The Bewitching Talents of Joy Shannon

0 Comments 11 September 2017

joy shannon

Long Beach-based illustrator, musician, and tattoo artist Joy Shannon talks her enduring interests in folklore and her own Irish heritage.

by Daniel Barron



Author Grant Morrison once referred to artists as the last magicians in the age of science. The imagination carries immense power to inspire, to seduce, to weave, to transport. It’s almost supernatural. Such qualities are intimately understood by Long Beach resident Joy Shannon, a bewitching talent whose prolific career in the arts has explored the magic of folklore across writing, painting, printmaking, and music. Shannon has been the frontwoman for the performative pagan folk band Joy Shannon and the Beauty Marks since 2003, where she not only sings but plays Celtic harp, cello and harmonium.  Together they have released seven studio albums of stark, ethereal, often macabre fare. Their latest full-length, Aes Sidhe, dropped this past May and delves into Celtic and Nordic conceptions of the life cycle.

Shannon also apprenticed in tattoo design under the renowned tattoo and graffiti artist Mike Giant. She takes commissions under the banner of Triple Goddess Tattoo, which Shannon named after the pagan symbol for the phases of the moon and the sacred phases of the woman’s life (the maiden, mother, and crone).

She writes: “I am inspired by the concepts behind various historical tribal tattooing traditions, where tattoos are used to mark significant times in our lives, bless the body with meaningful spiritual symbols and create a healing ritual experience.”


In the following interview, we discuss the foundations of her interests in folklore and Irish history, her upbringing, and how those inform her life’s work. May her spirit leave it’s own mark on you.


joy shannon and the beauty marks

Photo: Xun Chi


You’re an illustrator, you have a band, you do tattoos. Which bug did you catch first?
Music. I’ve always dreamt of being a musician. When I was young I also wanted to be a children’s book illustrator. I was doing both [music and illustration] as a young kid, but music became a really big passion for me. I always felt like art was more intellectual and music was more emotional, so I couldn’t really be without one or the other.


Where did you grow up?
I grew up mostly in California. My family is from Ireland and Chicago, so we would always travel back and forth. Sometimes my dad worked in London. I had kind of a cool childhood where I traveled a lot.


joy shannon



Your music and art both display a deep love and understanding of Irish history and folklore. Was that knowledge imparted on you, or did you seek it out, immerse yourself in it?
My family is very Irish in a lot of ways. They’re Irish-Catholic. There were a few moments in my childhood that really shaped me and made me look towards the older history of Ireland for inspiration. My family’s relationship with Ireland is kind of complicated. My immediate family– my father, my grandmother– were impacted by something significant in Irish history. There were women that were imprisoned in these convents for all of these ludicrous reasons. They were called the Magdalene Madres. There was a film made about them called The Magdalene Sisters. My grandmother was one of them, and then my father was born into a convent. They both experienced a lot of abuse and injustice in that system, from the Church.

My father was very relieved to go to the United States. Anytime I would go to Ireland as a child, since I didn’t have that complicated relationship with the country, I loved the place. I was mostly interested in the ancient sites, the standing stones. I loved the castle ruins, just the land itself. It felt very much like home. I think those all really shaped me.

Half of my family is Protestant, half is Catholic, and there was always infighting amongst each other about who was right. When I was a kid I remember the troubles at home going on. At eight-years-old at the airport there was a bomb threat. That was pretty scary. It was around then that I started asking my family questions. From a child’s point-of-view both of those religions were really the same, I never understood why people were fighting. So I thought, “What’s older than that? What was in Ireland before?”

That started me investigating folklore and the pagan past. And I haven’t changed. I was such a nerdy kid from age eight and beyond. I was looking into history, I would look up on the places we would go in Ireland and England.


joy shannon


joy shannon

“Eowyn & Faramir”


Did your parents try to assimilate once they moved to the US? Do they feel a sense of ownership over their culture now?
I think my dad did try to assimilate, because he got rid of his accent when he was a kid, since he moved to the United States when he was still young. But he was raised by an Irish family, so he was still immersed in Irish culture. I think he really wanted to be American. My family had their own traumas and a new life gave them more hope. It’s only recently that Ireland has become more liberal and open-minded. It took almost my grandmother’s entire lifetime for the country to officially apologize for what happened to all of those women in the convents. The Prime Minister issued an apology in 2013. I think all of that shaped my dad wanting to go out and find a better life.

But I love Ireland, because I’m from a younger generation. There’s a lot more going on for people my age and younger there.


You play Celtic harp, harmonium, and the cello. Is that what you immediately gravitated towards? Did ever you go through a rock phase?
[laughs] Well, I did start out with some sort of cabaret punk bands or cabaret goth bands as a kid. But I always played cello, I’ve been playing cello since I was eight. Even in those bands that were a little more rock-oriented I wasn’t playing a normal instrument. Then I dabbled in a lot of crazy things like the accordion. I do play a harmonium still. It was in 2002 or 2003 that I went, “You know, I need another instrument that I can write on and sing and play at the same time.” I didn’t feel inspired by piano and guitar, so I actually got the idea to play harp from a harpist that was playing with my orchestra when I was playing cello. She was awesome, and I thought, “Y’know, that’s what I want to play.” That was when I was seventeen.


triple goddess tattoo


What music really spoke to you in middle school and high school?
I was a little bit of a rebel against trends. Everyone was into Nirvana and I went, “That’s on the radio, that’s mainstream. Not for me!” I was looking more at David Bowie and glam rock, for some reason. Through all of that I ended up discovering Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and The Virgin Prunes. They’re a really weird Irish experimental band from the ’70s and ’80s.


