Tattoo Life Magazine Interview
This Tattoo Life Magazine Interview done in 2019 by Elvia Iannaccone Gezlev. I am grateful for this possibility and for endless support through the years from Tattoo Life Magazine and Miki Vialetto.
The interview can be found at TattooLife.com, here Im posting the original text without pictures:
Tell me where you grew up and what was your childhood like?
I was born in Crimea (south of USSR), but I grew up on Kamchatka, which is located at the other side of the Eurasia continent on The Paciﬁc Ocean coast. Really far from the rest of the world, it felt like middle of nowhere especially in such closed country like USSR.
What was your ﬁrst encounter with tattoos? What did you ﬁnd fascinating?
I became interested in tattoos during my childhood, and remember asking my father repeatedly about the origin of the tattoo on his wrist. I was especially impressed by the fact that the letters would not wash off with soap, and would stay on my dad’s wrist for life.
When, where and how you started tattooing? Whats your story..
I started tattooing from scratch in 1988, in time when Russian tattoo scene didn’t exist at all. It was the time of Perestroika in the former USSR and the social and economic climate was a difﬁcult thing to comprehend unless you lived through it. Many of us, the youth of the time, felt socially excluded and I drifted into the punk rock scene. Within that scene, I found a group of friends some of which I still have today that shared my views and interests. As punk rockers, we felt the urge to rebel against our society and in those days, tattoos were seen as rebellious and were deﬁnitely not as mainstream as they are now. I started because a friend virtually forced me to tattoo him, he was like “I want a tattoo, you can draw best out of us all so you should do it.” Before this step, I had a bit of experience in tattooing but my knowledge was extremely limited, I had used a very primitive method of marking the skin, using a sewing needle and thread dipped into regular drawing ink – nowadays its trendy “hand poked” tattooing. At the time I was completely unaware that this was a traditional method of tattooing but I knew it worked. I’ve done a small tattoo on myself with this method so my friends thought I was the best person to tattoo them. After this initial foray into tattooing I started to think about making a tattoo machine, but I had no idea about the way it should work. A friend of mine who has spent some time in jail taught me how to build it. And I got it. A simple rotary machine made with a spring powered shaver called «Sputnik», empty ball pen cartridge and a sharpened guitar string instead of a needle. It was not reliable and absolutely uncomfortable to handle but I made dozens of small tattoos on my friends using that machine. It worked in a fashion so piece by piece I got better and reﬁned the machine over time.
Tattooing was a kind of underground subculture back then so it was absolutely impossible to ﬁnd some useful information of any kind. No tattoo magazines were sold and I was trying to ﬁnd and collect any information from different sources. Sometimes I got ideas for tattoos from those rare musical magazines I was able to ﬁnd accidentally at friends of mine. I remember that “Kerrang!” magazine, where ones I’ve seen a picture of an Australian hard rock band called “Rose Tattoo”, I guess. Someone of the guys had colored tattoo on his arm! Before that I wasn’t even able to imagine that colored tattoos can exist! It was mind blowing experience!
Yeah, late 80s and 90s in Russia were very strange times. The country was changing and we slowly started to get more and more information from abroad, where tattoo industry was already established. That time I started to think how to improve my equipment and realized that building my own proper tattoo machine instead of trying to buy one was the best way for me. And in 1993 I started to build tattoo machines together with a friend of mine. We didn’t have a chance to handle or play with real magnetic coil tattoo machine, which we have only seen on a small photo, I guess on Scorpions – Love At First Sting album cover but somehow ‘invented’ basic mechanic principals from scratch.
We endlessly did technical drawings, ordered details, wrapped coils ourselves, polished frames… And in couple years of constant experiments we worked out how build our perfect tattoo machine. Actually I’ve been using only that machines for many years and I still have couple of them in my collection.
In the same time I’ve being constantly practicing in tattooing doing a lot of experiments with different technics and inks. I knew that I had to concentrate not only on learning many important things like techniques, pigment technology and hygienic aspects but also improving my artistic skills. Then I started to learn how to draw and create proper tattoo designs to be able to create custom tattoos, not just copy someone’s art to my clients skin.
In late 90’s I started to travel around Europe, working at Tattoo Conventions and having guest spots at different Tattoo shops. And I still do now! I believe traveling and working at Tattoo Conventions are incredibly important, its the way we learn and get inspired. London and Paris Tattoo Conventions are deﬁnitely one of my favorite.
You are a russian man in NYC... how you maintain you identity while living here? What living in NYC gives you that you cant ﬁnd anywhere else?
Bills! …Just kidding..?
Well, I travel a lot and when you are on the road big time of your life, you learn so much more than just a new language or cultural aspects, you get your life experience. This experience slowly mixing with your native mentality and cultural aspects so sooner or later you become multicultural person, if it can be said so. But in the same time, having that kind of experience won’t make assimilating process easier, in case if you want to stay somewhere for life. Yes, it’s really hard to ﬁnd a good place to stay, but little by little, trying new places, meeting new friends, you can ﬁnd a place which you can truly call home. Now I feel like NYC has become a kind of my place. Even though I still feel like Russian, in the same time I don’t feel myself like a foreigner here. I feel like home and that’s what I need now. NYC has unique energy and that’s exactly what I’ve never been able to get anywhere else.
