland. Packing her bags while subconsciously clinging to emotional baggage, she became a nomad, a wandering artist who answered to the beck and call of DM’s worldwide. Soto is now a cultural force of an artist who bestows tangible vignettes of self-love through the permanence of tattoos.
Inspired by Sailor Moon, a generational icon and notorious crybaby, Soto’s aesthetic is a reflection of the times. As we look upon video vixens, rappers and aspire to make it rain, these manifestations of “the good life” have culminated at the crossroads of our identities as young people, infiltrating our ideas of success, self and sexuality. Soto, with her fine lines and cholo-licious style behind the gun, seeks to expose and heal our perceptions of the latter. By empowering women to see the person they want to be when they look in the mirror, Soto has found the power of the tattoo to be cathartic. Her work extends far below the skin’s surface and into the minds and hearts of both herself and her clients. office chatted with the multidisciplinary artist over the phone to talk sexy Sailor Moons, the meaning behind the anime self-portraits she tattoos and getting in trouble with the Yakuza, the Japanese mafia.
I’m Japanese so when I first saw your tattoos I was like, oh my god! These are super fresh, anime-type tattoos. It’s funny because there’s such a weird stigma with anime but yet you make it sexy, how did you get into that whole aesthetic and ultimately make it your thing?
Going through sexual abuse made me question power dynamics, sexuality and the reasons for the abuse I endured or the affect of the woman’s body on others, I wonder How does my body affect men to the point where I’m put in a dangerous position by just being out there? and How do I avoid abuse? Sexuality is a very important element in my work, even outside of tattooing.
I studied illustration and fine art, I’ve been making zine about fashion in amateur porn, is sex love? and a lot of other research, this is how I went deeper into japanese hentai, it is a huge inspiration to me, artists focusing on sweaty, powerful bodies with submisive baby faces, I fell in love with the aesthetic! I had the feeling it could answer to all those questions.
Have you gone to Japan and were you able to tattoo there?
Mhmm, yeah I’ve been tattooing there. The first time I went there I was 20 and thought I would go and live there forever, I took my plane ticket one way.
Damn, what did you like about it?
I just felt some type of connection. This mix between tradition and modern technology, I was doing nails at the time and the Japanese nail techs are fucking crazy, it was super inspiring to me, that’s why I went there. I tried to stay and found a job that would help me to get my Visa but got in trouble with the mafia so I had to leave.
Wait, the Yakuza?
Yeah, it was a really weird job. [laughs] I left for Japan because I was tryna get away from my boyfriend at the time, we was doing mad drugs and I wanted to change lifestyle. I was hired in this very small club in Roppongi as a fresh new attraction because the owner had just been sent to jail for giving customers speed injections behind the bar lol… I had fallen into some drug and mafia related business that I was really not ready for, so I took off.. funny how life works, right?
Wow what the fuck. I was trying to get tattooed there and it was so hard to go about finding an artist. At the time I think they were trying to crack down on all the tattoo shops because tattoos in Japan are associated with the Yakuza. It’s interesting because the younger Japanese generations are trying to break out of these cultural stereotypes and being told what you should be doing with your body. It must’ve been so interesting for you to go in there and make that bridge as a tattoo artist and a foreigner.
Yeah! Have you seen what’s happening in South Korea? Tattooing in South Korea is banned, like you will go to prison but there’s a lot of the people that do and they’re creating something so fucking incredible because they really have to fight for it and now it’s blowing up, it’s beautiful. Korean artists are getting a lot of recognition right now, I feel like it’s going to spread everywhere in Asia, especially in Japan. My next trip will be around Asia, I can’t wait to meet local artists!
Having the strength to be on the road alone, what has that taught you?
To trust myself, it gave me a lot of confidence, I had to learn to be boss real fast because you can end up in fucked up situation in a second and you can only save your ass. I know myself so well because of spending all this time alone, being on planes, having so much time to think made me extra critical toward myself, tryna be a better version of me everyday.
What are you critical about?
Just my art, I don’t really see myself as a tattoo artist.
Why do you say that?
I’m an artist, I got shit to say. I’m not just drawing because it’s cute, I’m drawing because I have shit to say and a greater purpose than doing something because it’s pretty, I want it to be meaningful.
That’s the dichotomy with tattoos I think, when people ask me about mine I really say it’s my story but when you look at it, it’s some pretty shit. How do you make sure your message is conveyed to the people you’re tattooing?
