Living the ArtistDream

Lessons from the life of S. M. Shifflett

“Art has the power to communicate and connect.” – S.M. Shifflett

Pablo Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” Maybe the secret is to never grow up. Miami is by comparison to places like New York and San Francisco a young city. Perhaps that’s why the art scene here is so amazing. For the artists growing up in this city one of the constant challenges is surviving as an artist. Making a lifetime career out of it.

S. M. Shifflett seems to have figured it out. Shifflett grew up in a small town in Maine and upon graduating from high school, moved to New York city to attend Parsons School of Design in 1983. One of the consistent changes throughout Shifflett’s life has been movement due to financial constraints in order to be able to continue to live as an artist. Miami has a lot to learn from the metropolises that have decades of experience. Especially if we hope to not lose the artists that make this city great.

“Though I loved NYC, I couldn’t afford to stay there.”

S.M. Shifflett, oil painting, 1998

Four years later Shifflett was off to San Francisco where she became a tattoo apprentice under Wayne Bruce Lee, her career continued to grow and took her to Portland Oregon where she built her name in a female owned street shop called Infinity Tattoo. Once she was booked out enough to open her own studio she did. 

It was the late nineties by this time. Portland Oregon was one of the few states that allowed full nudity and alcohol in strip clubs. Women were setting up businesses offline and online thanks to the new technology of the “internet”. Shifflet started Medusa tattoo and Gallery. It was a tattoo shop combined with an art gallery. Once a month an emerging artist would be featured in the gallery of the studio.

Shifflet eventually returned to San Francisco and opened up Modern Electric Studio in the Mission district. It was forced to close when the landlord doubled the rent. The business model was unique, combining two of Shifflet’s passions and skills. It was half tattoo shop and the other half was a painting studio. 

“I cannot afford to live in San Francisco and pursue a career as a painter.

Shifflet is proud to have the talent of drawing and tattooing. “It connects me to people in a way I am comfortable with.” That feeling of pride is what Shifflet says is the best thing about being and artist. Art has a way of doing that. Artists speak through their work, sharing pieces of themselves with the world that they wouldn’t express in other way. Having people admire their work allows for attention and appreciation to be felt in a way that a self-proclaimed introverts like Shifflet or others allow themselves to feel.

I am an introvert and was very shy as a child. I would hide when strangers came to our house. At school I would stand by the door during recess until the school bell rang. I did not play with the other kids. One day a girl asked me to draw her a pony. I was very proud of my drawing skills and drew her that pony. When I looked up I noticed a bunch of kids standing around watching me draw. At this moment, I did not feel shy but proud. I have the same feeling when I am drawing and tattooing for clients. It connects me to people in a way I am comfortable with.

This type of reflection comes with years of experience. Shifflet is an artist, an entrepreneur, and a community activator who was kind enough to answer my questions. Read what else I learned in my interview below.

How do you want people to feel when they see your work.

Art has the power to communicate and connect. This is why museums and monuments are so important to us. We feel something when we look up at a statue of Joan of Arc or into the eyes of a Rembrandt portrait. We sense the humanity whether or not we know this subject.

It is important to me that those viewing my work have some sort of feeling about it. Even if the narrative in the painting is something They’ve never experienced in their own life, my hope is that My technical prowess will draw them in. Once in, I’d like them to also know it is not just the differences but what connects us as humans.

“The larger Tattoo community is still pretty much a boys club.”

What challenges have you faced in your career?

In my Tattoo career the challenge of being a queer woman has been positive and negative. On the positive side, I’ve been able to serve the LGBTQ community. On the negative side, the larger Tattoo community is still pretty much a boys club. If you go to any major tattoo conventions the booths are primarily filled with men.

The biggest challenge as a painter is to try and make a living off it, while still staying true to my artistic voice. Our country values art and artists so little that funding for the arts is being cut at an alarming rate. Many public schools no longer have art as part of their curriculum.

“If you’re an artist find a way to keep making art.

What learning’s from your journey do you have that may be helpful to share with others?

I could say many cliché things like “ find a way for what you do to give your life meaning and purpose”, or “ people don’t remember what you did or said but how you made them feel,” or “ I don’t regret the things I did but the things I didn’t do.” We’ve heard these before, and I don’t know how helpful they are? If you’re an artist find a way to keep making art. If you would like to become a tattooist find an apprenticeship. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and to give back.

What have been some highlights of your career?

Two of the happiest years of my life were when I was in graduate school and painting full-time. I realize how much of a luxury and privilege that was, and I will be paying it for the rest of my life, but it was worth it.

Shifflett earned a masters in painting at Laguna College of Art and Design and currently works part time at a street shop called Paper Crane Studio in Long Beach California in order to have more time to work on painting. Having lived in many cities there are lots of stories to be told from the years. If you want to read them you’ll have to wait for the book! In the meantime you can keep up with Shifflet on the web, Instagram, or Facebook.