Your style is very clean with the softest and deepest shades of black.. where does your fascination with japanese art comes from? You have been around tattooing a long time (how long?) ... you used to be known mostly for realistic style back in Europe.. what happened and why you abruptly decided to concentrate uniquely on Japanese style?
Im tattooing more than 30 years. Even though tattooing is a kind of visual art, big part of tattoo artist’s job is just a craftsmanship, that’s reality. In most cases, customer’s idea or individual skin condition seriously limits our artistic ambitions as well as other art aspects. That’s why tattoo artist is able to choose his style extremely rarely, in most cases the artist is chosen by the style itself. I hope you know what I mean.
I love all aspects of tattooing, but I’m quite selective with my customers, I always do my best to improve their ideas and I think these facts lead my skills to the style.
Yes, I spent big time doing black and grey realistic works and many times I’ve had a chance to see my own works after 10-15 years… I’ve done that tattoos myself, so I’m pretty sure they were done perfectly but in spite of that they drop down their quality over time. I don’t want to say that all realistic tattoos look bad thru time, but in most cases their lasting quality depends on many subjective reasons which are absolutely not predictable. For sure not many tattoo artists care about that aspects but I deﬁnitely do and some years ago I’ve found out that tattoos done more decorative way, like ‘traditional’ or ‘Japanese’ style hold their value much better and look almost the same attractive through the years.
That’s why nowadays I ﬁnd myself moving deeper into learning Japanese art and away from the realistic works.
Traditional Japanese Tattoo Style meant not only decorate and highlight the unique human body shapes and natural muscle ﬂow but also having deep meaning of subject matter in the same time, which gives it a kind of mystery and protective energy for their holders.
How you approach a big scale japanese tattoo?
Human body is a kind of organic work of art. When you get to this point of understanding you deﬁnitely ﬁnd out that there are actually no such things like ‘Big’ or ‘Small’ exist, there is only organic way to work with it.
What people should know about you and the way you work?
I’m deﬁnitely interested in working with people who trust me as an artist, because successful tattoo is always a collaboration result of like minded individuals. I’m quite selective and I’d never work with client who’s idea not clear to me or doesn’t reﬂect my style. After detailed discussion we both have to decide if we are ready to collaborate.
Russia is nowadays full of talented and groundbreaking tattooers.. is tattooing well seen there or not?
Well, actually I’ve being traveling a lot during past 10-20 years and have spent not too much time in my home country, so probably I wouldn’t be able to describe the situation detailed, though, even from the distance I can feel a lot of positive tendencies for tattoo scene in Russia. Nowadays there is much wider range of people being tattooed and I think that many of the youngsters are getting much heavier tattoo coverage on their bodies. In the same time a number of really great tattoo artists increasing year by year. And some of them not just great, they are amazingly perfect! They start traveling and quickly become famous worldwide. Some years ago I was the only artist presenting Russian scene at European tattoo conventions and nowadays Russian artists can be met at most events around. And this could be absolutely called as progress.
Your wife is an amazing photographer.. you are a very talented artistic duo living really quietly and keeping a very low proﬁle.. and also with a passion for green tea! Where you see yourselves on 10 years? Whats your plans for the future?
Thank you, we truly appreciate your kind words! Actually we are that kind of people who prefer to ﬂow together with the natural stream of life. And green tea ceremony is our everyday ritual which charging us positively and giving possibilities to stay on top of our creative energy wave.
Today we are running our studio in Brooklyn but few years ago, even in our craziest dreams, we couldn’t imaging ourselves where we are now, so we’ll see.
You recently published an ebook of your japanese designs.. and you have a huge collection of your tattoo sketches.. tell us about it
I started drawing tattoo flash in 1998 being working for a street tattoo shop in St.Petersburg. There were just few registered tattoo shops for whole 5 million-city back then. We had a lot of customers but no tattoo flash catalogs or something to show them. Few old ragged tattoo magazines and my own tattoo work photos didn’t compensate this shortage of information. I was only artist there and this situation pushed me to start collecting my drawings making a kind of tattoo designs catalog which became my first flesh set later. After that I’ve being keeping myself busy producing 1 tattoo flesh set yearly and most of them I successfully sold during different tattoo conventions. I still meet some people who come to me at conventions telling their stories on how perfectly that flash sets have being working in their studios during the years.
But life changed things and slowly tattoo flash art have been moved back by sketch books and nowadays we don’t see a lot of printed editions at all, everything digitalized. And that’s totally fine since modern technologies give tattoo artists new creative possibilities.
My eBooks are digital versions of my printed books which I’ve created few years ago. They contain Japanese Style inspired tattoo design thematic collections. The designs are completely ready to be used as tattoo flash, so the books are recommended for both, tattoo artists to get inspirational ideas as well as for tattoo collectors, who can bring the designs to their tattoo artist to get them tattooed ‘as is’.
Nowadays I mostly create tattoo designs for my clients projects and they all are individually and custom made, done in original sizes according to personal proportions and subject matter requests. They are definitely can not be copied or used as tattoo flash, but possibly could work as a source of inspiration, so someday I’ll probably publish them also.
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