By Gina Beavers
I was running late—as usual, but in my defense, artist Lataya Johnson and I had decided to meet the morning the remnants of Hurricane Ida were mercilessly lashing the city and most of the east coast.
After a rather vexing drive west to McKees Rocks, I hurried into Black Forge Coffee House on Chartiers Avenue – a welcome refuge from the furious conditions outside.
Sitting at the front of the shop, Johnson was busy working on her iPad, designing what I would later find out were stickers for the Pittsburgh Original Taco Fest. When she sees me, she smiles warmly and sets her work aside.
We had actually met a couple of weeks prior; a group of us had gathered at Black Forge to talk about what local creatives were up to. As a fellow Black female artist, I was excited to get to know her.
At 23, Johnson is a Zoomer — a multitasking, tech-savvy entrepreneur who has an affinity for the 90s. Indeed, she carries her sketchbooks in a well-worn Domo backpack. Domo, the 1990-early aughts mascot for Japan’s public broadcaster NHK, is a distinctive Japanese monster. Mistakenly judging the Gen Z book by her cover, I ask:
“So you’re into anime?”
“… I’m more interested in traditional Japanese art …the mythology. I like Japanese storytelling.” That’s when I knew there was more to this Zoomer than I’d presumed.
Born and raised in the Rocks, Johnson attended Sto-Rox schools and began drawing as a young teen with no specific goal in mind. She was, however, encouraged by the positive feedback she received for her drawing skills.
Desiring to hone her skills, she attended Pittsburgh CAPA (Creative and Performing Arts Magnet school) but graduated from Pittsburgh Online Academy. But it wasn’t until college that she blossomed.
At CCAC she says, “I made the dean’s list every semester… I was the president and founder of the Art Club, I put on art shows and portfolio reviews .... Stuff like that. It definitely made me grow as an artist, I’m glad that I went there.”
Her fine arts degree is being put to good use, and having had a chance to pour over her work, both in-person and online, I was instantly struck by the diversity of her portfolio. From dreamy oils, watercolors, ceramics, candles, fiber art, graphic design and charcoal, her skills in these diverse media are admirable.
But it’s her pen and ink that stand out to me – a precision and attention to detail that is evinced only when you’re in love with what you’re doing. They are intricate and technically sound. Using Gothic and nature-inspired motifs, they are reminiscent of lithographs. They also reveal her true passion.
“I see myself eventually becoming a tattoo artist,” she says; “that is a dream of mine…that’s always been consistent. It sparked my interest when I was a kid. I would watch tattoo shows like Miami Ink…there was this one guy….he said people are like a walking, talking art gallery…that just really spoke to me.”
But tattooing is a white male-dominated business and Johnson quietly grapples with her confidence.
“…There’s like almost [no black women] in this industry…I feel like it’s that fear that stops me from going to ask for an apprenticeship or asking a tattoo artist to look at my work …. I need to get out of that...there’re so many things I want to do in my life,” she says wistfully near the end of our conversation.
I remind her that every pioneer has to battle fear before they proceed, and her talent will speak for itself when she presents her portfolio and becomes someone’s apprentice.
“One day,” she says laughing. “One day.”
One day, indeed.
You can follow Johnson on Instagram at instagram.com/house_trash Or on the web at housetrash.myportfolio.com, and at Redfishbowl Gallery in Lawrenceville.
Gina Beavers is an artist, freelance writer, and communications coordinator at Focus On Renewal.