Was the performance aspect of those bands a strong point of interest to you? The fact that they could assume these outsized personas?
Yeah. I think what I liked about Nick Cave and The Virgin Prunes is that they both had very intense performances that were very theatrical in the way that they were singing, and the stories they were telling. The Virgin Prunes were the first band I ever saw doing references to pagan ideas, and that was interesting to me. They had this very raw performance art edge that was rejecting old Irish values. They just did all sorts of interesting things onstage.


Was that always an ambition with your music, striving to make something theatrical out of it?
Yeah! [laughs] My first official band was called The Death Blossoms. We were very theatrical. We built a set that we played in front of, a house where we put a TV in the window so that I looked like something was happening in the window. We built this little tree that we hanged bells off of. So we were playing in the yard of this house. [laughs] We were creative. I couldn’t do a band like that now. Man. It was high school so I had time. [laughs]


It’s great that you could find a community of people who were like-minded.
Yeah! I was very lucky. I found a bunch of goth-oriented musicians. We’re all still friends.


joy shannon


joy shannon


You art often addresses subjects of the female body and witchcraft, which are closely related, fear of witchcraft going hand-in-hand with the rejection of female self-possession. When did these topics become of intense fascination for you?
Through my undergraduate studies I started to hone in on the idea of intergenerational trauma, or ancestral memory. I was really using my art to describe it. The way I looked at it was healing, because I started to notice at that point that I had inherited my family’s history in certain attitudes and traumas. Post-traumatic stress can be passed down from parent to child, grandparent to parent and child. A lot of my art comes out of trying to reflect on it, feel it on a personal level, but also look at it from a grander perspective, a cultural perspective, too.

I use the imagery of witchhunting as a symbol, because when people in power are trying to squash another part of the population– who weren’t doing anything wrong, but were going against the norms of the culture– they attacked them with shame and fear. I kind of saw that happening in my family, because my grandmother was imprisoned in that convent and she was pregnant with my dad at a young age. That wasn’t acceptable in Ireland in 1955. So she was essentially punished for it. My dad is gay and I saw him struggle a lot with identity and shame and finding acceptance within his body and mind.
When it came to me and trying to find who I am and who I am as an artist, I felt that I kind of carried that legacy. I wanted to free myself from everything that my family had endured, because now I can live free in the ways that they couldn’t when they were my age.


Let’s talk about your latest album for The Beauty Marks, Aes Sidhe. Can you talk about the subjects or themes that went into its creation?
It’s pronounced “eesh-shee,” which means “people of the mound” or “people of the other world.” It’s basically a carry-on from my last album, Mo Anam Cara, which is Irish for “soulmate.” That album was about the cycle of the year. I wrote a song for every pagan holiday. I was analyzing it and realizing that the ancient Celtic people created this map of the earthly cycles in their holidays and everything they celebrated was really meaningful. It had elements of personal reflection as well as a celebration of community, reverence for the earth. Everything happening for the earth is also happening within the microcosm of ourselves. I wanted to explore that cycle.

When I went to write this latest album, I was thinking, “Well, there are all sorts of places that I’ve been investigating, all of the cycles of the year and the holidays. There are lots of places that I can continue researching.” I decided that I wanted to delve into the cycle of the dying process and the afterlife, what the Celts and the Nordic people believed. Just because it’s so different from the Judeo-Christian way of looking at the world. I found a lot of interesting things to think about and feel.

What I do with any of my albums or my art, when I’m delving into ancient research, is that I try to uncover, in a creative way, what people may have felt. With this latest album, things were really patchy. There’s not a lot of written history, it was recorded by Christian monks many years later, or Romans who were outside observers. In that way, it’s easier to explore those ideas with music. It doesn’t have to be totally true to history in order to produce a cool song. It’s more based on an emotional connection to people that once existed. Mostly, when I’m writing songs, I’m researching about things I know little about. Then something will produce that spark of inspiration. “Wow that’s so cool!” A story about some god or goddess, for example.


Is death something that has been omnipresent in your life? Do you think about it often?
I feel very at peace with it. You don’t know until you’re right there facing it. But I’ve seen it. I’ve been at the bedside of several family members as they were dying. It can be a beautiful, cathartic thing when friends and family are involved. I thought the Celtic and Nordic ideas about the afterlife that I discovered in my research were lovely to think about. There’s comfort in it. I think I needed that.

I think the album had less to do, for me , with literal dying than the cycle of death and rebirth being something that happens continually. It happens every year in the earth and it happens continually in our lives when we’re moving on from one phase or relationship or job or identity to the next. I was entering a new phase in my life when I was working on the album so I was kind of reflecting on the old and embracing the new and unknown.



joy shannon


triple goddess tattoo


joy shannon


joy shannon


triple goddess tattoo


triple goddess tattoo


triple goddess tattoo


triple goddess tattoo


joy shannon

Black Sunday art for Yay! Horror Movie A Day


joy shannon

Faust art for Yay! Horror Movie A Day


joy shannon and the beauty marks

Aes Sihde LP album art by Paul Romano



“Midsummer Witch Hunt – Official Music Video”



“Liam Neeson” – Official Music Video



Follow Joy Shannon: Instagram, Twitter

Follow Joy Shannon and The Beauty Marks: website, Facebook, YouTube, Bandcamp

Follow Triple Goddess Tattoos: website, Instagram, Facebook

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- who has written 424 posts on Yay! LA | Arts & Culture Magazine.

Rudderless college graduate Daniel Barron founded Yay! LA Magazine on a love of writing, passion for the arts, and a firm belief that people really like talking about themselves. He contributed to a number of publications, including LA Music Blog and the defunct The Site Unscene, before deciding to cover arts and entertainment the way he wanted to read it. He works as a freelance writer and digital PR consultant in his current home of Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter at @YayDanielBarron.

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