The charismatic Vasso, aka Vaso Polymenakou, spoke to HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine for her enthusiasm for tattoo since a very young age and why it was "inevitable" her subsequent involvement with it, her experiences and influences such as rockabilly and its aesthetics, as well as the culture of old and American style, which led her to Old School tattoo. She also explained to us in which areas her studies at the School of Fine Arts helped her tattooing, the importance of the institution of apprenticeship, the reluctance she experienced at the beginning due to her gender and how is the life of a tattooer mum.

Photos & interview by Ino Mei.

What was your first official contact with tattoo?

At a relatively young age. When I was sixteen years old, my then best friend had made a tattoo on herself on her breast - a flower - using a sewing needle and ink (ed. handpoked). I was ecstatic! The next day I tattooed a small flower on my leg using a bic pen ink. Luckily, for me, the skin cannot hold ink from a pen so after it healed it faded away. My friend soon suggested that we should go to Jimmy’s to get proper tattoos. I was explaining her that there was no way they would allow us to have a tattoo because we were very young and that they wouldn’t even accept us and she kept saying that since she already had a tattoo they would let us in. On the other hand, I didn’t have the money to get a tattoo. So we went together to Jimmy’s Tattoo. Of course, he no longer gave tattoos himself so my friend got a tattoo from his son, Pavlos. I was there and when he did that on her I was super excited, and I thought this was awesome. At the same time I started hanging out only with greasers, punkers and rockabillies, who all had tattoos so it was inevitable! I really liked the whole tattoo culture from the very beginning.

How did your relationship with tattoo evolved over time?

When I was twenty-two I went to London to attend a rockabilly festival and there I had already decided to get a tattoo but when I heard the price I thought to myself “ok, it would be better to spend money on vinyls rather than on a tattoo”. Later, while I was studying at the School of Fine Arts, I started entering the process of being involved with tattooing.

At that period working with tattoo machines was not accessible and so was learning stuff about tattoo.  A really close friend of mine was a member of a biker club and he had this best friend, an Englishman, working as a tattooer in Rhodes Island, God bless him! He asked him if he could help me and he accepted. So he sent me a package with Micky Sharpz’ catalogues where he had noted what I should get. I still have that catalogue with all the notes on! So, he sent me these, I get a credit card from a friend and I ordered everything from the UK. That was back in 1999. In the end, I didn’t do much about it then because I didn’t have anyone to show me and I wanted to devote myself to my studies so I decided to delay it for a while.

Meanwhile, the same year, a tattoo festival took place organised by Medusa Tattoo, namely Vassilis Exarchos and George Tsiotsios. I had previously got tattooed by Vassilis - my very first one - and he proposed me to participate at the convention with my own space to sell my handmade rings (ed. Vasso’s wild rings). Of course, my answer was a positive one. I had many rings with me and there I met everybody. I was chatting with them, I took many photos and I was basically looking for someone who could show me and teach me. It was there that I met Tolis (owner of Eightball tattoo studio), Savvas and many more. This is where I also met Dimitris Aronis from Dermagrafics who told me “come over whenever you want, I will show you”.

So the thing you have been waiting for all this time finally happened?

Yes! The following day after I graduated I took the bus and went there! Every day I spent two hours on a bus going from Chalandri to Korydallos, I closed the shop in the evening and then I returned home. I liked it so much! I was helping, I was setting the stations, it wasn’t a proper apprenticeship, meaning I didn’t wash tubes but I did help with everything. I suggested designs for cover ups, I drew a lot and Dimitris was willing to show me a lot of stuff. He was a very good tutor.

For how long did you learn tattooing in Dermagrafics? And how come you didn’t continue to also work there?

I learned there for a year and a half. Dimitris used to work together with Paul at the time so he didn’t need any extra people, since tattoos weren’t that popular back then. So, when I felt ready I started looking for a job at another tattoo studio.

I already knew Tolis who told me I could go there and start working. I did my first tattoo and he told me, it’s ok, you can go on. Tolis could tell but I didn’t know if I had it. I mean, I was really into tattooing but apart from that I had no idea where all this could take me. So I did my first tattoos on friends and started with small tattoos before moving on to the rest.

What was like in the beginning?

At first I did a bit of everything. You learn from everything: from a tiny letter, a small star shape etc. You also learn how to treat the client and how to build a relationship with him. Then, gradually, I started to create my own personal style, old school - traditional. One client saw it on somebody else and gradually they began asking me to do the stuff I wanted to do in the first place.

I am under the impression that in your case this tattoo style came up naturally…

Yes, it represents me because of my whole contact with this subculture and perhaps because of my ties with America. I was born there and basically everything in our house was American-Greek. My father used to put on records of Johnny Cash, Louis Armstrong, Glenn Miller and Dean Martin. So there was already a culture taken from there. Everything influences.

When it comes to your “nature” as a tattoo artist what was that specifically attracted you to old school tattoo?

This culture of “old” and of American style, the fact that you will do it and it will stay on forever, the simplicity, that it is so beautiful, along with the bold lining with intense colouring.

Does it bother you that nowadays that old school is so in fashion, many people that have nothing to do with this culture, familiarise themselves with the designs and get tattooed?

No, it doesn’t bother me. Everyone can do whatever he likes and I have no problem with that. In the past only greasers, punkers and rockabillies had tattoos and that was something nice. It was a part of that specific subculture. I used to like it then just because very few people had it and there were very few tattoo shops, the vast majority were men and I had to enter this world of male tattooers with the purpose to make tattoos in my own style. 

