Manuela Soto aka Soto Gang is a tattoo artist, nail art enthusiast, and streetwear fanatic who needs to be on your radar. Her signature tattoos are those of an angelic yet sexualized character which have come to represent a multitude of life experiences for both Soto and her clients, often focusing on femininity.
Soto’s raw talent and authenticity have garnered her a loyal fanbase as well as a thriving career. She recently moved to Los Angeles to open a new tattoo shop after a three-year world tour, and is ready to settle down and continue to spread the message of self-love and acceptance. We chatted with her to find out more about her path to tattooing, how social media has impacted her career, and what’s next for Soto Gang.
What inspired you to get into tattooing? How did you find out that this was something that you wanted to do?
So, I grew up in Switzerland. I went to art school, so I studied illustration and fine arts. And after that I didn’t really want to tattoo, like I hated all the tattoo culture, like big biker boys. I don’t know, I really hated the traditional background of tattooing, so that really wasn’t my plan. But then I started doing stick and poke when I was bored with my friends. I was like 18 doing stick and poke and it took so long to do stick and poke that I got a machine, then after that it just went crazy.
Once you moved on from stick and poke, how did you practice with the gun? Did you practice on yourself or on other people?
I would practice on my friends and at the beginning I was just doing things that people would ask me, and then I was trying to create tattoo imagery, like that would be me. But you know, I was used to painting super bright colors, colored pencils and so many things, so I had to adapt my style into only black lines. So, then I was trying to get into like who am I as a person and what can I offer. You know how tattoo artists do spreadsheets with roses? I was trying to do something different. My very first spreadsheet was Sailor Moon, a Nike swoosh, and I think like some smileys and a money sign. And it’s funny ‘cause that was so long ago and I’m still doing the same thing!
Your tattoos have such a signature look. How much input does a client have, what is the process like for designing their tattoo?
They actually can pick everything. Most of the time I spend an hour with them just designing their drawing. Because I don’t want to do it by myself, I feel like it’s so personal. Especially the self-portraits and everything. So usually I’d take an hour with them. Cause I have a bunch of little sketches of like body parts and they would pick the body part then what hair, what style, what everything – they choose everything.
Do you prefer a client to have a really meaningful story behind their tattoos? Does it feel different when they just like the looks of it?
I’m not really looking into like a meaningful story behind it like sometimes people will be like, “I need this because of my Mom” or whatever, but you know a tattoo is so personal, you shouldn’t be obligated to tell your story to anybody. But I feel like the thing with my self-portraits that I do is like…it helps me, you know when I was first doing it I was doing my self-portrait as a way to cope with being a woman; who I am and who I wanna be, dealing with sexual abuse and body image. I feel like a lot of girls that come to me for a self-portrait are dealing with the same issue, and we’re all trying to find ourselves with femininity and what we look like and who do we really want to be. So, I think that’s the story behind the tattoos that I do.
You have a massive Instagram following. Did building your follower count just come naturally? Do you ever feel vulnerable because of it?
I don’t think I realized, I think just having the follower count going up just makes me really happy and I feel like I’m achieving something, but I don’t see it as people looking at my page and judging me every day. Also, I don’t like it when people treat me like “Oh my god you have 100k” you know what I mean? Like it’s really weird to me! This following thing, it’s just really weird. I think I’m good at it ‘cause I’ve been working in the streetwear industry, I’ve been working in retail and in stores when I was younger, for a really long time so I guess it’s kind of a marketing thing. But also, I just think I’m really honest and I think that’s what people like. Like nothing is really planned. I’m just happy about what I post and it’s just really, I don’t know, it’s like my little diary. I feel like honesty is what people are lacking, you know what I mean? So when you see people like Beyoncé, you don’t really know what they think or what they feel.
You can tell it’s very authentic, and that’s why you’ve gotten so many followers and been so successful. I also noticed that you’re doing a collaboration with Floss Gloss, did that come about through social media?
Yeah, I met them the very first time I came to America when I came to New York. Cause I’ve always been really close to all the nail girls, like I used to do nail art so I’m obsessed with nails and I’m obsessed with them like they have the best colors, the best everything, they’re really killin’ it. So, we just became friends when I was really little, I had like 2,000 followers on Instagram.
Do you have any other collaborations coming up or anything else exciting?
Yeah, right now I’m so stressed out. I work at Sang Bleu, which is one of the most famous tattoo studios, and we’re gonna open a new one in LA. We’re searching for locations and everything so that’s really, really exciting and that’s taking most of my time right now.
I also wanted to celebrate my 100k ‘cause I just hit 100k, yay! And I wanted to have a big popup, like selling a lot of merch, or do something really important so right now I’m just trying to figure all these things out.
Why did you decide to settle in LA?
Everything is so easy, ‘cause I’m so creative and I like to do things – like tomorrow I wanna drop some crazy stuff and everything is possible in LA… if tomorrow I wanna like, I don’t know like a flower sculpture with my face, I can get it done within an hour.
My life is really exciting right now. I’ve been dreaming of this. Like I’ve been dreaming of this for years.