Luminous Birds Strike Toward a Better Future in Stephanie Brown’s Tattooed Aviary

  • Aug 28.

American redstart. All images © Stephanie Brown, shared with permission

“The birds are the underdogs,” says Stephanie Brown. “They co-exist with us almost invisibly in our lives if you aren’t looking for them. They’re small but full of attitude and powerful in great numbers.”

Brown returns to the tiny, yet commanding creatures in her ongoing series, The Torchbearers. Comprised of well over 100 tattoos in full color, the collection features common species like sparrows and starlings grasping lit matches in their beaks. The Troy, New York-based artist, whose practice spans drawing, painting, and the inked pieces shown here, began the series in 2019 after about a year of studying and rendering the specimens within the Field Museum’s Bird Division. She explains:

Spending time in that collection helped me understand their role not just as scientific artifacts but how these preserved bodies can help contemporary scientists in their study, often in the effort of conserving what populations are left. Looking back it feels quaint, but in 2019 it felt like the climate crisis had reached maximum volume, with the hottest years on record at the time. Around the same time, I had found an old Victorian Christmas card of these sparrows marching in a procession through the snow, holding tiny torches in the dark night, an image I immediately loved and wanted to adapt into a tattoo.

Melding these sources sparked what’s now a robust aviary that’s both an ode to the beauty and singularity of each creature and a beacon of hope. “There are so many analogies to be made,” the artist says. “The smallest light can lead the way in the darkness. It only takes a spark to start a fire; size does not matter. Natural wildfires even have a regenerative purpose: to clear crowded brush and return nutrients to the earth only to have more biodiversity return its wake.”


Bluebird and quail

While tattoos naturally fade and lose detail over time, Brown’s paintings are exemplary of her profound consideration of the animals themselves. With luminous color and delicately fringed feathers, the birds in “In the Dark” and “Chimney Swift” are elegant and active, leading the charge toward something new. These features echo the inked Torchbearers. The works are “a symbol of perseverance for the sheer willpower it takes to survive in this world either personally, socially, or environmentally—a reminder to be vigilant against the systems that exist and maybe just holding hope for a cleansing fire to free us from them and make room for a better world.”

While Brown is largely booked for tattoos at the moment—keep an eye on her Instagram for openings—she does have originals, prints, stickers, and more available in her shop. You can also see her work later this year at Antler Gallery in Portland and Living Room Gallery in Chicago.




Top left: Magpie. Top right: English robin. Bottom left: Female bluebird. Bottom right: Starling


Fighting sparrows

“In the Dark”

“Chimney Swifts”

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