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Trans women craft worlds we find home in: a conversation with Mossy 333


Before we had even met, I had a peripheral appreciation for
Mossy 333’s work. I knew Mossy to be an artist working
resourcefully within her means to produce boundary-pushing
work across tattoo, painting and performance. Her relocation
back to Boorloo from Naarm in 2020 was the latent beginning
to a friendship grounded in a mutual witnessing of growth and staunch community care. This was then solidified when I helped Mossy install her debut solo exhibition, Girl Next Door, at Cool Change in 2021. We clocked each other as players in the
fraught game of identity-focussed artistic visibility; tethered to
the realities of trans subjectivity, while toeing the line between
opportunity and misunderstanding.

Mossy and I approached this conversation informed
by the following articles: On ‘female and non-binary’ frameworks
by Jackie De Lacey and Mika Benesh, and Clear Expectations by
Spence Messih and Archie Barry.1

Unpacking what it is like to present creative work as trans artists in so-called Australia is a mammoth task that is undeniably important but often painfully rudimentary stuff to repeat. There are frustrations and nuances we could fill entire tomes with, but it isn’t the primary focus of this text. Instead, I want to highlight the diversity and strength of Mossy’s practice and allow the anger of two friends to exist fruitfully in the overflow of conversation.

As De Lacey and Benesh say: ‘Inclusive language alone doesn’t change our lived experiences — these practices must become embedded beyond the language we use in a more intentional way.’2

What is the relationship that sculpture
and painting have with other outputs
within your practice, such as tattooing or

The ways I make simmer down to two types of portraiture: self-portraiture through painting, performance and sculpture, or capturing the essence of others through tattoo. My paintings are loose, expressive and often unplanned. This process acts as a mirror of my subconscious, in which I must tend to the raw
expressive layers beneath the final composition. Since childhood,
painting has been a necessary therapeutic process or an avenue
for storytelling. I wanted to escape myself, so I painted.
I capture a moment in a client’s life by inscribing it into their skin as a tattoo. The tattoo serves as memory, omen or identity. It’s been six years working with permanency and people’s bodies — and parts of this process are visceral and intuitive. Being trans, I have a unique awareness of the body and this aids me in guiding an intimate process of trust. I’ve experienced body euphoria through how I have contoured and decorated myself and I hope to create this feeling in others. I have doubted my process but these days embrace it. My style is distinct but values uniqueness to the individual. Worn proudly by the communities I’m lucky enough to work with, I feel trusted and valued artistically. The hand is mine but the piece is yours.

How did you start tattooing? What do you
enjoy about the way you practise and the
way that you learned?

I flunked high school and dropped out at the tail end of year
nine to study visual arts at TAFE. I had dreamed of being a
tattoo artist, often reblogging pictures of sexy, tattooed babes
smoking cigarettes on Tumblr. My dreams were crushed when
I came to learn of the toxic hypermasculinity, homophobia and
mistreatment of women in many tattoo shops: I didn’t stand a chance. It was 2010 in Boorloo. I was already experiencing
physical violence on the streets for being visibly effeminate and
queer, so I felt that a tattoo apprenticeship would only further
compromise my safety.

Living in Naarm years later, I found new hope after connecting with Anita Ichikawalee in their early days of tattooing. Ichikawalee went on to be a key figure in the tattoo underground of Naarm, creating a new movement for queers and people of colour. They spoke of safe space and autonomy. Together, we unlearned and rewrote what holding space and facilitating tattoos would look like. This coincided with a call from my dad back home, who, without knowing I was reinspired to tattoo, ordered my first machine and proclaimed this would be how I help people and fulfil myself creatively. He’s an intuitive freak. It’s where I get it from.

Mossy Jade Johnson, fish, 2018, performance. Image courtesy the artist. Photo: Myles Pedlar

How does your trans femininity inform the
work you make?

All of my work is inherently transfeminine as this is my
livelihood processed through art-making. I see the result of
this process as self-portraiture, seeking to affirm the trans experience. While my work may sit visually within the abstract
canon, I’m not inspired by so-called forefathers of abstract art
movements. Abstraction is a tool or lens to see my dysphoric
reflection more kindly, or create new, self-determined realities in
which I have agency. A lot of the time avenues for trans people
to produce and share work can be limiting, and this is reflective
of the societal conditions we live in. Outside of community-led
spaces, we are still struggling to fund life-affirming surgeries,
safely use public bathrooms, access hormones and walk the
streets without violence. Out of fear, I often shy away from
making work that explicitly speaks to the trans feminine
experience. Working within abstraction is also more than just
an expression, it’s a safety mechanism.

