Skin in the Game: Life on the Road with Climber and Tattoo Artist Marina Inoue

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Marina Inoue on Sometimes Always (5.13c), Rifle, Colorado.

Marina Inoue on Sometimes Always (5.13c), Rifle, Colorado.

Try-hard screams echo through the narrow canyon of Rifle Mountain Park, Colorado, as a petite, dark-haired woman in a strappy pink tank top surges into the headwall on Cryptic Egyptian (5.13c). Twenty tries deep, Marina Inoue is just moves from completing her summer 2018 Rifle Wicked Cave trifecta of Tomb Raider (5.13d), Quick Tick Egyptian (5.13b), and Cryptic. Runout, Inoue has skipped the last two bolts; she’s snagged the good, final crimp but neglected to leave room to match on it. Fighting, her ponytail quivering as she exerts herself, Inoue improvises a new sequence, moving her hands around to match the rail, and then guns for the anchors. Cryptic Egyptian is not the hardest route she’s ever done, but as the capstone to the trifecta, it’s the most satisfying, with the notoriously crimpy boulder problem at the top having thwarted her initially.

If you’ve visited Rifle, the New River Gorge, or Hueco Tanks in the last four years, chances are you’ve run into 32-year-old Inoue, who lives full-time in the Silver Bullet, a 1996 Airstream B90. With no trust fund and no delusions of sponsorship—though she has climbed 5.13d and V11—Inoue makes a living as a roving tattoo artist, doing guest spots at shops owned by friends in Salt Lake City and Richmond, Virginia, scheduling her work around climbing trips. Thanks to the time she’s put in since she started tattooing at age 21, she has many loyal customers, people who will cross the country for her work.

Inoue’s interest in tattoos started during her teenage years hanging around in New York City’s punk/hardcore scene. She grew up in the city, the only child of her mother, Raeanne Inoue, a commercial still-life photographer; and her father, Izumi Inoue, a graphic designer. “I always wanted to be tattooed, and thought people who had tattoos were so cool,” she says now. Inoue is not sure how many tattoos she has—several dozen at least, with many of the larger ones incorporating smaller pieces. At 14, she got her first piece, a nautical star on the back of her neck, at St. Mark’s Place, a punk hangout in the East Village. Although she doesn’t have any formal art education, Inoue has always been into drawing, her creativity encouraged by her artistic parents. (For more examples of Inoue’s art; follow her @marina_inoue on Instagram.)

Putting her own spin on a traditional design, Inoue tattooed this wolf from a Sailor Jerry flash sheet using a technique called whip shading.

Putting her own spin on a traditional design, Inoue tattooed this wolf from a Sailor Jerry flash sheet using a technique called whip shading.

When Inoue turned 18, she began working as a personal assistant and manager at Fly Rite, a tattoo shop in Brooklyn, cleaning, ordering supplies, scheduling, and prepping each artist’s station. At 21, she started an apprenticeship there, often showing up at noon and staying until midnight, painting, drawing, and doing supervised—and eventually unsupervised—tattoos on friends and fellow artists. After thousands of hours of work, she earned her position as a full-time tattoo artist.

Four years later, in 2011, she was tired of the NYC hustle and moved to laidback Richmond, Virginia, at the behest of friends, taking a job at Classic Tattoo. She also, for the first time, had easy access to the outdoors, in the nearby Shenandoah Valley, a haven of trails winding through rolling green hills. “Growing up in the city, I didn’t spend much time outside,” she says. “But I had always been intrigued by mountains and the West and the desert landscape.” Inoue took a solo trip along the West Coast, stopping in Yosemite where she saw people climbing and thought, “This is amazing. I don’t ever want to come to a place like this again and not be able to climb.” In 2012, she climbed outside at the New, and from there launched headlong into the climbing lifestyle. In 2014, Inoue felt established enough in her tattooing career to try life on the road, climbing and freelancing as a tattoo artist. She moved into a Chevy S10 pickup and left Richmond for Hueco.

This girl plus tiger sits on a client’s inner arm and is an adaptation from a late-80s flash piece.

This girl plus tiger sits on a client’s inner arm and is an adaptation from a late-80s flash piece.

“Hueco changed my life and my climbing,” she says. “I met a lot of people who have become lifelong friends.” Inoue draws parallels between the tattoo and climbing worlds—“They’re very unrelated groups of people, but they’re equally obsessed and passionate,” she says. (At the 2018 Hueco Rock Rodeo, Inoue combined her two passions: For the festival’s twenty-fifth anniversary, she and fellow tattoo artist Brian Lynch offered $20 Hueco-themed tattoos, like javelinas and prickly-pear cacti.) However, she’s also found that her dedication to climbing has impacted her tattooing career. “I’ve sacrificed forward progression in my skill and career to climb,” she says. “When I’m climbing a lot, I have this anxiety that I’m losing relevance [in the tattoo world], but I’d rather be happier and less relevant than be consumed by one or the other.”

However, similar to the nine days of work Inoue put into Cryptic Egyptian, the often 40-plus hours of tattooing time required for some of her larger pieces make the final result all the more satisfying. “It’s a long, slow process for both,” she says. “You gotta put in the time.”

Inoue drew this image, created a Thermofax stencil, then transferred it to her client’s leg.

Inoue drew this image, created a Thermofax stencil, then transferred it to her client’s leg.

Q&A

What’s your tattoo style?

Marina Inoue: American traditional, meaning simple black lines and bold, primary colors—think of Sailor Jerry. All the tattoos on my body are American traditional, except for my left arm and back, which are traditional Japanese style. I love my back, which was done by a Richmond artist, Brian Bruno. It’s a snake with peony flowers that goes from my neck to my knees.

Which tattoo means a lot to you?

I recently got CONTROL and CHAOS on each wrist. It’s a reminder that there has to be a balance of both. You have to embrace chaos, accept it, and understand that it’s always going to be a part of life. But sometimes there’s also a point where you should take control of your situation, even if [this] means allowing chaos in.

Any similarities between tattooing and climbing?

They’re two very different groups of people, but they’re equally obsessed and passionate. Getting better is all about time—people don’t get really good at climbing until they’ve been climbing for, like, 10 years, and tattooing is pretty much the same. It’s a lengthy process that you have to be motivated for and work at in order to improve.

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