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The girl with the food tattoos

Illustrations of food tattoos, a lemon, apple, pizza, mushroom and cherries
Illustrations of food tattoos, a lemon, apple, pizza, mushroom and cherries
(Jollene Chup / For The Times)
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Sydney Kramer has the equivalent of your weekly Whole Foods grocery list tattooed on her body. Maitake mushrooms, carrots, garlic, banana, cilantro, mint, uni, allium flowers, a prawn and other inked images wrap around her forearms, snake up the sides of her ribs and across her stomach and blanket her thighs. There are more than 20 tattoos depicting herbs, spices, produce and the specific tools used to cook or serve them.

Kramer was not part of the chef-as-rock-star cosmos in the early 2010s, whose members were marked by darkly lined, bold depictions of various sizes of spoons, knives and forks bulging under their chef whites. Her panoply is not meant to set her apart in a busy kitchen. Kramer, 32, is a supervising video producer for the media site Insider. Her tattoos work to collapse the distance between a gourmand and her objects of desire.

“I just wanted to kind of start putting stuff I like to eat on my body,” she said.

On her left thigh, the wrinkled leaves of a head of napa cabbage sprout from their core and reach toward her hip. The indents in the ribs of the vegetable are delicately shaded, pale veins darkening as they approach the outer leaf. It’s Kramer’s tribute to fresh, crunchy cabbage, which she loves, mostly because it’s often transformed into kimchi.

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A view of Sydney Kramer's tattoos: lime wedge and broccolini by tattoo artist Emily Kay.
A view of Sydney Kramer’s tattoos: lime wedge and broccolini by tattoo artist Emily Kay.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Underneath the cabbage is a frog that appears in midleap, holding a piece of narutomaki. The pink and white swirled fish cakes are Kramer’s favorite part of an order of ramen.

While she’s not a professional chef, Kramer created TheCrepesofWrath.com, a food blog featuring hundreds of original recipes for everything from matcha shortbread cookies to curried beet salad with fava beans and Cinnamon Toast Crunch cupcakes. And her Instagram account, @crepesofwrath, documents her eating escapades: tortas overflowing with chilaquiles, slippery shrimp, fried butter chicken sandwiches and beautiful banchan.

Her tattoos, along with nearly half of the ink on her body, are the work of artist Emily Kay, who occupies a chair and a tattoo machine at Strangelove tattoo studio in Echo Park. The two started working together 2 ½ years ago.

The ginger root, cinnamon sticks, lemongrass stalks, star anise plant, Thai basil and broccolini on Kramer’s forearms, elbow ditch and shoulder — all Kay’s work — are instantly recognizable. The artist’s distinct fine lines and meticulous shading echo early 20th century anatomy drawings.

Tattoo artist Emily Kay gives Sydney Kramer her latest tattoo at Strangelove in Echo Park.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

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“A lot of my inspiration for Sydney’s tattoos comes from vintage botanical and scientific illustrations,” Kay said. “I usually take [inspiration] from real photos of the animals and add my own interpretation in order to translate the image into a tattoo successfully.”

On a recent Sunday, Kramer was sprawled on a black leather chair at Strangelove, her thighs freshly shaved and exposed below a pair of tight denim shorts. Kay showed her a sketch of a mackerel she had drawn by hand.

Kramer had told Kay she wanted a Spanish mackerel. Kay asked where she wanted the fish on her body, and that was the extent of the planning for the mackerel, which was to be placed permanently on Kramer’s left upper thigh. No matter.

The sketch, Kramer said, “looks really great.”

Sydney Kramer stands outside Strangelove in Echo Park.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The artist sterilized an area of Kramer’s thigh. She gripped the tattoo machine, which buzzed to life, and hunched over Kramer with the pulsating needle. The impending pain never registered on Kramer’s face. I searched for the slightest grimace or look of discomfort but she just sat staring serenely ahead, her chest slowly rising and falling with the humming and buzzing in the shop.

Kay, who wears her chin-length hair slicked back behind ears dressed with thick silver hoops, has a calm demeanor that seems appropriate for someone who is operating a machine that pierces the skin at around 3,000 times a minute.

If she challenges you to a game of Operation, my money’s on Kay.

The 26-year-old has been a tattoo artist for four years. She dropped out of college, where she was studying product design, and pursued a career in tattooing under an artist named D’mon at Obsidian L.A. Tattoo in Silver Lake before starting at Strangelove last September.

As the minutes passed, the fish materialized on Kramer’s thigh above the napa cabbage, the mackerel’s bulbous eye, the slightly opened mouth, the gills, fins, underbelly and various spots all pronounced and incredibly lifelike.

When Kay was finished, Kramer walked over to a mirror in the studio to study her newest piece of art. She tilted her thigh from one side to the other and then simply proclaimed, “I love it.”

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A view of Sydney Kramer's latest tattoo, a Spanish mackerel, top, and Napa cabbage, both by tattoo artist Emily Kay.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

The mackerel cost her $450, including tip. In total, she estimates she’s spent around $6,000 on her tattoos.

Kramer says there will be many more food tattoos with Kay in her future. Her next one? A tomato vine on her right shoulder in March, inspired by her love of tomatoes.

Here is an inventory of Kramer’s tattoos and her commentary (those in bold were inked by Kay; other tattooists are included in parentheses):

Lemongrass stalks, left forearm
Star anise plant, left forearm
Ginger root, left forearm
Cinnamon sticks, left elbow ditch: “I once had a really cinnamon-y pho broth in Vietnam, and I think about it a lot.”
Quail eggs, left upper arm
Unagi, stomach: “It’s one of the most delicious treats I can imagine, especially when grilled and brushed with sauce. It’s kind of tough to do cooked eel as a tattoo, so we did this bad-ass ‘live’ one on my stomach.”
Napa cabbage, left thigh
Thai basil, left shoulder/arm
A snake wrapped around allium flowers, left arm
Broccolini, left inner arm
Lime wedge, left inner arm
Mackerel, left upper thigh

A view of Sydney Kramer's tattoo, unagi, by tattoo artist Emily Kay, at Strangelove in Echo Park.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Cool pineapple dude, right inner forearm (@SeanfromTexas)
Prawn, right elbow ditch/forearm (Jake Cavaliere)
Uni, left upper arm (Liz Kim)
Wooden spoon, back of left arm (artist unknown)
Carrots, left ribs (Sophie C’est la Vie)
Maitake mushrooms, shoulder (Stephanie Brown)
Tiki drink, right thigh (Rachel Kramer)
Beet, left ribs (Rachel Kramer)
Frog holding narutomaki, left thigh (Rachel Kramer)
Cilantro and mint bundle, left arm (Asa Lee Crow)
A skeleton drinking a bottle of ranch and eating wings, right forearm. “I am a Hidden Valley Ranch loyalist, for the record.” (Jake Cavaliere)
“Salt” in Anthony Bourdain’s handwriting, left forearm (Galen Leach)
Garlic bulb, left inner arm (Nadia Andriu)
Banana, left elbow (St. Kenia)