Inked Identity: 5 Minutes With Chloe Malay

Get to know Chloe Malay, tattoo artist.

chloe malay tattoo artist
Photo Artwork: Joy Adaeze

In our latest series, Inked Identity, we highlight the stories, journeys, and artistry behind the world of body modification via tattooing—a beauty ritual that transcends cultures and aesthetics. Join us as we discover the transformative power of this growing movement.

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Reflect Beauty sat down with tattoo and mixed media artist Chloe Malay (@pokedbyclo) to discuss everything from intention setting to tattoo parties. Chloe, who began tattooing professionally out of Maryland in 2020 splits her time between D.C.’s Ephemeral Tattoo and her privately operated studio. Chloe’s art style is ever evolving but psychedelics, botanicals, and Black American Traditional themes are frequently found in her art work. 

Reflect Beauty: Do you view tattooing as a spiritual practice––an energy exchange or as a surgical procedure?

Chloe Malay: Definitely both. It is a spiritual thing. As an artist, I’m putting so much energy into what I’m doing. Every line I pull is intentional. I mean it’s bloodwork. You’re literally scaring someone, marking them. At the same time, you still have to be aware of the medical side of it all, from prepping for an appointment to aftercare.

It’s interesting comparing Western tattooing to Eastern because Eastern practices are much more lenient with how they prep, like wearing gloves or not. You can’t just not wear gloves here but in other parts of the world that’s not the case. In Thailand, there’s a practice called Sak Yant where 2-3 people stretch the skin while one person does a stick and poke. That’s an ancient practice and they’ve clearly been doing it successfully for centuries but doing that in the States would be socially unacceptable. 

RB: How do you set intentions ahead of an appointment?

CM: It’s all about working with the person. Anything from my flash art is adjustable, so I like working with my client to ensure their piece fits them. Some artists are very particular about their work, but I don’t mind changing small things. It makes it more special to the person. I don’t even like doing flash unless it’s angel numbers, because I created my own font in that case. Tattoos should be unique to you, and it should change to match you. Although at a certain point it just becomes custom.

RB: How would you define your art style? 

CM: No idea. It’s a weird mix of surrealism and psychedelic botanical. Psychedelic botanical is what I advertise and that’s the direction I want to move in. I’m trying to define what psychedelic even looks like. I think a lot of people perceive that to be warped imagery and it is that but I also use shrooms to shape what my work looks like. I’ve been trying to draw more while on shrooms so that I can translate that visual effect to my work. 

I also like realism: I’m working on a series of dishware that’s a lot more realistic––a whiskey glass, a platter. The style really depends on the subject matter. I also like doing staple Black household items, I did a painting recently that went viral on Twitter and it’s so funny to see how art builds community. So many people related to the work and that theme of Black nostalgia is really popular in my work. 

RB: Tattoo pop-up events seem really popular these days. What’s it like being a tattoo artist at parties where you have your own room and someone laid out on a table. You’re really out here in the open. What’s that experience like?

CM: I love how social those environments are. I love how spontaneous it is. It’s a great way to connect with clients. I did a piece inspired by Ernie Barns on a girl yesterday and she told me that she was an art historian who was working on an exhibition featuring his work. What are the odds of that? I love meeting new people in that way. It’s also refreshing to see who’s willing to just randomly get a tattoo. Half of these people don’t expect to walk into a party and walk out with a new tattoo. 

RB: What’s it like working out of Ephemeral studio vs. other studios?

CM: It’s pretty chill compared to other shops, and they take the client into consideration a lot more than other places I’ve worked. Some studios are more careless, but there they are very focused on the client. Food, water, everything you need. It’s really funny because the tattoos aren’t actually permanent, but they operate with the most care. 

RB: How did they find you or did you find them? 

CM: They found me on instagram, no interview. They just DM’d me and told me that they liked my work and pretty soon I was working for them.

RB: What Advice would you give a first time tatooer?

CM: Be 100% sure about your design and the sizing. A lot of people regret the sizing of their first tattoo. I also think your perception shifts after your first tattoo so you have to trust your artist. When I got my first tattoo I had a completely different size. I was planning to get something much smaller at the time, but my artist suggested a bigger size and I’m glad he did. It would be covered up by now if I hadn’t listened to him.