Jenny Skalkos

Artists - Studios - Issue 19

The tattoo artist and sculptor Jenny Skalkos spoke to HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine for her tattoo "addiction" since prepubertal and the "rave" tattoo designs she was making for high-school kids when she was in junior high, her long-lasting contact with art, her purely artistic family environment, her background in arts education, the extent to which it affected her as a tattooist and where it helped her, as well as the sense of charcoal that she likes her tattoos to have.

Photos & interview by Ino Mei.

Is it true that you have an artistic background?

I am involved with art, artistically, the last fifteen years. I studied Sculpture at the University of Brighton, while I grew up in a family where everyone - including my parents and my grandmother - are painters. Consequently, it was normal for me to follow art. I just happened to be lucky to bump into tattoo because it’s a way to be an artist and make a living out of it.

How has your constant contact with art since your childhood years influenced you?

When I was four years old I made a declaration that I would be a painter, just like my mother, while I was inside her studio. She took me with her when she was doing murals and she caught me drawing the walls. Of course, she couldn’t scold me because I was doing what I saw her doing, following her path in my own way.

Do you think that if you weren’t surrounded by this type of environment you wouldn’t be involved with art?

No, that easily. Because my folks supported that, contrary to most families that didn’t consider it as something “serious” as I remember back in school.  I had two parents, both artists, who couldn’t say anything to me, quite the opposite; they taught me since I was very young. So I don’t remember when I learned how to draw and the first time I held a brush in my hands. If I didn’t have their support and their lessons I have no idea how and when I would get involved. Basically, I was very spoiled (laughs) and very lucky in that part!

Do your parents make a living out of their art?

My mother, yes, since she is an art professor. My father is an architect and a painter - my parents met at the School of Fine Arts. Moreover, because they had very different style, it was very interesting to have critique in the house. Me and my sister, we draw since we were kids and we also drew all together as a family. Then we would put down our drawings, one next to the other, and we would do family critique: what stays, what goes, what’s into this, why the other one is more dynamic etc.

How did tattoo fit in your involvement with the arts?

When I was in junior high, some kids from high school would come up to me asking tattoo designs related to the rave scene, you know, these so called weird tribals. I drew the designs for them, they paid me and then they would go and get them done at a tattoo studio. Later, while I was studying at the School of Fine Arts in England, I took a year off and came back to Greece for a while. During that time, a friend of mine went to have a tattoo from this guy, Tolis from Lollipop. The shop was relatively new and he worked there alone so my friend told him about me, that I had made some tattoo designs. Then we went there for me to meet him and he hired me as his assistant. Tolis was my first teacher.

When did this happen?

In 2004. He basically hired me to make tattoo flash because he didn’t have the time and then at some point he asked me whether I wanted to learn giving tattoos. At first, I did practice on oranges, did a bit on myself and on him and this is kind of how I started. Of course, my apprenticeship didn’t last long because I had to get back to the university. During that year, whenever I came to Greece I visited him, we had a chat and I gave him my designs. When I came back for the summer he had closed his shop and he had left. I don’t remember where he went but he travelled a lot. Anyway, it was an amazing experience working with him.

For a year I didn’t know whether Tolis would return or not. I have been meaning to wait for him but then he never came back, so the following year I went somewhere else. So, in 2006, I started again, at Frisco Tattoo in Kifissia that was later renamed to Amazink Tattoo. Because I had forgotten most things within a year I started again from scratch. Marios taught me this profession almost from the very beginning. He reminded me the things I had learned and gave me a pretty solid base so as to move on. Then I went to London in order to do a master in Sculpture at the Royal College of Art. I had a gap year before my master because they told me I should sit for a year and prove to them that I want to be a painter in order to get in. So, that year, I did an apprenticeship at this studio called Blood Brothers in Islington and the guys there were incredible. I feel I was extremely privileged to have Tolis, Marios and five other persons from Blood Brothers willing to show me and answer every question that I had. In the end, I never did the master course because I couldn’t live in England any more, I wanted to leave.

