Tattooist, Musician, And Model Sarah Gaugler Overcame Adversity With Art

Orphaned at a young age and forced to overcome a difficult childhood in the Phillippines, Sarah Gaugler is now the darling of the New York tattoo world.  

By Eric Shorey

Sarah Gaugler is part of Oxygen’s digital series In Progress 52. In 2016, Oxygen's Very Real digital hub is featuring 52 of these outstanding women: that's one woman a week, for 52 weeks. Check out the series here!

Sarah Gaugler's flash sheets reveal a handful of disparate images, seemingly unconnected but immediately intriguing: giant beetles with intricate wings, abstract crystalline designs, intricate swirly patterns, menacing skulls, cartoony cats with spiky fur, the occasional Totoro. These are the creatures and motifs of this tattoo ingenue's world: sometimes dark, always spirited, vaguely whimsical, and deeply optimistic. Having overcome immense adversity to become a darling of the body modification world and a successful musician and model, Sarah's painful story and her almost Buddhistic serenity despite her immense struggles make her one of the most inspirational artists working today.

Sarah's resilience isn't immediately apparent, however. She's goofy, she's shy (at first), and she might even be perceived, incorrectly, as innocent.

I’m originally from the Philippines,” she says, introducing herself and her Chelsea studio, Snow Tattoo. “I just recently moved here … about almost about 2 years ago. [My studio] is a private studio because all my tattoos are done by appointment. It’s supposed to be very intimate and personal and I really focus on my work so we can’t really have walk-ins come in. It’s super cozy, I try to make it as comfortable as possible.”

But Sarah's polite introduction, as we later discovered, belies a lot of strife. When prompted to talk about her childhood, she immediately got teary-eyed. “ I did have a very difficult life growing up … My brother and I were born here in the US but my mom passed away from cervical cancer and my father committed suicide [before that] ... We were forced to move to the Philippines to live with relatives that we didn't really know. They weren’t exactly the ideal family to be with, they made us feel like we were just a burden.”

It’s probably extremely unbelievable, you know, but it made me a strong person so I’m super happy about that,” she stated emphatically.

It's both cliché and inaccurate to say that Sarah's talents came from turning her sadness into art. Actually, it was closer to a form of avoidance: “I grew up with people in the house that I didn’t really enjoy conversing with. I despised them, extremely. So I would just keep to myself, you know, try to stay out of everybody’s way. I would draw.”

I would draw creatures with beautiful flowers. And monsters. I guess it channeled my darker side … I remember drawing a creature with no face holding a mask of a beautiful woman and a mask of a demon.” Citing Tim Burton and Edward Gorey as early influences, Sarah slowly mastered her chosen art form, keeping the contrast between the grotesque and the beautiful in mind. Also always in her mind: her mother.

She was the sweetest, everybody loved her, she was so awesome. Which is probably why she’s done with Earth, you know? She was perfect,” she said pointing to a memorial tattoo on her neck. “She’s watching my back.”

"I grew up with people in the house that I didn’t really enjoy conversing with. I despised them, extremely. So I would just keep to myself...I would draw.”

Sarah's struggles in Manila eventually led her to her bandmate, Paolo Peralta, who later showed up at the studio to get a tattoo of a coffee cup covered in crystals (of course). The deep bond between the two was immediately apparent. They discussed each other the way a superhero might talk about his alter ego. “I couldn’t even talk in a group before [I met him] but he really nourished me and appreciated me. He was like 'Why are you shy? Why are you too shy to be on stage? You’re meant to be on stage, you were meant to be in pictures.' He was also the one who encouraged me to become a model, which I didn’t really want to do. Eventually I got used to it. I became a little bit more outgoing.”

With Paolo, Gaugler formed Turbo Goth, an internationally renowned electro-rock band that, despite the name, is neither fast nor particularly macabre. “Goth is such a broad thing,” says Sarah. “Goth always means dark. And we are always in black. And I love that! Goth means a lot. We're not totally disconnected from the gothic scene, but it didn't originate there … It's related to architecture, not gothic pop culture.”

Turbo came from a joke – we went to a car show, and I don't know anything about cars. I saw the word Turbo, and I was like 'This car is a good car! If it says Turbo, that means good! This is good, this is the best, cause it says Turbo!' As a total joke! Turbo is like such a cool word and it's not really used anymore. So we wanted to bring it back to life.”

Inspired by bands like The Sundays, The Smiths, Rocketship, Muse, and The Cure and sometimes compared to Daft Punk, Turbo Goth's music has brought the duo around America and the Philippines, picking up a considerable fanbase along the way. Mixing the coquettishly girly vocals of Gaugler and the experimental rock sounds of Peralta, the pair's personalities and aesthetics complement each other perfectly.

Watch "Venus Flytrap" by Turbo Goth.

Meanwhile, the extraverted-ness Sarah learned from Paolo eventually helped Gaugler deal with the male-dominated tattoo industry, where she found herself often dismissed. “I remember going to a tattoo convention and you just feel it. Men being like, 'Oh this little girl is trying to be a tattoo artist, let’s see how long she lasts,' Because it is really physically hard! But I didn’t really mind it, I never really mind anything. It didn’t really effect me, I don’t really care what people think.”

In the Philippines most businesses are male-owned. I don't know any women who owned a tattoo shop or anything like that … I feel like I did inspire a lot of other women to become tattoo artists in the Philippines. Like, yeah it’s an actual thing!”

"I remember going to a tattoo convention and you just feel it. Men being like, 'Oh this little girl is trying to be a tattoo artist, let’s see how long she lasts.'"

Now that Sarah has relocated to New York, she's still embarking on numerous challenges. “I'm still making friends, but everybody’s so busy!” she said about the transition from Manila. “Even I’m busy!” she understates severely. Between running her own tattoo business, performing alongside Paolo in Turbo Goth, and modeling, she's hardly finding time to socialize.

Sarah's latest tattoo (a tea cup filled with floral patterns and waves) on Paolo Peralta, her bandmate. 

And the tattoo industry isn't an easy one to work in. With a bad reputation as a notoriously elitist sub-culture, Sarah commented on the challenges of her field: “It's not for me to judge. I just do what I do,” she said, commenting on the snobbery of the biz. But Sarah's enthusiasm for her work is undeniable; so much so that she can't even pick a favorite tattoo she's ever done.

All of the tattoos I do are very meaningful, and when I tattoo them on people I feel like I'm being a part of their lives. I absorb the stories that come along with it … sometimes it's like I'm a therapist, absorbing everything. But that makes it really nice and special for them. Every tattoo I've done after I do my favorite tattoo is also my favorite tattoo.”

With that in mind, Sarah offered some advice for those starting out in the tattoo world: “Follow your guts, and follow your heart, and use your brains,” she concluded.

Follow Sarah Gaugler on Instagram and Twitter, or visit Snow Tattoo.


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