There aren't a lot of instances where I'd take the Metro North to a stranger's house in Tarrytown for a tattoo but then, most tattoos don't look like the work of Nathan Maroncelli. A few days before the fateful trip up north with videographer Jorge Menjivar and photographer Andy Muns, I'd stumbled across Maroncelli the way we all do—some confusing, deep dive into my Instagram feed late one night.
It was through the warm glow of my phone that his instagram handle wetbrownpaperbag jumped out at me and his whimsical, androgynous sketches hooked me in. Only stopping in New York for a few weeks, he'd put out an open call for anyone who wanted to get tattooed by him and, like a good millennial, I reached out. One DM led to another and soon we'd planned to meet so he could tattoo one of his drawings on me before he packed his bag and left for another city. It was through his globe hopping that he'd come to tattoo people in Los Angeles, Denver, Costa Rica, and other far-off locales.
So who was this globe-hopping tattoo artist? It turns out that there was more to Maroncelli's Instagram feed than sketches, tattoos, and the occasional sandy beach, which made the trek up to Tarrytown to meet the mysterious artist as exciting as having a needle pierce my skin with ink for an hour in his friend's living room while I watched Harry Styles music videos.
As we settled in after the tattoo was done, he walked me through his journey from double majoring in biochemistry and physiology to becoming a traveling tattoo artist. From coming out stories and epidemiology research to tattooing his exes mom and grandma, here's everything you need to know about Nathan Maroncelli.
OUT: How’d you get started with tattooing?
Nathan Maroncelli: I’ve always been illustrating and sort of hopped into it. With my illustrations, I’d go to a shop and would say hey is anyone here in the mood to mentor and that’s really not a common thing. The air within the profession is very… I hate to say egotistical but nobody really wants to teach or give away their really priceless trade. My friend Hannah, who’s a single-line specialist in L.A., was the first ones to really be like, oh my god I understand. She was young, too—she was only 19 when she tattooed me. She completely understood and wanted to help me out, so she got me in touch with this custom gun builder and gave me the ropes for everything I needed to know. I was really, really lucky with that.
You just graduated too, right?
Yeah, so I graduated from college in June and studied biochemistry and physiology.
Oh wow, what do you do with that?
I did epidemiology research for the National Park Service and some other grant-based organizations. I was mostly focused on herpetology, which is the study of reptiles and amphibians and mostly worked in immunology. I was working on an epidemic that was wiping out frogs in Yosemite and in Costa Rica. I got to fly around a lot for that and that’s how I taught myself tattooing. I was going to different countries and states and tattooing along the way to make the next flight. That’s what I’ve been doing for about five months now.
A traveling tattoo artist.
(Laughs) Yeah. I was in Costa Rica, Los Angeles, Colorado, and now New York. I’m planning to move to Denver to start my own tattoo studio next.
That’s great! How do you parents feel about that?
My mom just decided she wants a tattoo so I’m really excited for that because she used to be like, ‘I’ll get one when I’m dead.’ My dad is still in that “when I’m dead” phase. They’re very supportive people and they’re also intellectual so I can go to them and say that I can always go back to my research or do whatever the fuck, but they love my art and are supportive. I’m really thankful for that.
Photography: Andy Muns
Your art often focuses on bodies and with this tattoo you drew for me, it’s very androgynous. Is focus on androgyny intentional?
Androgyny is definitely something I like to focus on, whether it’s bodies or faces. I don’t know if it’s because I’ve always felt sort of in-between, but I definitely love to see that in my artwork and other peoples’ artwork. For yours, I drew from Laura Callaghan. With the cheek circle, it gives it that cherubic androgyny that I always go for.
You said you feel in-between. Is that in terms of gender identity or more along the lines of masculinity and femininity?
Yeah, I’ve always just appreciated masculine and feminine aspects of my own body or personality. I wouldn’t go so far as to consider myself in any way gender non-specific. I’m gay and that’s where I’m queer, but I’ve always felt like I had an effeminate body.
When you tattoo, do you tend to gravitate towards LGBTQ people?
