Cover Image By: Cedric Arnold
When people ask me why I like tattoos, my response is simple: skin is the ultimate canvas. Unlike a blank sheet of paper, skin tells a story before an artist makes a single mark. It’s expressive in its own right. Every lump, bump, wrinkle, scrape, scar, bead of sweat and blush utter something, but not everything – there’s always an element of mystery. For instance, deep-seated lines around a person’s mouth reveal they’ve lived a life filled with laughter. The source of their joy remains a secret.
Body art is equally as complex, with tattoos delivering both explicit and hidden meanings. The literal symbology of a tattoo is often easy to interpret, especially when it comes to mass or pop culture iconography (I’m talking roses, skulls, tribal motifs and family names etc). The sub-story behind any tattoo – why it’s really been chosen, what it really means, why it’s been placed where it has, why it was picked at a specific point in time – is often beautifully complex, a tale which can only be understood after a deep conversation with the beholder.
And, I guess that’s what it all comes back too – conversations. A human body has its purest conversation when it’s real, raw and naked. It say’s, “I’m 40 years old” or “I’m from Indonesia” or “I swim a lot” or “I suffer from rheumatoid arthritis” etc. The owner of that body may choose to enhance, reaffirm or adapt that conversation – often based on the chitchat taking place inside their head – through their choice of fashion, surgery, makeup, fitness and/or body art. A tattooist then joins this collective conversation – the physical and mental – depicting them in a single work of art, and adding their own story (self-expression) to the mix. Indeed, unlike most forms of art, tattooing involves the merging of two souls.
In light of this tanged intimacy and the perceived permanence of a tattoo (despite the fact it’s one of the only art forms which dies with its owner), it’s important to collaborate with the right artist before committing to a new piece of body art. I’ve spent the past week hunting out some of the best and most thrilling tattooists around the globe. So, ditch the idea of dashing to your local ink grotto for a quick tramp stamp and let the possibilities inspire you.
Influences: abstract art and conceptual art
Claim to fame: Amanda’s avant-garde aesthetic, which mimics bold brush strokes, paint splatters and bleeding oils, appears to move on the skin. It’s exciting to witness her exploration of tattooing as an art form and a medium in ways that are truly ground-breaking. You see, Amanda doesn’t just tattoo human skin, she also inks fruit!
Location: New York, USA
Digital media: Amanda Wachob l @AmandaWachob
Influences: Aboriginal art and mythology, Australian flora and fauna
Claim to fame: Tatu Lu is leading the neo-Aboriginal tattoo aesthetic. Her highly-customised works reflect stories about Australia’s unique wildlife and indigenous identity. As with traditional aboriginal art, her tattoos incorporate an x-ray vision of sorts, with animals’ bone structures and internal organs clearly on display. Not only do these depictions look seriously cool, they also act as a visual request to Aboriginal spiritual totems and express an ongoing relationship between the natural and spiritual worlds.
Location: Mullumbimby, Australia
Digital media: Tatu Lu l @tatulutatoos
Style: black and grey
Influences: Mexican calendar art, religious imagery, renaissance art
Claim to fame: Jose is leading a global reinvention of black and grey tattooing, a style which is quickly surpassing other design influences – namely Japanese art – in popularity. After being struck by a bullet at the age of 15, Jose shifted his focus to the creative world and eventually found his “home” in tattooing. Infatuated with old-school tattoo methods and traditional grey scale ink art, Jose discovered his new mission: to prove anything could be turned into black and grey tattoo designs. Based on the epic monochromatic masterpieces coming out of his studio, I’d say he’s kicking this goal!
Location: Fountain Valley, California, USA
Digital media: Lowrider Tattoo Studio l @joselopez_lowridertattoo
Influences: surrealism, old-school tattooing
Claim to fame: Weird, surreal, nightmarish, witty, absurd…these are just some of the words that have been used to describe Deno’s unique tattoo style. While his work is precise and retrained, it takes regular rides into the world of magic. Metamorphoses often happen: coffee pots turn into spiders, elephant trunks turn into snakes, animals devour each other, towers sprout branches. Thanks to his quirky designs and solid illustrative style, the brilliance of Deno’s work is immediate and powerful…it also reminds me of my childhood obsession with Mambo.
