Torontonian stick and poke artist Fion Liu talks art inspiration, their unique skin condition, and therapeutically 'stabbing' big time musicians.
Canadian-born new media artist, website and video designer, and stick and poke tattoo artist Fion Liu goes by the online nickname Sadstab. Their ink can be found on countless Torontonians, local bands, and indie musicians alike, as Liu's loyal online following from their quirky, simply drawn cartoon pieces gained familiarity amongst indie-rock circles.
"Visual arts has always been a very academic thing for me," said Liu. "Growing up, I assumed you had to have a lot of money to pursue art- I thought it was a prestige thing, where you had to take professional classes to be any good. I thought that until high school, or secondary school in Hong Kong, where I had a friend who was a fantastic artist. She saw me doodling one day and said I was good, I was like, "What?" That's when I realized that this is what art could be, it's about expression and being yourself."
Liu jumped on Instagram in 2015, originally under the username @altpaca. After posting their daily doodles for months, the artist started receiving requests.
"I started posting my doodles there every day, and it just started building up," said Liu. "Then one day someone ended up asking me, like, "Hey, could you tattoo this on me?""
Liu's first try at stick and poke tattooing was on an introductory Tinder date- a bold stab at romance, that ultimately didn't succeed, but gave way to a successful hobby. To this day, Liu has never touched a tattoo machine. Preferring the art of stick and poke, the visual artist doesn't plan on transitioning anytime soon.
"I started making money from tattooing around my twentieth or fortieth tattoo, the ones before that were basically for free," said Liu. "Then people started being like, "Yo, I love this so much, I'll pay you for it." Personally, I'd say I officially became a tattoo artist when I bought my turntable with the money I earned tattooing. When I bought it, I thought to myself, "Now that I've actually been able to buy something expensive with this income, I guess that makes me a tattoo artist.""
"I don't do it for money, and it's not a 'hopes and dreams' kind of thing either, it's a hobby for me," said Liu. "It's like that toy that you only occasionally pick up- when you do, it's super fun, and you're like, "Fuck yeah!" But it's not a constant."
A consistent Instagram presence has made Liu's style instantly recognizable. From their exclusively black and white outfits full of checkers, stripes, duo-coloured glasses and androgynous designs, to their simple, black sketch-like drawings of faces, people and things.
"I'd describe it as.. just enough," said Liu. "I wouldn't say it's minimalist, there's a little more to it than that, there's just enough story, just enough lines, just enough personality- then that's a Sadstab tattoo. Of course I could call them linework tattoos, or any other label somebody gives me, but I'd rather describe them as, almost 'DIY' culture. You know?"
The nickname 'Sadstab' came from a mixture of branding, and a recent diagnosis.
"Sadstab started as an account I wanted to dedicate to tattoos," said Liu. "At the time, there were a lot of stick and poke tattoo artists using the words 'sticker', or 'poker', or 'hand-poke' and 'machine-free'- I didn't want to use those words, they just didn't feel like me. At the same time, I had just started taking my bipolar medication, and coming out of my deepest depression. I had been trying to draw things that would cheer me up, and that's when I drew my signature face- that little sad face guy that kind of looks like a chicken nugget. Then I ended up thinking of the word stab to replace poke, and together, I just thought of Sadstab."
After the discovery of their passion for tattooing, Liu went in search of a community- but immediately felt isolated.
"I never felt like I belonged in any community," said Liu. "It was hard for me to find a group where I felt welcome, or a community I could relate to. With all these discoveries during my tattoo journey, I found LGBTQ+ friendly tattoo shops, which I was amazed to find out existed. Even though these existed, and introduced me to LGBTQ+ friendly hand poke groups, it was still hard for me to find my space."
The tattoo artist is free of ink due to an extreme case of eczema, and a respect for the art form.
"For example, one scratch on my nose has remained open for two months, it's still bleeding," said Liu. "I have open sores everywhere. How am I supposed to feel comfortable healing a tattoo? I also feel like tattoos are spiritual, they represent a memory you never want to forget, and I don't feel I've experienced that yet. I want to respect the art of tattoo."
Although currently un-inked, the artist is open to the idea, and even has a planned piece.
"I actually have a future tattoo planned, one dedicated to my mom actually," said Liu. "A Mahjong lamp. It's a very Asian thing, a very Hong Kong thing. It's about my memories in Hong Kong, gathering around with family and playing Mahjong (the game). I actually own one of those lamps, my grandma let me take hers, and every time I tattoo I use the light from that lamp- so it's really special."
Besides tattooing Torontonians, friends, and old dates- Liu has become well known within music spaces for tattooing bands. The first band they were introduced to was Unknown Mortal Orchestra, an alternative rock/psychedelic outfit from New Zealand.
"They're surprisingly so genuinely nice, even though they're superstars," said Liu. "I've met them three times, two out of three to tattoo them. The first time meeting them was during the festival WayHome, I was in line to get a autograph and they asked me if I wanted to come backstage, and we actually became internet friends. A little while later they were playing at WayHome again, and they asked if I was coming. I didn't have a ticket, I couldn't afford it, but they ended up buying one for me- and telling me to bring my tattoo supplies. Then I was like, "How am I supposed to tattoo them in the middle of a music festival?" I ended up wearing this huge camping backpack because I didn't know how to pack- now I do, but I almost got busted by security. Thankfully I said it was art supplies, and they didn't bother looking further."
(Catch Sadstab in the music video above for PUP's single "KIDS".)
Sadstab quickly became North America's indie/punk rock scene tattoo artist of choice, inking the likes of Snail Mail, Fidlar, Katie Crutchfield (Waxahatchee), Idles, Palehound, Jungle, Cold Fronts, Charly Bliss, The Horrors, Nanami Ozone, Jeff Rosenstock and many, many more.
"When it comes to local bands, I think I started with Weaves, then PUP, Chastity, Pony, Menno Versteeg.. I'm sure I'm forgetting so many," said Liu. "These aren't in any order either, it's impossible to know!"
Connecting with musical big shots has gifted Liu with some fame of their own. While shooting some photos of bands performing at Toronto's Lee's Palace, they were recognized.
"People in the crowd would stop me, recognizing me!" said Liu. "My friends starting bragging that they were friends with a famous person- which I'm not, but it's this weird feeling. It'll happen in the street too."
The artist has been hard at work creating online since the beginning of the pandemic, transitioning to sharing their art digitally.
"I've been making a lot more digital art due to COVID-19," said Liu. "It's easier to share that way. I'm currently trying to blend art and music more together, I'm brainstorming a bunch of ideas about how I can use my aesthetic and recognized "talents and capabilities" to help contribute to the Toronto music scene."
As for the future of their tattoo career- Liu doesn't want one.
"I want an art career," said Liu. "Where I would create a lot of art, including tattooing. Tattooing will never be the only thing that I do."
You can help support Sadstab by following their socials linked below.