Prior to picking up a needle at age 18, Manuela Soto Sosa never imagined that she’d embark on a career as a tattoo artist. Today, she stands on the backend of over a decade’s worth of experience. Her tenure has seen her through world tours, the launch of a streetwear brand, studio ownership and significant self-discovery. At the center of it all lie her “Soto Girls,” the adorable and unashamed representations of body reclamation and acceptance through art.
Like many young adults whose teenage angst aligned with the 2000s emo cultural boom, mixed-media artist Sosa has spent the better part of the last decade learning how to accept and connect with herself. Now a distinguished tattooist based in Los Angeles—a world away from the Switzerland home in which she once sobbed against the floor in want of a Linkin Park tramp stamp—she’s using her talents to facilitate the process for others.
Sosa’s novel brand of cathartic artistry revolves around the embodiment of individuality and self-esteem. Her famed “Soto Girls” started as self-portraits with which she reclaimed her body from the grips of trauma. It wasn’t long before she started tailoring them to her clients, though, drawing up representations that showcase their unique personalities.
The girls are markedly body positive, often showing skin along with all the rolls and folds that come with it. Cutesy as hell while not lacking in attitude, they’re a bit of a cultural hodgepodge. That’s no accident. Sosa developed her distinctive style in an effort to explore her estranged cultural identity, all the while pulling from her grab bag of assorted influences.
Unsurprisingly, given its creator’s immense talent and hardworking predisposition, the Soto brand has taken on a life of its own. In addition to recently opening her own tattoo studio, SOFTFLEX, where she hosts classes for aspiring teenage artists, the young entrepreneur also designs streetwear for her SOTO WORLDWIDE clothing line. Among her collaborators? Billie Eilish.
What inspired you to become a tattoo artist?
I never really wanted to be a tattoo artist. It just happened. I went to Berlin when I was 18, and this girl taught me how to stick and poke. I thought it was so fun, and I went back home and started tattooing everybody. Then it just became my job.
You’ve noted in the past that anime, particularly Sailor Moon, has been a chief informant of your signature style. What inspired your decision to deviate from more traditional anime forms to create characters who are body positive and broadly representative?
It’s a big search for identity. I’m half-Latina, and I grew up in Switzerland. My dad was a political refugee, and he wasn’t able to communicate a lot [about] his culture with me because of the traumas. I was trying to discover Latinx culture through art. I was really inspired by fine line tattooing, and I deviated [toward] that technique because it’s what I was looking into and researching.
For the girls’ aesthetic, Sailor Moon was such a strong, powerful character. But who I really wanted to be was Lara Croft. I’m a chubby girl. So I was like, “I want to see a girl that has my body with Sailor Moon’s superpowers and Lara Croft’s personality.” That’s how everything came together.
Did you discover anything about yourself in relation to your culture during that process?
That’s a big reason why I moved to Los Angeles. I felt that it was a little bit closer to something that I could relate to. I’m still learning and trying to see what it means to be who I am. I’ve erased my cultural identity for so long that, when I started coming to America, I was like, “I am 100% not acknowledging who I am.” I’ve been here for three years now, and I’m working on it. But that’s everybody. I feel like a lot of people are struggling with who they are and their identity.
When designing portraits, what goes into identifying and portraying the unique aspects of each person? Which qualities do you most like to highlight?
They usually tell me who they are and what they’re looking to do. It’ll be like, “I’m a stripper, and I want to be a princess. I want a cute bikini, and I want to manifest money.” So, then I’ll go that route. Then some girls are like, “I’m really just an emo kid, and I want to see a sad girl to represent this part of me.” I feel like it’s more about their personality, who they want to be and what most matches who they are in the moment.
You don’t often hold back in showcasing your characters’ bodies. How do you feel that depicting the Soto Girls in this particular light lends itself to promote generalized female self-acceptance and confidence?
It’s crazy because everybody’s like, “Oh, it’s so sexual.” I just want to see the female form. I draw cute girls with rolls, and I want to see their bodies because when I see them drawn, I like them on myself. I want to see the female form in a really cute, positive way. But I don’t see it as sexualized, even now that I’ve been doing a lot of foot fetish stuff. [Laughs.] In my eyes, it’s never sexual. I see a woman by herself being fully herself. All the drawings are really intimate, and it’s for the viewer to reflect on. [Perceptions are] all across the board. People are like, “Yeah, make an OnlyFans, big titties…” But no, it’s a cute girl that’s living in her body.
Have you encountered any particular challenges or stigmas as a female artist? How did they influence your progression?
I’m in streetwear now [in addition to] tattoos. I’m just in the art world in general, and I’m always labeled as just a female artist or a “girl brand.” I have problems being taken seriously. They see the [Soto Girls], and they’re like, “Oh, that’s not for me.” I have a really strong presence and personality because I had to adapt to all these different male-dominated industries. So, it’s fine, but it took a long time.
What exactly does female empowerment mean to you?
It’s so hard being a woman. First of all, our bodies are judged, and then we hate them. And then our tastes and personalities are judged. We’re never enough, and then we’re always too much. There are so many different levels to being a woman, and we have to work through all of those phases of accepting your body and then accepting that you’re not shit, what you have to say does mean something, you’re not a dumbass and you don’t belong in the kitchen. There are so many different aspects to it. I feel like my part of the work starts at accepting the body that you’re in and walking the earth feeling like you’re in power and in control of your body. Then there are different levels, like accepting your spirituality and interests and not feeling like you’re shit as a person.
You recently opened up your very own studio in L.A., SOFTFLEX. Can you tell us a little bit about what you hope to achieve in light of this milestone?
We had really big plans for [SOFTFLEX], but then the pandemic hit, and everything got shambled. I wanted to have art classes, workshops and after-school programs for young artists to come and hang out, draw and ask questions about marketing, Instagram or how to start a brand. I know that I have a lot of young followers that want to get into more creative fields and make money with their craft, and I feel like I have the right tools to help them achieve that. Then I have amazing resident tattoo artists working in the space, too. But I’m still doing it. I’m [currently teaching] classes to [teenage] girls that want to have careers in the arts. But it’s not at the level that I had wanted to do it. Eventually, I really want to have an art school. That’s my big dream.
You’ve got a pretty notable claim to fame in working with Billie Eilish, first on her “when the party’s over” single cover and then on a merchandise line. What prompted this collaboration, and what went into channeling Eilish’s unique brand of modern femininity?
I think that she was familiar with my work. Then in 2018, I got approached to do the single cover for “when the party’s over.” So that was the first time that we worked together. She’s always wearing my clothes. I just love her style. I feel like she’s this generation’s Avril Lavigne. She’s that important to her generation. I think that she’s so strong, and I love the fact that she’s very outspoken about how she feels about her body and how people judge her [for it] or the way she portrays herself. [And I love] her lyrics. She’s an emo baby like I was at her age. That’s why I really fuck with her, and I’m really happy that we got to work together. So yeah, we decided to do this [merch] collab that happened last year. It was fun. She’s the sweetest person.
Going forward, what other artist would you most like to do a similar collaboration with?
I need my Aquarius, Megan Thee Stallion. I’m obsessed with her. I don’t know who else I would want to work with. She’s just so powerful, and she doesn’t give a fuck. I’m an Aquarius, [too], and I feel like she’s just the perfect embodiment of what that means. She’s loud and so strong, and she gives everybody such a sense of empowerment. She’s amazing.