The Jungle | Varyer
A tattoo artist's flash book contains illustrations of naked women, cherries, and a flip phone.

The Jungle

A Sustaining Ecosystem

The word “jungle” is evocative: tangled foliage, rich symbiosis, lush colors. In the jungle, the possibility for new discoveries looms just beyond your sightline. It’s a fitting name for the in-process creative studio situated on the West Side of Chicago run by Gabi Zahradka, Jada Denae, and Cae Jones. These three friends, housemates, and now business partners are in the midst of creating a new kind of space, one where creatives of all kinds are welcomed. Their practices range from personal styling services to tattooing to botanical education, but even that scope barely scratches the surface of what they plan to offer at The Jungle.

A feminine person smiles widely while holding up a vintage shirt.

Jada Denae curates a selection of clothing and home goods available at The Jungle—and has a burgeoning tattoo practice.

A masculine person wearing a red shirt squats in front of a red-illuminated grow tent.

Cae Jones is a teacher and plant specialist, with expertise ranging from house plants to at-home cannabis setups.

A feminine person wearing a pink dress and blue cowboy boots sits on a tattoo table.

Gabi Zahradka is a comedian, burlesque performer, and tattoo artist interested in subverting expectations through her work.

Three people stand closely outside a building, all smiling at the camera.

The group is setting up shop in Time Being Tattoo's old location at 2409 W Hirsch St. in Chicago.

The studio has been years in the making. These three creative collaborators met in school and have been in each other’s orbit ever since, and creating a space for each of their practices feels like an incredibly logical trajectory. But in terms of bringing the studio itself to the public, the process has not been as effortless. In May of last year, the group kicked off a successful Gofundme campaign, raising nearly $20,000 in support of The Jungle. But in our “post” COVID age, the bureaucratic process of opening a new business is still catching up, at times moving slower than before the pandemic began. Paying for studio rent, utilities, and other business-related expenses as they wait for various city approvals has been a costly endeavor, both financially and emotionally. It's been over a year since the process began.

In some ways, the group of creatives stumbled into good fortune: they inherited the lease for their studio space from the former tenants, Time Being Tattoo, where Zahradka worked before the pandemic struck. With the lease came the appropriate zoning for a tattoo parlor—and some heavy expectations from former fans and clients to carry on the popular tattoo shop's legacy. It's clear that Zahradka, Denae, and Jones all have a deep level of deference for the space's predecessors, but they are clear that their intentions for the space are not the same.

“With all due respect, we won't be anything like Time Being,” says Denae. “I feel like so many people were very familiar with with Time Being and those artists are now world-famous tattooers. So I have a feeling that—and we've kind of gotten comments—that people are expecting it to be like a second Time Being. We're looking to bring something different, and we're hoping people can be open to whatever that is.”

On a recent visit to the in-process studio, we chatted with each member of The Jungle to learn more about their individual practice and hopes for the space.

Jada Denae

Denae is the most soft-spoken of the group, thoughtful and unrushed in conversation. “I'm a vintage reseller, a tattoo artist, a model, and a lover based out of Chicago,” she introduces herself. Her emphasis throughout her work is to bring things to life: whether that's by modeling an article of clothing or by finding the perfect piece of vintage clothing for a client, it's about an enlivening energy. For Denae, the greatest moments in her work are when there is a shared sense of accomplishment and satisfaction: “They've never felt as good as they do now in this moment. And I help them do that.”

She draws her inspiration from eras and movements such as Art Deco and Art Nouveau. “It's really incredibly beautiful, and has spoken to me a lot. My first-ever tattoo flash sheet was a mid-century modern flash that I released. I'm very much inspired by that time period, the shapes the colors.”

When asked to describe her ambitions for The Jungle in three words, Denae ponders for a while, settling on “full of whimsy.” She explains that she wants the space to feel fresh and unique, a colorful place that reflects the energy she sees in The Jungle. “The fact that I get to work with my partners and do all the things that I love is already very whimsical,” she says, “Just making a space reflect that would be amazing.”

