Bettie Chrysovitsanou spoke to HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine about her teenage dream, which was none other than tattooing. She analyses her transition from Realistic to Neo Traditional tattoo, the augmenting "phenomenon" of the use of Greek words on tattoos, whether tattoo is a "male" profession, and if it is, afterall, art..

Photos & interview by Ino Mei.

How did your relationship with tattoo begin?

I had tattoo in my mind and had been following it since I was young. I used to buy international magazines about tattoos and when the internet began, I started looking up designs. The truth is that my designs were influenced by tattoo long before I joined the scene. 

I painted and sketched from an early age, with a special a focus on comics. I studied animation at a private college so my field was comics and animation. However, I began working as a graphic designer, without having studied it, while at the same time doing illustrations for some magazines and bands.

Becoming a tattoo artist was what I really wanted, but for years I couldn’t find the right opportunity. It was like a teenage dream.

If tattoo was your dream, how come you didn’t get straight into it after school?

I contacted two or three known tattooists at the time but didn’t get a positive response and I kind of got discouraged. Of course, tattoo then was not what it is now. Around 2000 - 2001 it was still a very closed and narrow scene. It wasn’t easy and I had sort of discarded it from my mind, until my friends got me a tattoo starter kit as a present. When they gave it to me they told me they were sick of hearing about how much I wanted to be a tattooist (laughs). I worked at home in the beginning, on friends and I did some not so successful tattoos! Luckily, that didn’t last long – about a month. That’s when Spyros was opening his big studio in Plaka and was basically beginning to form a team. He saw my designs and he liked them and that is sort of how it all began at Nico Tattoo Athens seven years ago.

How did you evolve?

At first I continued working my normal job and went to the studio on weekends. After about two months, Spyros sent me to Thessaloniki to see Nikos Katsoulis for a crash course. There I came into contact with Nikos’ work as well as that of Thomas Gramm and Kostas Tzikalagias. Nikos went down to Athens two or three times a year and every time he would give us important advice and monitored development. At that time, other than myself, Bua was also at Nico Tattoo and then came Ozone. We were all basically amateurs, however every collaboration that we did, resulted in me learning something more. I believe that when you work for someone, you trade things and interact with them. Kostas happened to be in Athens very often – almost every month – so he has helped me a lot when it comes to technique. So with a little help from the guys in Thessaloniki and with every day practice, my work developed.

How did you transition to Honest Tattoo work out?

I have been at Honest Tattoo for more than a year and I feel that the studio’s environment suits me greatly. I think me and the guys have more or else the same perceptions when it comes to tattooing. It is a place I feel comfortable in and, at the same time, my collaboration with everyone has helped become more creative and has also offered me more knowledge surrounding the tattoo. I believe all of them - Tassos, Yorg and Sotja – really love what they do and that is why they are top at what they do. It is also a place which respects individuality. Yes, tattooing evolves through collaboration but it is also a singular profession. From one day to the next, you can find yourself on the other side of the world, if you want to. It is something you “carry” with you everywhere. You are not someone’s employee, nor do you serve clients at a bank.

How would you describe your tattoo style?

At the moment, I am not concentrating on one particular style. I did a lot of realism and a lot of colour for a few years. Now I am more into Neo Traditional, without rejecting realism. Of course, in the past, before it was even categorised as Neo Traditional, I though I was doing more New School designs. But then I dived into Realistic. Realism helped me learn a lot of things about design and as a result I evolved, but I later realised that this singular style wasn’t enough for me. Now I like the new logic Neo Traditional and the fact that even though its themes are classic tattoo themes, it allows you to use many styles.

Do you believe that there is a tendency towards Neo Traditional on a global level today? What is more popular in Greece in your opinion?

Realism remains popular in our country. I think that people abroad are returning to Traditional - Old School though. Which I guess will also happen here later on too, since we get everything late. 

Lately, I have noticed more and more tattoos containing words or phrases written in Greek. What do you think about this “phenomenon”?

There are people who seek to be different when getting a tattoo. A tattoo containing Greek words is something you don’t often come across. I don’t know, maybe because you can express yourself better in your mother tongue.

Over the last five - six years, tattooing in our country has flourished, something that is also accompanied by commercialisation. What is your opinion?

The fact that the tattoo is now accepted by more people is of course good for our business. I personally don’t see it as something bad and I won’t “slag it off”. The more work there is, the more we evolve as artists. Also, as time goes by and the number of people getting tattooed increases, “tattoo education” is also improved. Of course, judging by the fact that many people come to our shop and don’t look at our books even though they don’t know what sort of style each one of us does, we definitely have a long road ahead of us… I hope that, over the years, the aesthetics will improve, imitation will decrease and the trust between customer and tattooist will be cultivated. Overall, I believe that things will just keep getting better.

What is your opinion about the “new blood” entering the scene?

It is good to have young people entering tattoo. It is just necessary that they search for the roots, the history, where it comes from etc. Many kids get excited hearing five or ten names who are the celebrities, while you can meet equally good tattooists or their influences elsewhere. There are legends in our world whom a young tattooist may be snobbish about because their designs aren’t amazing… Hernandez and Samohin aren’t the only ones who do portraits. Many have come before them, people who built the various tattoo “schools”. There is a history behind all of this. There were people in the past who lived it more truly. They weren’t all “painters”, some were street people. In the past, the tattoo contained the entire lifestyle of the movement, there were hardships, no internet, no mass information, nothing you can get today. It was more DIY. All of that is knowledge which will come in handy to anyone who decides to do this job. He has to respect the tattoo.

Well yeah, you can’t for example do Dotwork and not know Xed Le Head… 

Regardless of the style anyone has chosen, it is best to have a more spherical know how of the subject matter. In the long run, it will be good for you. You will obviously do better tattoos the more you inform yourself. Also, in tattooing, having a good design is not enough to get you somewhere. You have to do nice compositions and designs that can actually become tattoos. 

Has being a woman played a part in tattooing? Have you been treated differently?

I personally haven’t experienced extreme sexism. I have only heard one or two things like “what, you are going to tattoo me?’ in the past. And one time, a young girl told me “your work is really nice, but I would never get a tattoo from woman!”. I asked her why and she said “I dunno… because it is a man’s profession!”. 

Is tattooing a man’s profession?

Not in my opinion. I don’t usually differentiate professions based on someone’s sex. There are definitely more men in tattooing but that is not the case with all professions. Women are more “recent” to the work place so something like that is expected. More and more women are already getting into tattooing. In thirty - fifty years there will be loads of them. Today, however, I think that one in three studios have a woman on their team. 

Women have always offered a different viewpoint in all the art forms - lets add tattoo to that category as well. Diversity of expression is something positive and obviously creative.

Is tattoo an art form in your opinion?

Tattoo is definitely technique.  It may also be art. For me, art is something more personal. I mean, to sit down and create a canvas the way I have imagined it, with my own ideas and feelings I want to express. In tattooing, whether you like it or not, you work – to – order. You can’t really think of yourself only as an artist. Furthermore, your canvas is someone else’s body and you have to respect that. 

Yes but, some of the great classic painters created works to order, like Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Leonardo da Vinci, but that doesn’t reverse their artistic value.

Yes you have a point. When it comes to tattoo, I believe that however much you try and bring the tattoo your way, it is not something wholly yours as you are “serving” your client. It is not your personal work and it would be good not to begin with the thought that you will be doing art through tattooing. That is a bit selfish. It is definitely folk art though. 

Tattoo work photographs courtesy of Honest Tattoo.

Bettie Fine Art