So 2007 found me working full time on tattoo, as an assistant to Marios in Kifissia. And this is where I truly began to take off and started to orientate seriously towards tattooing.

What was it then that ultimately attracted you to tattooing?

I accidentally bumped into it but I was addicted from a very young age. I really liked it a lot and when I was twelve I wanted to get a sleeve, even though you didn’t come across very good tattoos back then - compared to now - you remember how it was… When I had my first tattoo in my back I was watching the man who was giving it to me and I was thinking that I could never do this. It seemed very difficult to me. The irony is that I started to learn after three months. The first tattoo I did was on me. It seemed to me pretty hard to try and transfer what I do on paper onto the skin but at the same time that is why it seemed so interesting to me. And when I was in my second year in the School of Fine Arts and I was making paintings and sculptures I made a little star tattoo and my friends took me out for beers to celebrate because it came out straight!

Apart from your continuous relationship with drawing from a very young age do you think that your academic background from the School of Fine Arts has helped you and if it has, in what part?

Yes, it has helped me, especially when it comes to the drawing part. It helped me with freehand and made it easier with cover ups to see how it is and how I can change it. In big projects, knowledge from painting and anatomy helped me find the best way for the tattoo to “sit” on the skin, how it will move according to the body’s line and seeing it as a whole rather than a print. It goes without saying that tattoo has to fit with the body’s line, otherwise it looks like a sticker from chupa chups.

From what I can tell, you are very much into freehand?

I like it, always depending on what I am planning to do. I often prefer it because it saves us time from printing something many times because the size is wrong whereas with the marker straight on skin you can see right away how it “sits”. However, if it is something particularly perplexed and away from my classic style, consequently making me uncomfortable to do it directly, I will sit down and paint it so as to have it done… Τhere is no reason to feel extra pressure or take a risk I wasn’t intending to take. For instance, a portrait, I will never do it freehand. Of course, I know people who do it and do it extremely well.

What’s the range of your tattoo style?

For many years I was pretty much “stuck” with realistic because it seemed incredible to me to be able to draw on skin the way I can draw with coal. This is something I generally like: having an obvious sense of coal and not what looks as photorealism. Lately, I have been more and more into the thick line… and because all the of my teachers were into new school style, it might comes out of me now or maybe I am just influenced by what is happening in the scene, or maybe it’s just that I have been working the other style for so many years I want something new, or “tie” them together by doing realistic shadows inside an old school tattoo. Anyway, I like it very much and that happens quite often lately.

Being a woman has influenced your work as a tattoo artist?

Regarding my teachers, they all thought it was interesting to teach a woman, because there were very few of us back then, especially in Greece. I remember my first teacher, Tolis, when he gave me this small tattoo he told me “I have never tattooed in this spot on a woman before”. He was thrilled because it was something different. Imagine how things have changed now. We now do tattoos on girls every other day.

Regarding the clients, at first I had to fight and prove them that I can do what a man can do. At times, I heard them saying, “is the girl giving me the tattoo? I will not have a woman giving me a tattoo”. Others liked it; it attracted the same amount of people it drove away. There were girls coming saying, “thank God you are a woman because I wouldn’t want a guy giving me a tattoo at that spot” or “with you I feel more comfortable” or “luckily you are a woman because you won’t make a pass at me”. There were other girls of course who preferred a male tattoo artist. It’s a weird thing.

There were some tattooers - not someone from my teachers - who were harsher with their critique on me while saying, “the little girl wants to learn how to tattoo, it’s cute”! What’s the difference in being a boy or a girl? It’s the hand what matters!

Anyway, nothing of the above mentioned has caused me any harm and now things are very different. There are now more women in the scene and some of them are very strong professionals, some of them are even top in Greece and abroad.

What are your influences when it comes to tattoo?

I have been influenced by all the tattoers I have worked with in the past who helped me with their own way to become a better tattooer as well as by tattoo artists whose work I grew up with - having them as my mentors. Apart from that, I have been mostly influenced by art history, by sculptors and painters I admired. Finally, I have to mention comics, illustrations and cartoons in my list of influences.

