With stories to tell

Los-Angeles-based artist Cleo Kinnaman started out as a tattooist, now she paints large-scale portraits inspired by people she has encountered along her life path. We met her ahead of her first solo exhibition in her former home town Stockholm, Sweden.

You’re an artist specialising in portraits with some interesting techniques. Describe your process!

I like to experiment and don’t always have a plan. I love depth and different textures, and therefore I enjoy using different materials and techniques. I use a lot of charcoal, oils, acrylics, pencil, plastic, even digital elements sometimes. In the future I will also be working with a company that has invented a new technology that would allow me to put people’s dna into my paintings. I’m a bit sentimental especially in this current fast moving world, so I’m very interested in how we can forever keep people with us in different ways.

This autumn you open your first exhibition in Stockholm at Nobis Hotel. Can you reveal something from it?

It’s my first solo show on display between August 28th and September 14th. In a way I’m choosing to incorporate my career these past years as a tattooer, by using experiences along my travels in my new art. During these trips I have taken photos of people that I find interesting and inspirational. I have used these photos as a reference to create my own interpretation of that person, what they made me feel and our meeting into a large scale portrait.

Can you describe the story behind one of your portraits that you are exhibiting?

The painting I’m auctioning off at the Royal Swedish Opera house during the same time as the exhibition, is probably the most special one to me. When i was in Ethiopia (which also holds a special place in my heart since it’s where my mother is from) with the charity Water Aid, I met and photographed several women from this small village living in terrible conditions. This specific painting is of one of those women.

You have a studio in Venice, LA. What is the space like?

I have handed over my private tattoo studio to my dear friend Dillon Forte. I almost no longer tattoo, so it worked out better that way. But when I do tattoo for friends/special occasions/old clients it’s there, at Sri Yantra tattoo.

What inspires you?

People of course, and a lot of nature. The colours, the way things grow and how they move. Because I’m very visual, sometimes reading certain things create interesting images in my mind as well.

Who are the people you portray?

They are all very different people. Some living in extremely unfortunate circumstances and some very well off. Some from Asia, Africa, Sweden, US. Some I know very well and some I met very briefly during my travels.

You have a background as a tattoo artist. When did you notice you had a talent for this? And how come?

It never started from passion. It was something I thought I might be able to do, that I gave a try in an attempt to make my own way and not have to continue school in Sweden. It went very well and I think generally when you are good at something you like it, at least at first. But when I got bored, I felt like it’s time to move on. I will always love it and most likely keep it up, especially now that it’s not my career anymore.

What do your own tattoos mean to you? Do they all come with stories?

Some have meanings and some not at all. I was very young when I started, and got heavily tattooed pretty quickly. To be honest most of them don’t mean much to me anymore, just a few. I don’t see them anymore, they feel like they have always been there so I don’t think about them.

Who is your biggest source of wisdom and inspiration?

Easy! My mother Kicki!

What is it like to live and work in LA?

It’s amazing because LA has so much to offer. If you can be disciplined as an artist, you can create any kind of life you want here.

What are your favourite spots in the city?

I have so many. I’m a big food and nature lover. I always try to make my way down to the beach when I have time, Venice, Santa Monica and Malibu. Lots of good food there and even if I don’t swim much here being around the water is always beautiful.

Do you have a passion project?

Well I kind of feel like my work is my passion project. Which makes me so happy and grateful. In a perfect world everyone’s work should be their passion project. But I do want to get more involved with charity, I have taken a few trips in the past with Water Aid for example, taking the focus and attention away from myself is always helpful for me and gives me perspective.

Who should we meet next and why?

My mother! The most interesting beautiful (inside and out) stylish person I know! I could write a book about her so I’m gonna leave you with that and let you hopefully meet her yourself!