Location: Madrid, Spain
Media channels: Circus Tattoo l @circustattoomadrid
Influences: ritual practice, spiritualism, indigenous art, architecture
Claim to fame: If you to gaze upon Roxx’s Instagram portfolio, prepare to get lost in a world of spell-binding tattoos (that was my experience, anyway!). This gifted artist seamlessly combines organic, graphic and hard-edged motifs into striking showpieces. At times, her work defines and relies on the contours of the body. At other times, it challenges the natural flow of human anatomy, using skin to champion something more visually powerful. With their serpentine lines, geometric fusions, and diverse cultural influences (from tribal art to religious architecture), Roxx’s designs reflect her own wild wonderings as well as her unique ability to draw a client’s inner power form their soul to the surface.
Location: San Francisco, California, USA
Digital media: 2Spirit Tattoo l @roxx_____
Influences: ritual, nature, geometric patterns
Claim to fame: After Googling the heck out of Little Swastika, I was left with one thought: this artist takes the boundaries of body art to a whole new level (extreme tattoos, eye ink, implants, scarification and dental work barely make him bat a tattooed eyelid). Little Swastika’s mad creations look nothing like tattoos; they’re reminiscent of a graffiti wall or wildly abstract canvas. In an attempt to drive tattoos back to the world of alternative subcultures, he appears to reject anything trendy that lives within the mass-market. Yearning to be part of a rebellion that sits outside of the norm, Little Swastika has scaled back his practice and focuses purely on hyper-ambitious, one-off signature pieces. His work often fuses together multiple bodies, and such enormous tattoos require a strong willingness from each client to be part of a collective work. Getting tattooed by Little Swastika is an intensive experience – it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Location: Tengen, Germany
Digital media: Little Swastika l @little_swastika
SIMONE PFAFF & VOLKER MERSCHKY
Style: contemporary, experimental
Influences: photorealism, graphic design, patterns
Claim to fame: Perhaps the most striking aspect of Simone and Volker’s work is their collage-style compositions. The duo’s tattoos mash together lifelike elements, typography, “brush strokes”, graphic design and filigree patterns as well as an explicit separation of dark and light to achieve a bold total effect. Simone and Volker’s loyalty to asymmetrical designs and a narrow colour palette (black, grey and red) have also helped make their creations instantly recognisable. They tend to focus on the themes of life, death, beauty and perishability through their work. Simone and Volker’s raw and visually extreme approach to these subjects ensure their tattoos are nothing short of traffic stoppers.
Location: Wurzburg, Germany
Digital media: Trash Polka l @trashpolkaoficial
SUSANNE ‘SUSA’ KONIG
Influences: engravings, fauna
Claim to fame: Susanne Konig is a visual innovator, especially when it comes to the depiction of animals in tattooing. Not only has she expanded the range of species usually seen in body art (think squids, poodles and foxes, not butterflies, snakes and eagles), she’s also taken how animals are represented to a whole new level. Konig’s quirky imagery is created using a distinctly graphic, clear-cut style akin to engravings and children’s book illustrations. She adopts an anthropomorphic approach to her cool creatures, and equips them with endearingly human traits, from clothing to facial expressions. Konig’s works are disarmingly straight forward – they don’t pretend, but rather convey, unfeigned emotions. Through her forthrightness, she wants clients to feel something…anything. Amazement, delight, the creeps – you name it and she’s flattered by it.
Location: Amsterdam, Netherlands
Digital media: @suflanda
Style: black and grey, realism
Influences: heavy metal music, surrealism, abstraction
Claim to fame: Victor Portugal’s name has that rare ability to arouse feverish excitement amongst the tattoo community worldwide. It’s become synonymous with extraordinary black and grey tattoo art – the stuff of creative genius. During his early days, Portugal’s work was inspired by the tattoos of his heavy metal idols. During this time, he achieved widespread notoriety as the Prince of Dark and Sinister tattooing. Despite moving towards biomechanical imagery, surrealism and realistic illustrations in recent years, his masterpieces remain gloomy and terrifying in their tone, conjuring up nightmares with their lifelike appearance on the skin. Throughout his career, Portugal has strived for originality. He’s not a fan of working with clients who have a restrictive vision and craves the freedom to produce unique tattoos, often drawn freehand! For Portugal, tattooing isn’t just a calling, it’s also a dedicated way of life.
Location: Krakow, Poland
Digital media: Victor Portugal l Tattoos by Victor Portugal
Style: contemporary, Japanese
Influences: Asian Art
Claim to fame: Tang Ping is a pioneer of contemporary tattooing in China, especially amongst its youth culture. In fact, as an emerging ink artist, he couldn’t find a teacher or mentor to work with and relied on Google for lessons. While there’s a distinct Asian-flavour to his grand-scale creations, Ping also draws on other sources of inspiration. His hyper-saturated hues are akin to vibrant graffiti art, airbrushing and psychedelic tapestries. They sparkle like jewels on the skin. Ping’s major showpieces often push a central motif to the outer edges of the body, seemingly enveloping its “ink model” in a piece of shimmering fabric. The powerful interplay between boldness and delicacy are so enthralling, they beg to be touched – viewers feel compelled to check the imagery is actually a tattoo.
