Body art is going avant-garde, thanks to a new generation of Berlin-based tattooists who see a canvas where others see skin.
There is a profit-driven logic to our post-industrial age which says that if something can be mass-produced, it probably should. Even tattoo culture has fallen prey to the character-sapping machinations of the production line. Thanks to the advent of the tattoo flash – copyrighted stock designs traded between tattooists – thousands of shoulders, arms, legs and backs have no doubt spent years trying to stand out from the crowd by rocking exactly the same ‘one-off’ piece. Luckily, a new generation of tattoo artists is rescuing skin ink from the clutches of conformity and bringing a unique aesthetic back into the fold.
This new wave is particularly visible in Berlin, where progressive tattoo studios like creative den AKA – which doubles as a gallery space – boast a roster of technicians with diverse artistic backgrounds.
“They don’t come from tattoo in the first place. They’re artists,” explains AKA co-founder Valentin Plessy. “Madame Chän is a silk-screen printer, Jessica Mach is from graphic design, Sarah B Bolen is from architecture, and all the others studied art in different mediums. It’s through their evolution as an artist that they came to skin as a new medium.”
Valentin’s partner Jon John has dubbed these artists the “new avant-garde”. Yet, at first glance AKA could be any Berlin gallery. The front room is an exhibition space where the work of Israeli painter and visual artist Amit Elan is currently on show. But it’s the buzz of tattoo machines that gives the game away.
Off to the side are two smaller rooms where resident artists Sarah B Bolen and Jessica Mach are hard at work. Sarah B came to Berlin from Canada just over a year ago. The daughter of an oil painter, she grew up with a knack for drawing, and developed a fascination with tattoos from an early age, getting her first ink at thirteen. Now thirty-two, Sarah has been tattooing for the past ten years, during which time she also studied interior architecture and was employed by a major design firm in Vancouver and Toronto.
“It’s perfect for me. I do a lot of water-colour and oil painting but, for whatever reason, skin and me work together best,” she says. “I just understand it after all these years. And I prefer tattooing over drawing, for sure.”
An avid antique collector, Sarah has adorned her studio with quirky artifacts, old tattoo sketches and vintage picture frames. This juxtaposition of the beautiful and kitsch comes through in her stylised designs, which she says take influence from Czech Art Nouveau painter Alphonse Mucha, known for his elaborate drawings.
“He has this thin-line-thick-line kind of idea,” explains Sarah. “It has a real graphic sense to it but then it’s so smooth and beautiful and realistic, too. He mastered these organic, beautiful, flowing forms with intense detail.”
One of Sarah’s tattoo sleeve designs features a prim, Victorian-era headless family with smoke coming out of their necks. “It’s one of my favourite pieces because it’s this perfect mixture of super traditional, old-school tattooing, like all those old-school roses, which I love,” she explains, “and it’s also kind of like an old family photograph from the 1800s, only without heads.”
In the next room, German artist Jessica Mach is working on a beautifully realistic Long-tailed Widowbird. After becoming disillusioned with the world of advertising, Jessica was looking for another profession to channel her creativity, and began tattooing three and a half years ago.
Like Sarah, Jessica spends a lot of time drawing, often infusing graphic design techniques and experimenting with composition on the computer. “Sometimes I get new ideas when I nearly finish the sketch,” says Jessica. “I think, ‘Maybe this could be better, or it could be cool to try this.’ So, I scan it in and mix it with graphic elements.”
A fan of traditional wallpaper patterns and Renaissance Art, Jessica has adorned the walls of her studio space with Albrecht Dürer‘s ‘Young Hare’ – a piece dating from the fifteenth century – alongside her colourful paintings and sketches. “I love the mixture,” says Jessica, who combines photorealism and graphic patterns into her illustrations. “I like trying to create harmony by making things fit together, even if they’re not the same style.”
Jessica’s work draws inspiration from nature, fairytales, wallpaper and street art, but it’s her interest in ornithology that’s afforded her the nickname, ‘The Bird-Lady’. “I have a big, big book with all the birds of the world in it and I use it to choose a species that most suits the customer,” she explains.
And it’s not just AKA residents that are leading the charge. German artist Peter Aurisch began tattooing friends in his kitchen three years ago, and now works at the Signs and Wonders tattoo studio in Friedrichshain, Berlin.
Despite having no formal artistic training, Peter developed his own unique style and cites Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele as a big inspiration. Schiele’s figurative works – all bold line work and twisted human forms – are known for their intensity, and Peter’s art delivers a similar punch. Thing is, on paper they don’t look much like tattoos. “I’m just using my drawing skills for tattooing, and that’s why it looks really different,” explains Peter, pointing to a piece that looks like it’s been sketched directly onto the skin, and then accented with splashes of ink or watercolour brushwork.
These experimental turns have left artists like Peter open to criticism from the tattoo old guard. One staid technician even told Peter that what he is doing “is not a tattoo”. Yet the work and the waiting lists for these artists speak for themselves. “Real tattooists push and push and push the limits, just like any other art form,” says Sarah, “whether its architecture or painting or whatever, it doesn’t matter. It’s about continual progression and evolution.”
Valentin Plessy says it’s no surprise that a hybrid space like AKA, and the creativity it supports, has taken root in this particular city. For him, “Berlin is a dynamic, artsy El Dorado”. And it’s in this creative melting pot that the “new avant-garde” of ink-on-skin artisans has found their niche.