How I came to design and ink tattoos
As a child, I was always drawing. Every day, everywhere. This habit carried well into high school. I had a big black sketchbook bound with actual stitching and a hardcover. I carried that book with me everywhere and spent most of my class, recess, and after-school time drawing. School was a pretty boring and alienating time for me. I was well ahead of the curriculum and I had only one friend, who was possibly an even bigger outcast than I was. At least she also enjoyed doodling and storytelling. I am pretty sure she was real. Despite not belonging to any groups or circles in high school, I was not hated by peers, just avoided most of the time, unless my drawing skills were needed. Soon my drawing skills became needed by nearly everyone. By my second year of high school, I was visited under my staircase hideout on weekly basis by students asking for portraits of their dates (real and fantasy), biology class illustrations, and eventually tattoo designs. By senior year people were commissioning me tattoo designs that they actually took to local parlors to get inked.
After graduation I lost my “staircase studio” and spent the first years of college hanging out in downtown Manhattan bars and pubs, keeping to myself and my drawing. Bars, especially Irish bars, are great for picking up tattoo customers. In no time at all I had a local following. Sometimes I drew for money, sometimes for drinks, sometimes just for fun. One time I designed a full chest piece depicting a tiger, for a local fireman whose chest was covered in burn scars. I designed the tiger to twist and turn around the scars to hide them convincingly. It looked amazing on paper. He was very pleased and declared that he will only get it inked if I do it personally. “Pffft,” I snorted. “I can’t ink. I just draw.” “Why don’t you learn,” he said. My mind was blown. Why don’t I learn? It wasn’t until two years later that I actually took an apprenticeship with a professional tattooist. I never did ink that tiger, but once I got a taste of tattooing I was hooked.
Around the time that I was learning how to tattoo, life took me to Krakow, Poland. It was there that I began working in a popular local studio. For free at first, but soon I worked my way to my first studio station, and eventually to a manager’s position in the shop. While I enjoyed working with human skin I found shop work to be unsatisfying and unrewarding. A tattoo parlor is a business and a good tattoo parlor is a well-oiled machine designed to spend as little time as possible working with the client and as much time as possible getting paid. It makes sense. That’s how a business is run. My thoughts, however, were that if you invest a little bit more time into the customers, you can potentially collect even more money and build a better reputation, not to mention make real art.
Tattoo parlors are notoriously scary, clinical and impersonal. The people who walk into parlors know that they want ink, but most of the time they have very little clue as to what exactly they want. A typical parlor’s solution to this dilemma is to sit all walk-ins on a sofa and have them look through books, searching for the perfect design. If they find nothing that catches their eye, they leave without having wasted any of the artists’ time. If they are able to settle on a particular panther or anchor or heart design from a million of nearly identical images, they get processed and inked. Very few artists take the time to talk to the clients and even fewer take the time to design original artwork for them. My specialty was design work. I had no interest in inking copy/paste stars and flaming cobras for the rest of my life. By the time I returned to New York I was going solo.
Working as an independent artist can be tough but ultimately rewarding. Back in New York City, I returned to my practice of meeting like-minded individuals who are drawn to my art, rather than inking strangers. Meeting people in New York is not difficult. In fact, it is difficult not to meet people. Three years into my tattoo career and I already had a self-inflicted left tattoo sleeve. A single ride on the subway wearing a t-shirt was guaranteed to land me a couple of customers weekly. All I had to do was go about my regular life. My clients gravitated to me themselves. Once we got to talking and discovered that we have similar artistic tastes, I would take my client to a bar or a coffee shop for a chat. In a friendly and relaxing atmosphere, we could talk like two friends instead of one being interrogated by the other. It’s amazing how much you can find out about what a person wants in a tattoo just by chatting about this and that and total nonsense. An hour or two of friendly conversation landed me free refreshments and a brand new client. Having gotten a rough psychological profile of my new prospect I could go home and begin sketching something really personal for them. My client and I would continue a back and forth conversation, tweaking the design until it was absolutely perfect, and then we would schedule an inking date at my home studio. I made a lot of good friends during these years. A tattoo session is a very intimate and personal time, during which client and artist can really bond through conversation.
