From the first job of Charlene Ngo’s youth, she’s been putting art on people.
“I started face-painting in high school,” Ngo says. “I started a charity organization called Painted Harts, and I’d paint faces for charity. I just loved the connection with everybody I’d get to paint, even if it was just for five minutes at a time with a child.”
Since then, Ngo expanded her career by becoming a body painter for local clubs and marketing campaigns, and that naturally led to a fascination with tattooing as a way to make her art permanent. While any decent tattooer understands how to best place art on the human body, few have quite as much experience doing it as Ngo.
“[Body painting] is definitely a great prerequisite, because it teaches you how things flow on to the body,” Ngo says. “I have more of an understanding for myself now, and even though it’s very different than tattooing, it taught me about how the art flows.”
These days, Ngo’s artwork – which is primarily packed with bright colors, although she does also create black and gray tattoos from time to time – ranges from small simple watercolor designs to strikingly elaborate illustrative sleeves. It's an obvious extension of her earlier work, but there are also significant differences when you’re talking about permanent tattooing.
One of the biggest differences is working in a shop. Even for the first three years of her tattooing career, Ngo’s work was all done out of a private studio. But just a couple months ago, she took a station at OC Tattoo in her hometown of Westminster. As someone who’s spent her entire life working on her own as an artist, it was a bit of a shock, but a welcome one.
“I used to work privately, and it was nothing like the atmosphere I have here where I get to work among the other talented artists,” Ngo says. “Everybody here is very family-based, so there’s no animosity or competition amongst each other. Everybody just wants to raise one another up.”
Beyond the artwork itself, Ngo loves another aspect about body art and tattooing. Whether it’s brightening a child’s day with some face paint, beautifying a nude model with ornate body painting, or laying a tattoo down on one of her loyal clients, Ngo has always been about forming the bond with her human canvas.
“What’s unique about the tattoo artist and client relationship is that you get to build that relationship on a foundation of trust,” Ngo says. “It’s not just about the art that drives me to do what I love, it’s about the people and the connections you make with those people.”
But long before Ngo moved down to Lake Forest and became an artist, she was a super=motivated and introverted student. She’d been class president every year since the fourth grade, and she was so proper that some students called her “The Dictator.”
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“I was a super school-y nerd,” Ngo says. “I grew up very structured, and I always cared about what people thought because I was in that position where if I screwed up, people would see. I needed to set an example and act proper.”
Now, Ngo’s shed those Asian-American stereotypes to pursue her love of art. But while her family and friends were surprised by her initial desire to explore the world of tattooing, they ultimately came around to see it as a passion and a career path fitting for Ngo.
“I’m blessed because my parents have always been-super supportive about what I’ve done,” Ngo says. “They actually got me my first tattoo kit when I turned 20. They wrapped it up super cute, and my mom put a giant bow on it. I don’t think a lot of people can say that their Asian parents got them a tattoo kit for their birthday.”
OC Tattoo, 7134 W. Garden Grove Blvd., Westminster, (714) 899-1144, @paintedharts