the tattoo artist empowering women with anime self-portraits
"She's the really honest, female part of you. It's like all the Spice Girls in one person," says Manuela Soto about her anime hero.
"I care for people. I'm that bitch," says Manuela Soto. The 26-year-old Swiss-born artist is FaceTiming me from London, explaining why she rarely tattoos back home. When she taught herself tattooing eight years ago, many friends sacrificed their hides for practice. "Everything was fucked up. I know a lot of people got cover-ups." Now, when she runs into her early guinea pigs, she gets so ashamed she offers them a tattoo for cheap. "And that's why I don't tattoo in Switzerland anymore," she says with a grin.
Soto has found Instagram fame and a loyal fan base with her signature style, a striking mix of chola culture, old-school video vixens, and anime. She's known for doing empowering self-portraits of women, who ask to be inked as the sexy, unapologetically feminine alter-egos they can't always show in public. She was noticed last year by Maxime Plescia-Büchi, founder of tattoo studio and creative agency Sang Bleu, who famously works with self-taught, hyper-stylized artists like Tati Compton. Plescia-Büchi, who gave Soto her first studio tattoo when she was 18, invited her to do a guest spot and has since employed her in his London shop. "My level went up like fucking 100 percent," she says. "Now it's family. I'm very blessed. I'm super lucky."
With a background in fine arts and a range of creative outlets including designing streetwear and painting, Soto doesn't consider herself a tattoo artist so much as a multidisciplinary artist whose current medium is tattoos. Eventually, her goal is to launch a proper clothing brand and an artistic space with "all my girls who do like really, really tight shit. I found some soul sisters on the internet." We called her up to talk sex positivity, Sailor Moon, and tattoos as therapy.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
I've always been working towards sex positivity for women. I've been abused a lot, during my teenage years, at school, all of this. And so art has been a way for me to go through this and find a way to accept my femininity and my sexuality. And it's not that I achieved this already, I'm still working on it. And who are we as women, how do you position yourself within your body and your sexuality? This has been all my work, and now with the tattooing that I do, I do all those big-girl designs and super powerful lady figures, and body positive things, and my crowd is really fucking with it. And they really see themselves, and that's why I'm excited about this tattoo thing right now, because it's really working crazy! That's my style right now. I guess it's hentai references mixed with a Latino/Cholo fine line graphic visual.
Did you watch a lot of anime as a kid?
I was born in '91. So we all grew up with, like, old manga references. That became crazy in Europe. Because I grew up in Switzerland, I grew up with Sailor Moon. We were all Sailor Moons at school. I'm not an anime freak, but this is such a good way of talking to our generation right now. It's just references that talk to everybody, and I love it!
Why do you think Sailor Moon resonates with our generation so much?
Because she is such a crybaby, but she's also so strong. She fights hella good, but she also cries all the time. She's really us! She's the really honest, female part of you. It's like all the Spice Girls in one person.
Why do you think people come to you specifically for your selfie tattoos?
What I give on Instagram is really me. I don't lie, I'm very honest, I don't play with nobody, I'm not like incredibly expensive. I'm really doing it because I know that for some people, it's therapy. It's not just art anymore. What I give is therapy to a lot of people.
What are some ways in which tattoos can be therapeutic or healing?
All the tattoos I've ever gotten on myself have been a good luck charm or a wish. You know how they did this Japanese experiment with beans? To one [group of beans], they would say a lot of cute words, and to another [group] they would not pay attention to it, and just said fuck you every day to the beans, and the beans would just rot. And the other ones would grow into a fucking tree. This is how I see tattoos!
What kinds of things have your tattoos helped people heal from and move forward from?
My thing is really how to go through sexual abuse and grow up as a woman, like knowing every part of yourself and living as a sexual being. That's one thing that people come to me the most for, is to talk about this kind of thing. I've been posting a lot about what I've been through and my struggles, so a lot of women come to me like, Oh my god, I saw you talking about that, that's why I came to you, so you can help me go through this shit. And having this version of a girl tattooed on me, I know it's a real me inside that can fight all of this.
When girls tell me, "Thank you so much for empowering me, I feel so much better now," I'm feeling like that's the reason why I'm here. That's the reason I'm doing this. When you've been through life forever, and you're like what the fuck is my purpose, what the fuck am I here for? Like that. That was it. That was cool.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Text Evelyn Wang
Portrait Kate Dash