I’d say mostly. I mean, a lot of my friends are so it goes from there. With traveling, I’ve just been really lucky. I don’t have a crazy amount of followers but where do I do go, I have enough people who like my art enough and they usually tend to be queer of some sort. It happens a lot where I’ll go somewhere and someone will see a story and be like, “oh he’s in my town,” and that’s how I get the majority of my business. It’s been really fun so far.
Is there a trend with what they pick to get tattooed?
When I started, it was a lot of plants. From my science background, I love scientific illustration and that’s how I taught myself. I looked at books by Vitruvius and Da Vinci—these different anatomical specialists. Also, Audubon Society sketches of plants and fungus and fish. I love fish. I’d have people who loved my scientific stuff and wanted a fern or something to take advantage of my single needle style.
That’s what a lot of it was at the beginning. Now, it’s gravitated more towards bodies because people tend to like the more figurative stuff and it’s more representative of my work as opposed to an autobahn society sketch of a flower. I’ve done a lot of poppies, though.
I’ve always wanted a plant but can never decide which one to get.
I always get people who say they want one specific thing and I get there and end up drawing 300 more flowers for them. Now I’m at the point where I’m like, okay you want a plant so I’ll get there and we’ll work on it together.
Did you start tattooing while you were still at college?
Well, I went to school at the University of California Santa Barbara so that’s how I got into fashion and different things. I’d go work for a friend who’s a creative director in L.A. on the weekends. I got my machines while I was still in California and did a couple tattoos but not many. Then I went home to Colorado after graduating to just sleep for months and was lucky enough to have a couple friends let me do tattoos on them. My friend Tony let me do 15 tattoos on him and those were my first tattoos.
How big were they?
Pretty big! They were all over his arm and thigh and leg. Then the coolest part was… Okay we had a thing a year ago where I did a little heart tattoo on his ear and this fall, he had a painting exhibit in L.A. and his mom and grandma came out for it and wanted a matching tattoo. So now I’ve tattooed my ex’s mother and grandmother on the face, which was huge. It was so much fun and was in their motel on Hollywood Boulevard down the street from his exhibit. His sister got something on her arm, too. It was crazy to literally tattoo a whole family in one night.
Yeah, especially your ex’s family.
(Laughs) Yeah. It was ridiculous but so much fun. I owe him a lot for letting me literally just practice all over his body but he also owes me because they turned out dope.
Photography: Andy Muns
Your parents are super liberal, right?
Yeah, I mean they’ve changed just like every Baby Boomer has over the past five or six years. My mom has always been the flaming liberal of a very rancher, conservative family back east.
I think my mom definitely got cooler when I came out and moved across the country.
[When I came out,] my mom immediately wondered if she should join PFLAG and go to rallies. I didn’t myself have a lot of conflict coming out or self-realization. There’s definitely the usual middle school thoughts about whether it’s bad or good, but I never toiled on it too much. I was lucky in that sense and I never had any pressure from my family to be anything other than I was.
I never actually came out. I went to college and had my first boyfriend. We were driving from L.A. to New York because he was leaving the country—he was a foreign exchange student and I was going back with him. When we stopped at my parent’s place in Colorado, my mother made two beds and she came down one morning and were in the same bed. Surprise! He’s not a friend! That was about it.
I was really lucky though because, that Thanksgiving when I saw my parents again, their intellectual side came through and it was really amazing to have my dad come to me about it. At first I was like oh shit, but he said that while he didn’t have a great initial reaction to seeing two men express physical emotion towards each other, he followed it up by saying that he wanted to know if it was sociologically or physiologically programmed into him.
Photography: Andy Muns
That’s a very intellectual response.
Exactly! So that’s how my conversations with my family go. They’re all logic-based. So yeah, it went really well and now they’re super happy any time I bring anyone home. They overdo it a little bit but it’s cute.
Do you think it was harder for them to see you with a boy in your bed or for you to tell them you were going to tattoo instead of following your major?
[Laughs] Well, I’m an only child so with my family, we’re not very talkative about anything so when I had girlfriends in high school and boyfriends in college, they met them and that’s how much they knew. They didn’t learn much. When it came to tattooing, they’ve always known I wanted to do it and when I finally graduated and found myself wanting to just sleep and draw, I was like, alright let’s fucking do it.