When Adam Vu left his home in January 2016 — on his 30th birthday — he knew he was setting out to do something that had only been done once before: tattoo on all seven continents. The only other person in history to do it is tattooing legend Lyle Tuttle, and it took him a few decades to finish it up at the age of 82. But while the traveling tattooer was originally excited to complete the journey just for the achievement, the year-long project ended up being a much more rewarding experience than he'd imagined.
“It took me almost a year of backpacking on a relatively unknown tattoo artist's budget to get there, but eventually I did it,” Vu says of his world tour. “Nothing about it was glamorous and fancy, but I'm just happy I survived and had the chance to experience the greatest adventure I've ever known. Honestly, the best day of my life was the day I tattooed seven dash marks for the seven continents on my own hand surrounded by curious penguins in Antarctica.”
Traveling with just three tattoo machines, five shirts and a single pair of pants (and “more mysterious bug bites than I can count”), Vu didn’t have a whole lot of wiggle room when it came to his finances. While some outside of the industry might look at tattooing as a fun and glamorous profession, Vu was essentially living day-to-day and relying on a steady stream of clients throughout his trip to pay for his next meal. By the time he boarded an expedition ship to take him from Argentina to his final stop in Antarctica in November, the artist had been through some sketchy international experiences and sleeping situations that would’ve convinced many people to cut their voyage short.
“I tattooed everywhere I went to sustain my travels a day further, and along the way I had the privilege of working with some the best artists and studios in the world,” Vu says. “I had to stay in two-star hostels, guest houses, capsule hotels, couches, train stations and wherever else I could, but without tattooing, I wouldn't have made it across — and to the bottom of — the Earth.”
But now that he’s back in the States, the L.A.-based tattooer has a new unique project he’s committed to — at least until he leaves again. For the month of May, Vu will be hosting tattoo artists from all over the world at his tattoo pop-up shop and gallery, StrangeLove, at Reddin Gallery in Westlake. But what’s become an in-demand limited tattooing experience simply started as a vague idea for a gallery. Much like his signature blackwork art and tattoos, Vu knew that how ever he was going to display the things he’d been working on needed to be different than anything that already existed.
“StrangeLove is something I had been pondering for quite some time,” Vu says. “When I came home to Los Angeles in December, I started planning the idea of a one-month residency at a private art gallery where I could display some of the art and concepts I've created over the last several years on the road. I figured it could also be a private setting to bring the amazing tattoo artists from around the world I've had the pleasure of working with.”
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While countless galleries and pop-up shops claim to be open for only a short time to drive traffic (often before “extending” their dates several times), Vu’s deadline on StrangeLove is about as concrete as it gets. The private location is open by appointment only, and some artists are already fully booked while others only have very limited availabilities left.
Although his big journey is now complete, Vu is already looking forward to his next international trip as soon as StrangeLove closes its doors. Never one to make too many plans for the future, the tattooer’s not sure exactly what he’ll be doing beyond heading to Germany for a while. But — while there’s nothing locked in — he may possibly be looking to bring his suddenly popular pop-up shop back in some way.
“I've put so much sweat into this, and I'm amazed at how it's all turned out so far,” Vu says. “I’m honestly a bit sad that it's only for a month, but I'll be taking off to Berlin come June, and I plan on living there for the next year. Of course, I'll be working on more paintings and ideas for tattoos the whole time, so all the signs point in the direction that StrangeLove will happen again in one form or another.”