Location: Beijing, China
Digital media: Tang Ping l @ZiYouTattoo
Influences: traditional Thai tattooing and culture
Location: Bangkok, Thailand
Claim to fame: Ajarn Thoy is known as the “Master of Sak Yant”, a spiritual form of Thai tattooing which incorporates ritual practice and transcends the usual body ink experience (to say the least). Each year, Thoy recharges his master powers at an elaborate Wai Khru ceremony and celebrates his supreme tattooing skills with his loyal disciples. He’s perceived to be a protector more than a beautifier, as sak yant tattoos serve to shield their wearers from danger. In-keeping with the local tradition, Thoy uses a long metal tool (khem sak) to mark his client’s bodies and sticks with customary Thai designs, such as: Khmer script, geometric shapes, animals, Buddhist symbology, gods and goddesses. He welcomes both devoted followers and random travellers into his private tattoo sanctuary; so, be sure to seek him out next time you’re in Thailand, even if it’s just to witness the spectacle.
Digital media: Thai Sak Yant
Photographs by: Cedric Arnold
Influences: indigenous art and spirituality
Claim to fame: Known as the “godfather of spiritual tattooing”, Zulu treats each client as a potential moment of discovery. “I bring tattoos out of people,” says Zulu. “I’ve never tattooed a stranger; by the time I tattoo you, we know each other.” Zulu sees body art as meaningful catalyst towards an ideal. Many of his clients have something they’re trying to discover within themselves, and marking their bodies with these ideals helps with them with this process. Beyond the powerful meanings behind his work, Zulu’s grand, graphic style and bold use of colours are truly striking. Evidently, he’s passionate about brining tattoo culture, something which is often considered lowbrow, into the world of fine art.
Location: Los Angeles, California and Austin, Texas, USA
Digital media: Zulu Tattoo l Zulu Tattoo
Style: calligraphic, contemporary
Influences: Chinese and Japanese art, monochromatic illustration
Location: Hong Kong, China
Claim to fame: All hail Joey Pang, the master calligrapher who tattoos genuine Chinese lettering like no other in the business. Her creations, as with any great Chinese artist, are both expressive and elegant, offering a visual harmony that’s effortlessly enchanting. Pang is considered a pioneer for her seamless translation of Asian paintings into body art. On one hand, her designs seem to float on the skin like ink that’s literally been brushed onto the body. Conversely, she also manages to blend the human form with her tattoos by maximising the use of negative space – a client becomes part of her master design, not just the canvas.
Digital media: Tattoo Temple l @thetattootemple
Influences: children’s books
Claim to fame: Lionel Fahy has a rare gift in the tattoo world; he can distil the concept of an image down to a single line without sacrificing impact or meaning. Ever in search of the pure line, he sees minimalist work as the perfect venue for storytelling. Indeed, Fahy’s distinctly sparse style has been likened to the naive illustrations seen in children’s books. By tattooing such innocent and playful imagery onto adult bodies, he challenges the notion that grownups should be serious, silent and safe. In Fahy’s words, “Society doesn’t allow you to be sensitive. You have to be tough all of the time; but, through drawings and music, you can express yourself your own way.” For Fahy, the purpose of life is expression.
Location: Itinerant, France
Digital media: Lionel Out of Step l @LionelFahy
Influences: Indigenous Pacific art, geometry
Claim to fame: As an artist, Taku Oshima has been charmed by the colour black and completely surrendered to its influence. His submission seems to be working out for him. Oshima’s monochromatic works and geometrically perfect compositions challenge the human silhouette in a way I’ve never quite seen before. He effortlessly blends Pacific Island designs with more modern themes, and the end result is simply epic.
Location: Tokyo, Japan
Digital media: Tribal Tattoo Apocaript l Taku Oshima
If this collection of tattoo artists has tickled your ink imagination, I encourage you to check out or buy The World Atlas of Tattoo, by Anna Felicity Friedman. Not only does this book (bible?) profile a more extensive list of mind-blowing tattoo artists from around the world, it also dives into the fascinating history of tattoo culture, continent by continent. The World Atlas of Tattoo was the flint that ignited my desire to write this blog and it’s become a much-loved coffee table book in my home. I promise it’ll knock your socks off and get you dreaming about your next bit of body art. Tuck in and enjoy!