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by Alex Brzezicka

Ann Chang takes stories from her motherland to tell modern tales of friendship and to fight for her right to remain in the city she calls home.

Meet Ann Chang aka @she_shan_yu, a London-based Taiwanese artist who works with ink and transcends her heritage and surroundings into stories about friendship, misty mountains and rain. One thing that makes her stand out is that instead of canvas she works on skin. The most permanent type of material. Nobody could argue that what she does is art, in the best definition of the word. Nobody could argue that except for the Arts Council and British authorities. After over four years of living in London, a city she calls home, where she built her studio and trust of the community, Ann is forced to go back to Taiwan.

“I came here first because I met my ex-partner in LA. He’s from the UK. I came here, fell out of love with him and fell in love with this place. I just can’t imagine myself living anywhere else,” Ann says. For many immigrants, London is a pretty special place. The city is like a living organism: dynamic, multicultural and always inclusive. A haven for anyone brave enough to chase dreams beyond their homeland. “They understand how I feel being a foreigner because most of the people that live here are not from here. Then there’s a strong sense of mix and match. Even though we come from different backgrounds, we seem to come here to look for the same things. That’s when I found a strong sense of belonging. I don’t think it could be replaced anywhere else,” Ann shares, “I went around trying everything until I realised what I want to do maybe a year and two years ago. I just did a lot of soul-searching”.

Looking for that sense of communal feeling and profession she’d have passion for, Ann has walked many paths – went to art school, studied fashion design in Taiwan, practical effects in LA and worked in a production company. “Then I got my first stick and poke tattoo from an artist called Francis, based in Shoreditch. I’ve realised that I could try to teach myself how to do stick and poke. On the weekend after I got the tattoo from him, I bought a little kit and then just started tattooing my leg,” Ann realised that all the stories she’s piled up, she can tell through tattoos.

“I do a lot of mountains, rain and vases. I always look at vases as they’re like people. They’re just containers and you don’t really see the inside of the containers. You only see the beautiful outside. It takes a lot of time for people to find out what they are within. I’m also often inspired by my hometown in Taiwan. It’s a very rainy and mountainy place where my mum has a little house and I feel like a lot of times my ideas always go back to the rainy mountain that I came from. But I’m also really inspired by my friendships in London,” Ann explains.

A few years after her first self-experimentation, Ann’s co-founded, has gained the trust of the community and thousands of fans online. “I think what I love the most about tattooing people is not just work itself but also the interactions,” she shares. “I get to hear a lot of stories from everyone’s worlds. It’s also because they are in such an intimate setting and people tend to be relaxed and tell me everything that’s happening in their life. It helps me to be constantly learning”.

Ever since Ann came to London, first on a youth exchange than partnership visa, a lot has changed: people around her, profession and terms of her stay. When her last visa was about to expire, she had to apply for a new one, this time the Global Talent one. “I first applied as a tattoo artist and I was really quickly rejected. The rejection email said that tattoo is technically ‘art’ but it’s not within their remit so this application needs to be returned. That was the first rejection. What I do is not considered art or not considered art by the Arts Council,” Ann shares. Despite the ridiculous rules imposed by the authorities, she hasn’t given up and tried to find a way around it. Applying as an artist, she got rejected again. “It said that they could see the potential for the artist to become the leader of the field but it lacks evidence,” Ann says. To be approved, she’d need proof of media recognition like reviews and critics on the artwork. It is a cruel rule that imprisons art even further within the system of institutions.

“It’s frustrating. For people that have the right to vote because they’re not immigrants or not anymore, it’s hard for them to understand what an immigrant feels. The government at the moment is quite anti-immigrant. It’s not working in my favour. The problem is that London is such an echo chamber of support,” she says and continues: “I remember when I first came to the UK with my ex-partner and went to the bank to try to apply for a bank account for me. It was a bank outside of London in this little town called Bishop’s Stortford. We went to NatWest to try to get an account for me. This person came to me and he was like ‘what is your relationship, why are you in this country, why do you need this bank account?’ and I was like ‘why is it your business? Just tell me if I’m qualified for a bank account or not. I’ll leave now if I’m not qualified. Just tell me’.”

What’s heartwrenching, is that she’s only one of many victims hurt by the hypocritic and xenophobic structure. Ann’s story touches issues buried deep down in the most ignorant and shameful parts of the British psyche. “It is devastating. I’ve been here for so long. I have built a studio. I have built a career. I’ve got friends. I’ve got a place I live in. I have a relationship. It’s like everything…, ”Ann’s voice crashes, “I thought I wouldn’t cry. I was like ‘I feel so strong today. I’ll be fine.’ I’ve realized that when I start talking about it, I start thinking about it. I feel like the effort that I put into… Everything is just slipping out of my hands”.

The current situation feels like the end of an era. Still, in spite of it all, Ann won’t lose hope or willpower to continue fighting for her art and the right to remain. For now, she’ll have to leave London and wait for another decision regarding her visa. As a farewell, she’s organising a print exhibition: ‘Temporary Before Permanent’. “The exhibition I’m going to have is in a way a soft political protest. It’s the stencils I’ve collected from the past tattoo sessions. I feel like ‘tattoos’ is a forbidden word now. I’m not supposed to be talking about this. I’m going to host it as a print exhibition because they are stencilled prints that apply onto people before I tattoo them. They are just interesting blue carbon prints, really small in different shapes and designs. I’m quite a sentimental person. These little prints are my journey in London as an artist,” she elaborates. The exhibition is only the beginning of a new chapter. Ann accepts the challenge that the arts council gave her and will use it to develop her artistic practice and expand into print and painting territory. Hopefully in the near future, she could do it in the safe space of London home. “I love travelling. I love moving around but I’m getting older and I really need the comfort of home that I know that I could stay there,” she says.

Even though the officials have turned their back on the artist, she’s not facing the problem alone. After sharing the story on her Instagram profile, many people came back to her with warm words and promises of action. “I’m really grateful for the power of the community. The support I got for my issue, it was overwhelming how many people were trying to help me. I’m so lucky because a lot of people are in my situation but I think that not everyone has the kind of support that I have which I’m really grateful for. I’m really lucky,” Ann admits and smiles: “I hope that my visa situation will be sorted out soon so I can live happily ever after with a dog or something”. Ann Chang’s fairytale deserves a happy ending.

Follow Ann Chang on Instagram here.

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