A portrait of Jada Denae smiling. She wears her hair smoothed down, brightly colored earrings, and a wide-collared shirt under a patterned dress.
A portrait of Gabi Zahradka weating a pink dress. She is heavily tattooed and has long, wavy black hair.

Gabi Zahradka

It's immediately clear when talking to Zahradka that she's used to a multifarious practice. She is a tattoo artist, burlesque performer, and movement artist. Her background is in comedy—improv and sketch, not standup, she clarifies. She was working at Second City performing musical theater improv before the pandemic hit the industry. Her then-housemate Eachna McGraw was a tattooer at Time Being, and Zahradka tentatively asked whether McGraw would take her on as an apprentice.

When it comes to the throughlines in her work, she says, “I would say that my work has always had like a central theme of subversion. So in tattooing and in burlesque and in movement, I'm all about the unconventional, the breaking of arbitrary rules, the questioning of why we've done things the way that we've been doing them.”

At the same time, Zahradka leads the charge on the administrative efforts in opening The Jungle: a practice in following a lot of seemingly arbitrary rules. This is her first time opening a business, and this behind-the-scenes work consumes a lot of time and effort.

When asked to encapsulate her vision for The Jungle, Zahradka responds with “all come together.” She connects this back to the name of the space, articulating the importance of jungles across the world as sustaining, productive spaces for the life within and around them. "It's like that collective unconscious, a thread that strings things. All together."

Cae Jones

Jones has an inviting and receptive demeanor, which probably helps with his chosen field of engaging with and educating the public. He describes himself as “Plant Director” of The Jungle—an important role for a space that the group hopes will become a lush oasis of foliage. His entry into the plant community came through his engagement with the online plant space. Jones realized that enthusiasts who looked like him weren't represented, despite the fact that house plants have grown in popularity, encompassing a huge group of hobbyists and professionals.

“I thought, ‘Okay, let's change the narrative.’ It started off with just plants, and it has transformed into viewing my world and my life as my jungle, seeing that anything can happen within my life as long as I give the attention and time into making those things happen,” Jones says.

He also has professional experience in the cannabis industry, having worked as a budtender at a Logan Square dispensary. After completing the shop's mandatory training, he was hungry for more. “I was going home and I was studying every single article that I could find, just nerding out about the endocannabinoid system and all the different things that they were finding out about weed. I just thought that it was incredible.”

He's already led classes at The Jungle, bringing in small groups and educating them on his personal experience with growing plants at home, whether house plants or homegrown cannabis plants. On our visit, he set up the grow tent that he uses for demonstration as part of his courses. He also has a strong social media presence that includes a mix of lighter content and more thorough educational videos.

His vision for The Jungle is an “endless creativity hub.” While each of the members have their own interests and practices, their creativity unites them. “There's going to be a lot of art that gets created here. There's going to be a lot of thought that is inspired here. There's going to be a lot of learning that can happen here. And that all ties back to creativity. You know what I mean?”

A portrait of Cae Jones laughing. His hair is in black locks, and he wears a cowrie shell necklace and red-and-white floral shirt.

As the trio continues to work through the process of responsibly opening a new business, their focus is on longevity. They know that once they're able to offer support to the local creative community, it's important to maintain their newfound place within that creative ecosystem. They've each spent the past year focusing on their individual crafts—not only to develop their own work, but also to ensure they're prepared for the moment they're ready to open.

“I feel determined for us to go at our own pace, but for me that does look like giving back to people. If I were to rush things and mess it up and drop the ball, then I would fumble that bag,” Zahradka says. Once the backend work is complete, they're planning an open-doors studio day to bring everyone in and introduce The Jungle to the public. You can keep up with developments on their opening on their Instagram page.

Their ultimate message for those waiting for them to open is that they know there's a need—and they're continually aware of the support they've already received from their community.

Throughout our conversation, each member repeatedly emphasized their thankfulness: to the artists from Time Being, to their Gofundme supporters, and to those who are still keeping an eye on their progress. As we conclude our conversation, there's one final sentiment: “I want people to really, really know that we are truly grateful,” Denae says, as Jones and Zahradka nod.