Imagine the most beautiful floral garment created just for your body, a delicately embroidered jacket made to represent your personal story of feminine evolution and growth – whether it be a battle won against breast cancer, the courage to leave something that no longer serves you or a celebration of your own personal spirit.
This is what it is like to be tattooed by Michele Wortman, whose artwork spreads like gardens across the torsos of her clients, the work unfolding in synchronistic balance to their lives.
Many of Michele’s clients, who travel to see her from across the globe, have been in her chair for well over a decade, as shoulder caps of painterly roses bloom into full floral sleeves of bleeding hearts, water lilies, daisies ... or mandala chest pieces unfurl into beds of lotuses that eventually stretch from shoulder to wrist.
Michele’s tattoo style originated from being a collector and not resonating with the early work that she herself had collected. Even though her tattoos were skillfully rendered, she realized that she wanted something that was softer,
more unified and better reflected how she was feeling rather than the heavy, bold styles that were popular at the time.
“It really bothered me when I was younger and first collecting ink,” she recalls. “I felt like what I choose did not flatter of fit my figure, it was not an improvement in the esthetics of my presentation visually. I felt like I put shapes on my body that weren't really that flattering, they just didn't fit my personality or body.”
Michele started to envision the way a well-designed garment fits and flatters the wearer, and to think about tattoos in the context of femininity and fashion, more so than the traditional skull and ink that had defined the industry for so long.
She had gotten a half sleeve in 1995, and a chest piece the following year. “Originally I had wanted a half sleeve of flowers, as I was telling a friend about my plans she looked at me, sighed and said, ‘You would get that!' Michele recalls. "It bothered me that I appeared to her to be so predictable and cliche'. So I decided to rebel against my feminine nature and get architecture instead, which was very masculine, linear, manmade and ironically in so many ways the opposite of flowers, a noun that derives from the word flow!"
The final piece had a fair amount of black in it, and Michele instantly regretted it. Longing for a more free-flowing aesthetic, that felt pleasing to the eye Michele realized that as a person in her early 20s, she’d made a mistake in not staying true to herself. She got the tattoos lasered so that she could start over.
In 1998, Michele entered the tattoo world with a background in painting and a strong desire to bring something different to the field.
With this consideration in mind, along with referencing the “kimono” style of laying out Japanese bodysuits, Michele came to the idea of a lighter and more airy use of skin and tattoo, incorporating balanced or symmetrical elements, which eventually blossomed into her approach of creating body sets.
She recalls sitting on a New York City rooftop and showing her early work to Filip Leu, a third-generation artist and second-generation tattooer world renowned for his tattoo body suits and art. “He looked at my embryonic portfolio, wild-eyed, animated with expression, and said, 'Imagine if this was all over the body and unified.' I remember him holding his arms in the air, creating the movement as it could potentially cascade across the body. 'That’s what I want to do!' I'd told him. I was so amazed, stunned and honored that he had taken the time to look at my early work, and that he could somehow see my vision, especially at a time when other artists I encountered were not that supportive and instead were highly critical of my experimental style — and made that clear."
Michele immediately began tattooing in her defining style – body sets, as opposed to suits, a phrase her husband Guy Aitchison helped her term. Her work was deliberately ultra-feminine, floral, sometimes psychedelic and always nature-based. “The fact that I rebelled against my feminine nature in the beginning only to come back to it later was an interesting lesson for me — to be comfortable and enjoy things that might be associated with having feminine qualities and not try to fight it and be someone I'm not,” she recalls. “That had a lot to do with the energy I was putting into my tattoo work, and that became my defining style.”
Michele considers every tattoo she does to be just like its wearer, an original work of art. She is inspired by the joy that simple beauty brings, in the understated simplicity of nature. The sacred space where she works, Hyperspace Studios, is itself the embodiment of this. It is surrounded by dreamy outdoor gardens where flowers of countless colors sway in the breeze, feeding darting hummingbirds and offering a place for butterflies to rest.
Could it be that we are drawn to imagery such as this because it resonates with us on a core level, a reminder that we are not separate from nature but rather a part of it? This is the vision to which Michele stays true. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Nature always wears the colors of the spirit.”