I used to be super active on Instagram talking about abuse and my vision on a healthy female sexuality. The crying eyes came as a trend but other than that I have the self-portrait girls that I do, that’s my main thing. These portraits really are a message of the importance of getting to know every aspect of yourself, every aspect of your femininity and accepting yourself. Most of the people that come for this know why they’re coming, they come to get their inner self, real self. Living in this world as a woman, we put on this mask of being perfect all the time, not too emotional, not too crazy -- It ain’t real.
What’s the process like working on these self-portraits? It sounds like it’s rather collaborative.
When people ask for a portrait or a girl, they send me lots of pictures.
It’s so funny, I get emails full of nudes, selfies, outfits from girls around the world. I love it, they see my design for them saying “she’s so pretty” and I’m like, “baby, it’s you,” you’re the baddest bitch!
What advice do you have for those people who are trying to get to know themselves? We’re always told to “go and find ourselves”, go and do this shit but it’s like where do you even start sometimes.
Exactly! [laughs] Always listen to your emotions and never hide things, talk to yourself. I have this thing that I do where I stand in front of the mirror -- this is some shit that I’ve done forever -- and tell myself my life story out loud, from birth until today. We have all been through pain, abuse and heartbreaks, accept it, just tell yourself your story and every time you cry that’s something in you that you didn’t deal with it. Do it until you don’t cry anymore. You’ll feel stronger every time.
What are you still dealing with?
I have abandonment issue, I know it affects my relationships a lot. I know that me being so driven and such a workaholic is actually baby-me tryna prove to my family that I’m capable, that’s why I hit depression when I don't work cause I feel like I ain’t shit.
I’ve been writing a lot about the abuses I’ve been through and I hope I’ll be strong enough to publish it at some point. The more I analyse it, the more I understand who I am and forgive myself for my extreme behaviors and I’m sure that could be helpful for a lot of people too.
Wow, babe, that’s beautiful. I have a totally new understanding of your work now. The crying eyes perhaps is a manifestation of everyone coming to terms with themselves and their own stories. What does home to mean to you?
I feel like everyone’s purpose is to find a place to go home to.
I have a broken family, I never really felt like Switzerland was my home, it’s a beautiful place to grow up but I’ve always been searching for this place where I could root myself, that’s why I started traveling. I still haven’t found a home, I’m desperate to settle down and have my little apartment, I’ve been on the road for two and a half years now, literally me and my suitcase, it’s exhausting.
When getting tattooed, is it more important to choose the artist or the design?
I feel like it’s really important to choose who you want to get a tattoo from, it’s an experience and that's really how I feel about myself. If you go with my design to someone else, they’re never going to give you this same emotion and same energy that I would put into it because that’s how I see my work. I don’t just put designs into people, I’m trying to be 100% with you, that’s why I would choose the person that I would go and get a tattoo from based on who they are.
You’re a whole package, you’re a human being and life led you to this place so what’s your background? Tryna get to know you.
I know a lot of people that I go to I fuck with their whole entity, this whole vibe you’re giving is more than just a drawings.
What’s that process like for you when you’re on the other side of the gun?
I fuck with energy, I want somebody to touch me, that’s why I get shit from my friends and people I really admire.
My tattoos are good luck charms for money, love, travel, protection or a start to something new.
For you as someone who’s been through a lot of shit, tattooing or getting tattooed is a huge, permanent, commitment. What do commitment and permanence mean in your own life?
I am very old school and I’m down to trust people, I commit very easily and I look for stability, that’s what I’m doing, I’m always on the move but I’m looking to be stable all the time. I know that I can’t stay in one place for more than two months so I’m really ambiguous. I cry a lot if I get stuck or feel like there’s something better for me somewhere else, that’s why I’m always leaving shops, that’s why I couldn’t stay in Zurich so I moved to London, then after 2 months I moved to New York, then I had to move to LA, I’m crazy with this shit. I’m looking for something but I think it’s in me.
How do you think you’ll know to stay?
I don’t know, when I’m relaxed? I’m just looking for inner peace, that’s what I need, it’s so hard to find [laughs].
It is and do you think that kind of comes with tattooing? Do you find it to be therapeutic?
I feel like the people I’ve been tattooing have taught me a lot, with or without knowing it. Meeting so many people is powerful and I learn a lot about myself and self-care getting to know them. People are really open with me, they’ll tell me about their heartbreak, their dream and failure, whatever it is I’m also very open with them. It’s actually therapeutic for me too... I never realized that, that’s really beautiful.