Printmaker, tattooer, musician and sculptor, Noel’le Longhaul makes highly detailed, one-of-a-kind works on bodies, paper and other materials at Lupinewood and beyond. Creating ephemeral works in secret places and “permanent” pieces on eager clients across the world, Longhaul divines inspiration from the often fraught, yet always alluring landscapes she’s ridden past and occupied over the last decade. Hers is a vivid world of burning houses, winding rivers and nebulaic compositions of deep forests and night skies.––John Arvanitis
JA: How did your early practice in drawing, printmaking and other collaborative mediums like music shape your approach to tattooing?
NL: Although I’ve been drawing compulsively since I was a child, I stopped while I was at art school. I found that many of my peers were incredibly talented at draftsmanship, but weren’t actually using art-making to investigate the world and their place in it more deeply. They were developing the ability to literally replicate their surroundings in a cultural vacuum of privilege and specialization, seeing less and less of themselves and their surroundings.
For many years, the primary way I made art was mostly intangible, fleeting, and rooted in place. I did this by finding places that held me, and using the materials of them to turn them into altars to themselves.
Although I studied printmaking, ultimately, I am more of a sculptor than anything. I built ephemeral installations in hidden places I found while riding freight trains, some scattered throughout so-called “New England”. This hearkened back to my childhood where I developed a relationship to power and craft by spending my time largely in the woods, taking a complex and fecund inner world and finding ways of overlapping it with actual place. As a child, I was pushed out of the social order at a young age due to my perceived otherness. I built power in solitude, relating to living places as a living being through the construction of strange houses of sticks and stones. I would bring people I trusted to those special places, welcoming them in to my private and fragile world.
This is much more what my tattoo practice is about than drawing. The way I tattoo people is by bringing them to a fleeting place that I have inhabited my whole life, steadily building a clearer understanding of its flora, rhythms and textures, and finding nuanced ways of sharing it with each person. The drawing aspect (or my “style”) is relatively inconsequential compared to the place of personal resonance those “drawings” reference.
What’s your favorite medium to work in?
My favorite medium to work in remains ephemeral and environmental, using the materials of my life and my surroundings to enunciate what is already there.
For a partner’s 30th birthday, I coordinated the secret construction of a hut woven of briar rose at the mouth of a swamp tucked into the woods behind our house, collaborating with loved ones to cover it in wildflowers and candles. We surprised them with the depth of the love and respect we hold for them, welcoming them into the rest of their life, invoking our power to enhance theirs. Months later, those woods were bulldozed by the electric company that “owns” them. Standing over the wreckage of the rose hut, feeling the power of having made something temporary and powerful, and letting it go into our collective memory - that is my favorite medium.
The materials of my life, that which is non-monetizable and what is made only for those who are granted access, will always be more powerful to me than negotiating the complex agency that comes with setting pen to paper, knife to wood, or needle to skin.
Did it ever feel a bit strange, or does it still feel weird to put a “permanent” image on somebody’s body?
I’m glad you wrote “permanent” in quotations. While most of tattoo craft is rooted in the idea that it is a permanent, stable, and ideally static art form, I embrace the opposite. The tattoos I make are meant to function like those spaces I reverently bring into my life; a reminder of the moment that decision was made, a way to close a chapter while opening to the future.
Tattoos are living. A wise friend once told me he believed a tattoo becomes a tattoo only through the act of incorporation, through the recipient healing the wound that was opened within them. I know the tattoo will change and grow in meaning as my clients change and grow. Sometimes it will feel gentle to have, sometimes it will be a visceral reminder of adversity they continually experience. The tattoo is not complete until they are, until their death. And even then, as they disperse, so does that image; still living and changing.
portrait by Jo Chattman
There’s clearly some visual motifs in all your work; burning houses, vast forests...how did these varied images appear in your work?
Slowly, I have sought imagery that I can flexibly shape according to my client’s needs and narrative. Still water is an invocation of self-knowledge and contemplative, quiet reflection. A rolling hill in the distance could symbolize a gentle path through their imminent future, whereas a dramatic and craggy mountain might assert and affirm a severe degree of opposition they are experiencing, or anticipate experiencing.
Where is the viewer in the tattoo? Are they small and hidden safely in the wildflowers? looking up at the towering night? Or are they in the air as a dispersed, more distant observer floating over their interior landscape like a weather pattern?
My imagery is mostly built of the things I know, like the pines of my childhood forest, the rivers that have taught me about trauma (personal and historical), and the houses I have haunted. I sculpt the things I have seen into spaces of projection for people, creating little reflecting pools for them to stand over and see themselves in. I have learned these images with my body. I have not chosen them; they have slowly revealed themselves to me. Using imagery of places, I create an icon of belonging for people, transmuting their body into something wider than that idea typically conveys. This act creates a dialogue between themselves and the site of their belonging.
Do these images have specific meaning to you?
Absolutely. The relationship of the burning house to its environment is particularly charged. Experiencing displacement in various ways my whole life is one meaning. I first lost my housing and sense of place at the age of 17, and, unrooted by place or lasting relationships, used that as an entrance to tunnel very deep into myself. I sought belonging and found none. As a result of the world’s reaction to my mostly buried experience as a trans person, I was very close to death many times in that period of my life.
Additionally, the icon of the burning house is political in nature for me. As a part of the colonial lineage of the North East, I believe that in order to have a genuine experience of belonging to where I call home, I must confront the fact that I fundamentally do not belong there. Sitting with the paradox of deep devotion to, and reverence for, the rolling hills I grew up in (and have decided to die amongst), against the genocidal nature of my being here is a fundamental site of confrontation for me...both in my art practice and in my daily life and devotional process.
As a white landscape artist, I am inevitably in dialogue with patriarchal, white supremacist, puritanical relationships to the sublime. The burning house, dwarfed by its location, is an offering up to those things, and a symbol of the inevitable self-destruction of capitalism.
As a practicing witch, does intention, psychospiritual engagement, and, ultimately witchcraft play an active role in your process of making art? Or is your practice as a witch separate from your creative practice?
It’s complicated. I use most of my income from tattooing to support my home Lupinewood, a predominantly trans, self-organizing, politically radical arts and organizing collective. Since tattooing brought me out of profound material instability (eating food out of the garbage, going months without housing,) this creates a responsibility to support the people who have dedicated their whole selves to building a stronghold of truly revolutionary, spiritually rich mutualism with each other. They have given me back to myself.
As such, my art participates in capitalism, something that is in dialectic, fundamental opposition to my witchcraft. Because of that, I see my role in public life as being a disruptor of normativity. I have to objectify and weaponize aspects of my spirituality, which is a violent action to take towards myself. This is a sacrifice that I feel I must make.
Selling little pieces of my world to people is something I will never feel simply good about. My tattooing should be something devoid of ego, competition, and commodity. In response, I have attempted to build protections for myself into my tattooing, creating lucid boundaries around what is available for me to give within that space. While transitioning from tattooing being a ritual practice into being a career, I did not have those boundaries in place. I was often taken advantage of in ways that were subtle but painful and deeply exhausting. I was offering people something they very badly desired, and they often pulled very hard on me in order to get it. Because of the fundamental entitlement people react to feminized caregiving, and because of my own trauma around my ability to claim femininity, I often gave far more to people (strangers) than was safe for me. Because of that, I have separated as much as I can about what is done for love, and what is done for stability (but done with love).
I now have layers to my practices. Some can weather the visibility of state-sanctioned spaces of social discipline like Facebook and Instagram, and some that are protected by further layers of intimacy.