Has sculpture influenced you aesthetically?

In realistic tattoos, yes, because it gives a better sense of 3D, like painting. Because when you realise where the light is coming from, why it falls this way and what are his sources, then you can make much better designs.

We usually consider tattoo as something unique, another kind of art. When it is exactly the same thing: instead of a canvas there is skin and instead of a brush there is needle.

After Athens and London, how Thessaloniki came to be your base?

I have always really liked this city a lot and at some point I started coming here very often. Until I was here once a month and finally moved in Thessaloniki three years ago. I have been in Vidra Pirata Tattoo Studio for two years now I and I have been devoted to it. And now with the sculptures I do, I don’t have time for anything else.

So this period you also do sculpture work?

Since my university years I was searching for ways to work with marble, which is not easy to find. I was very lucky because I found something that has to do with marble close to Thessaloniki and this way I can work on both the things I love during the week. I am here for three days, I go there for three days, and I have a day off. It’s very very nice.

How do you see tattoo in Greece today?

There was a boom. It reminds me a lot of London in 2006-2007 when there was no one who didn’t have a tattoo. Now, the people who don’t have are less than those who have. And it has also changed suddenly in Greece. From the point of having people coming over for tiny tattoos and in secret parts, the so-called “small and discreet”, they now come and give us entire surfaces saying “I want to do this” or “I want something of this style”. So now we mainly do large custom pieces and that has influenced us in a very positive manner. Everything has changed in a fast speed. If you told me that a few years ago I wouldn’t believe it.

The one thing that is negative is that you can also see some extremities of the kind that someone comes into the shop asking straight away how much a sleeve costs! That means that we reached the other end, where people want to get covered with tattoos as soon as possible because it’s not a taboo anymore - a fact that is definitely positive - but the bad thing is that they are in a hurry and go for parts we normally leave for the end. I will never give an eighteen year old kid a tattoo in the neck, on his fist or his fingers when he does not have anything else on him and is just eighteen! He can have a tattoo at another part.

It’ not a coincidence that these parts are saved for the end when you don’t have any space anymore, you have lived the world and their reactions and you know that your boss will not kick you out of work when you do a more “obvious” tattoo.

Do you think that the kid might regret it?

Not necessarily. He might dig it forever; I just think it’s better to get in gradually. It’s like diving with your head without knowing exactly what is waiting for you below. When you are a young kid you don’t know what career path you will follow or what type of people you will associate with. It is the tattooer’s responsibility to explain to you this sort of things. It is different for someone who knows and has the tattoo consciously and a different thing for someone who saw it on a magazine and liked it and showed up asking you to give him black letters in the fingers in both hands. Because, let’s not forget that tattoo is permanent and you don’t get it with the intention of removing with laser the day after tomorrow.

When they mention laser and sleeve in the same sentence, I tell them “go home, calm down, think for a while and we will talk again”. Many people never come back. I don’t know if they go and have the tattoo somewhere else. Meaning “I want to have a sleeve, then I can remove it with laser if I don’t like it or I get bored”. No mate, don’t do it all!

The responsibility you just mentioned is a long conversation. Do you think that tattooers have responsibility?

It goes without saying that we, the tattooers, have a big responsibility! You can’t just do whatever to people! If I feel that something bothers me morally I am not going to do it, no matter how much the other person insists.

Do you think that because of the money many people take up projects that you would possibly reject for moral reasons?

You know what, I can’t judge anyone and it’s not my job to judge what other artists do. Everybody has his own moral code and what he thinks is right or wrong. The only thing I can control is what comes through here. I will not work for the money. Of course, you work in order to live but I will not do stuff that are not right just to get the extra 100 euros from the client. I am not going to damage someone just to be able to drink an extra beer at night. It would be better to lose the client rather than doing something that would make me feel bad with myself.

Tattoo work photographs courtesy of Vida Pirata Tattoo Studio.