Cisgender audiences often box us back into the very stigmas my work seeks to highlight and challenge, only then to be overlooked, objectified, hypersexualised and demonised, whilst continuously having my gender invalidated or erased. For example, being curated into shows through some feminist frameworks splits me in two. I’m hopeful that my invitation enables trans women to be included in the conversations that surround carving out space for women. The other part of me feels dread knowingly going in as an afterthought; a token transsexual among a sea of cis women that don’t know what to do with me. As they currently operate, these ‘female and nonbinary’ curatorial frameworks often don’t foster trans awareness or create a genuine access point for trans women.

I feel you on tokenism. Curators would
sooner pat themselves on the back
for working with trans people than
meaningfully engage with deconstructing
systems of transphobia. What are those
alternate realities and what does survival
mean to you?

An alternate reality is one of belonging, existing and thriving.
Queer and gender nonconforming people, for example, are
often more daring and creative than the common cis-het. Sorry,
it’s true. Queer expression is a window into alternate queer
realities. It seems rare that cis people care to look into that world
and ask us how things could be. Having a seat at the table could
make for change. Instead, mass culture co-opts our language,
aesthetics and our identities without taking us with them. Or
we are simply tacked on to the end as a token to soothe the
burn of being ‘called out.’ Without power in these spaces, we
must be palatable and grateful for these butchered attempts at
inclusion. The work isn’t being done. Our invitation is still for
their benefit, not ours.

Being placed on the outside means we have learned
to shapeshift and adapt to be safe or seen. Perhaps this is why
abstraction has become my navigation device. I can make my
offerings without explicitly sharing myself. For example, to be
affirmed as women, trans women must pass as cisgender. They
must look, sound and act like society’s expectation of the
binary. Some of us may aspire for this cis validation, knowing
the privilege and safety that could come with it, but many will
never attain it. The world is still so cruel to those who fail to
pass or reject that binary, however we present or identify. In
order to survive as transgender people, we embody resistance
and strength.

Who are you inspired by and what do
you hope to achieve when producing
an artwork?

My loved ones inspire me. They are artists, activists, writers,
musicians, fashionistas and nerds. This cross-pollination
between disciplines has influenced me, extending through
communities in Boorloo, Naarm and on Eora lands.
Otherwise, it’s trans femininity: our bodies, bare or armoured, our strength and fragility, our pleasure and anger, our resistance and return. We have synthesised ourselves into being for centuries. Some stars to mention are SOPHIE — rest in peace — and Arca. These are gifted trans women crafting worlds I’ve found home in. Their visibility and talent has awoken people. I’m hopeful for the eternal rise of trans people and their rights. My practice can’t capture this multitude of experiences as a highly politicised body, but through my art I aspire to speak more directly to building
an equitable society, a new reality that we as trans people can
arrive at together.

Mossy 333 (Mossy Jade Johnson) is a multidisciplinary artist working in performance, painting, sculpture and tattoo. Across these mediums she adopts abstraction as a tool to navigate her body in biology and spirit, and explore public and private spaces as a trans woman. Her work seeks to uplift the collective voice of trans people in order to imagine a reality in which trans people can thrive. Mossy has performed and shared work at Arts Centre Melbourne, ACCA, MPavilion, RMIT Design Hub and PICA.

Aisyah Aaqil Sumito is a writer, artist and community organiser based mostly on Whadjuk land. Their creative output operates towards a provision of tools for collective liberation beyond the tools of the institution. Their threads of research are drawn from within Malay-Anglo subjectivities and move slowly through
contemporary and ancestral understandings of gender, collective healing and embodied ritual. They have published responsive arts
writing widely across so-called Australia with Disclaimer Journal, un Extended, Granville Centre Art Gallery, Runway Journal, the National Gallery of Australia, sweet pea, Lawrence Wilson Art Gallery and several more.

1. Jackie De Lacey and Mika Benesh, On ‘female and non-binary’ frameworks, and working with trans and gender-variant communities, the National Association for the Visual
Arts, Eora country / Sydney, 2021; Archie Barry and Spence Messih, CLEAR EXPECTATIONS: Guidelines for institutions, galleries and curators working with trans, non-binary and gender diverse artists in Australia, the National Association for the Visual Arts, Eora country / Sydney & Naarm / Melbourne, 2019.

2. Ibid.