Moving to Santiago, Chile didn’t change things for me very much. A city is a city, and while a little bit more conservative, Santiago is full of young professionals who are looking for non-mainstream designs. My new following found me within just a couple of months. I was invited to work in a local shop and landed a station there. Unlike my previous shop experience, here I was my own boss and spent as much time as needed with clients, kept my own hours, and paid my share for the space. After moving to the countryside, I continued working with my established clients, but this time I traveled to their homes for personal home sessions. Boy, did they love that! Imagine, not having to sit on the awkward leather couch to the boom of the mandatory death metal music, waiting your turn for hours, while listening to other people’s screams and moans. Instead, your artist just shows up at your convenience, like a masseuse, rolls out her station, sanitizes everything, you can watch a movie or play your own music, drink tea, take as many smoking breaks as you want, and just let your artist work for as long as is necessary. Once she is done, she cleans up, packs up, leaves, and you get to just recline on your couch and take care of your tattoo in the clean and quiet atmosphere of your own home. Getting tattooed is tiring no matter how many times you’ve done it. After your session is done, all you want to do is lay on the couch and drink something cold and refreshing. The last thing you want to do is make your way home on the dirty, loud subway train.
The individuals who reach out to me for a tattoo design tend to be creative and open-minded people. They have very clear feelings, motivations and sometimes even visions of their unborn ink, but they are not skilled in drawing, designing, mapping or tattooing images. In a way, they hire me as a messenger, to translate their internal desires into something visible to other people. This is why heart to heart conversation is such an important part of my work. I rarely tattoo ready designs that are brought to me. In my entire career as an independent tattooist, I may have done five or six designs that were brought to me. Even when I do portraits, I embellish them with something not present in the photograph.
During my ten year run as a tattooist, people often asked me what my style is. My response was always “My style is YOUR style.” You tell me what emotion you want your tattoo to evoke, how much detail you want in it, etc. and I will craft something to fit that mood. Obviously, my artistic hand has its own personality, my attention to detail, my lines, my manner of shading, but I never impose a single on my clients. I do make professional suggestions in terms of size, placement, and very rarely on the subject matter. There have also been clients whom I had to turn down for various reasons. Some wanted tattoos for all the wrong reasons. Some were clearly making a horrible mistake that I did not want to be responsible for. Some simply had ideas that did not interest me.
While in 2017 I retired from actually inking people, I still take on design drawing and mapping commissions from clients all over the world. In today’s world of internet communication, it is no longer necessary for me to meet my clients in bars and coffee shops. We can chat over Facebook or Skype, or e-mail. As a matter of fact, written-form of communication has its benefits. I can read my clients’ stories over and over again while working on their design. Today I have design clients in Brazil, Australia, United States, UK, New Zealand, Spain, South Africa, and Chile. After agreeing on the placement of their future tattoo, I ask my clients to send me photos of that part of their body so that I can map their design onto the photo, to help them envision what it will look like ink. Also for them to take that mapping to their tattooist so that they too can have a clear vision of the final result. Obviously, they also get a formatted and perfectly sized drawing that is print ready.
Here’s an example of a tattoo process with me
Daniel met me in 2013 in Santiago, Chile. I was referred to him by a friend. When I sat down with him and his two buddies, equally interested in personalized tattoos, I had no idea that we were about to embark on a four-year inking journey, and a life long friendship as an added bonus. Unlike most of my clients whose tattoo ideas are based on feelings, emotions or memories, Daniel’s was mostly based on architecture and geometry. For him wanting ink wasn’t about commemorating a life event or honoring a dead relative. He simply liked this art form and wanted a shoulder piece that reflected his mindset, love of geometrical patterns, and architecture. He wanted his tattoo to feature elements of Escher’s art, but be tailored to suit his muscle tone, allowing the ink to move as he moves. I took that commission immediately and began drawing and mapping as soon as I got home.
As with my other clients, I first presented Daniel with the design for his shoulder and a projection mapping of how the design will wrap around his upper arm and shoulder. Once we agreed on the details we proceeded with two to three-hour tattoo sessions, meeting every three or four weeks. I completed the agreed upon the design in six sessions, but little did I know that this was just the beginning. Tattoos are addictive, and good tattoos continue growing on you like a healthy plant. As we spent more time together, Daniel learned enough about the art of tattoo to be his own artist were he to ever chose to do so. He knew techniques, mapping strategies, he even had favorite needle types and shading strategies. As we designed more of his left arm together and later continued onto his right arm, shoulder, and back, he was more in control of the design process than I was. I was just the delivery vehicle. His confidence level in design decision-making grew dramatically, and his eye for precision was very helpful to me in my drawing process. While we have somewhat different mindsets, we function on the same level of detail and precision. Sometimes, when we can’t agree on something, all we have to do is meet in person, and within minutes of bouncing ideas back and worth, a new and brilliant design is born. It is a very satisfying process. In this way, the rest of his tattoos literally grew around him, as he was growing and maturing as a tattoo wearer.
And so concludes my journey of inking, but not of design tailoring. If you have an unborn tattoo that you can’t quite visualize but that you know has to exist, shoot me a message here and maybe I am the person to bring your vision to life. Operating tattoo equipment is a technical skill. Any professional tattooist should be able to transfer any skillfully designed image onto human skin. Creating that design, however, is an art form.