Times have changed now and everything is open and anyone can have a tattoo and nowadays there is also a culture that sees tattoo as jewellery. 

You mentioned that the world of tattooing was dominated by men back then. To what extent has your gender affected your entrance and development in the tattoo field?

I think that in the past it was kind of an issue. Women today may not have experienced that. In the past the client used to say “Hello, I want to get a tattoo” and I was like invisible and I was just trying to gain a bit of my role. To let them know that I can also make great tattoos. There were countless times when Tolis said “The girl is going to give you the tattoo” and the reaction was like “Who, her? Is she good? Is she going to do it nicely?” So he had to back me up. I didn’t care, and it didn’t hurt me. I realised that it was something new for them. So I just let them, thinking that time will tell.

And it definitely did! Do you think that in our days the nature of a female tattoo artist has perhaps been reversed into something positive? Meaning that as a woman she can maybe attribute a different aesthetic, a much more “delicate” one?

I like it when I draw a tattoo to know if my client is a man or a woman. It makes a big difference. I treat it differently. Girls usually come to me for a female approach. I think you can understand from my flashes which one is destined for a woman and which one for a man. Usually because of the colours. Girls’ flashes are much more pink (laughs)!

What is the range of your tattoo style?

It is mostly old school traditional. I keep the bold lining, blacks and colouring but I develop them differently. My themes are not solely classic old school - I can do a cartoon character, a biker or something more surreal - while maintaining my technique using thick lining, blacks and no shadows, only black and colours. For example, an owl with geometric flowers is not old school. They didn’t used to do that back in the 50’s, 60’s or 70’s, as themes were more classic then.

Have your studies in the School of Fine Arts helped you in tattooing?

It goes without saying. It has helped me a lot. In the School of Fine Arts you learn a lot about art in general so you have a broader knowledge. Everything you learn is good and it broadens up your horizons so you definitely have an advantage when it comes to your work. The classic part of my studies has helped me in terms of structuring my thoughts. Structuring your thoughts in tattooing is necessary so as to connect it as well as putting up the colour. If a client wants many elements together, you have to be capable to compose them to be beautiful and reject everything that can make your tattoo look ugly. I always explain to my clients that a tattoo needs to be beautiful because it’s like an ornament. When it comes to combining colours I always opt for a balance between hot and cold colours. Putting yellow where it is all blue etc. My studies also helped me in terms of inspiration. When doing a tattoo the sources of inspiration can be unlimited. If you have checked a hundred books of classic and modern art is definitely much better than only one. Even today, I still visit galleries because it is something I like and it definitely helps.

In your opinion, is tattoo a form of art?

Firstly it is technique and sometimes it becomes art. You can turn it into art but I believe that it rarely becomes true art. I personally consider it an applied art. Moreover, a tattoo is always drawn on someone else’s body, who is your client and you are always depending on him. I mention that as something positive because through collaboration nice things can be created. It is not uncommon that the inspiration comes from the client himself and you just develop it into an idea and in other occasions a great idea comes directly from the client.

Does the tattoo belong to the client or to the artist?

Basically… to the client as you are going to make it at that time, the client is going to walk away and will carry it with him for the rest of his life. Therefore, you ought to respect what he wants to do and if he doesn’t like something you can’t skip that. Many times you have to step back but you also try to make your own thing because you find it more appropriate so as to make the most of what the client wants from his tattoo. The ideal of course would be to get the full trust of the client and then you can do on him whatever you think would be best.

The fact that you have a family, how much does it affect your occupation as a tattoo artist?

It makes me try harder. I have a very tight schedule, it’s very hard to be a tattooer mum, because there are many tattooers dads but being a mother and running around about your kids and family is something really hard. You are here doing your job focused and then you have to go back to your family to take them out for a walk, all sorts of activities, take them to the playground, and then during night time I want to make my designs. Every day I draw something for a client so I don’t have enough time to work on flashes, I wish I had the time! However, whenever I have some time - which rarely happens - I do some flash.

For your subsequent course, was apprenticeship quite decisive? What are your views in general regarding it as a formal process?

Yes, I think apprenticeship is really important, while at the same time it's a nice formal process. I think it's good for someone to go through it. First and foremost, one learns to respect the art of tattooing. It considerably helped me, as while not having experience with tattoo machines and needles, I knew how deep I should enter the skin, how the tattoo machines and needles are set up, how skin is not wounded, how to avoid passing through the same spot many times - properly, immediately and quickly filling cause if you recoat again and again the skin will be hurt. How to cover up properly, what tricks you can do, how to place a tattoo on the body - this is very important, I mean tattoo placing. Even today, I quite often see it improperly practiced. I mean, someone eager to learn, should really love tattooing. Not in the sense of ''strolling around'', as the case is now unfortunately, with many starting it for money and fame.

That of course excludes people really into the art, truly wanting to be involved. It's just because tattoo nowadays has become accessible to all and there is a considerably large number of studios, the percentage of those taking it seriously has decreased. I think that during the early stages when someone is involved, it would be better to just watch instead of practice. Drawing, learning and asking should suffice, as there are quite many things one should learn. I think tattoo is highly demanding in terms of art and technique, and to do it right, one should not start practicing from scratch. Of course several artists did it immediately and right, but that's just something that happened. Maybe they were talented, I think however the proper way is to go in a studio and learn.

Did you ever have an apprentice?

We had an apprentice in the studio, though not in the proper sense of being here every day, as he lived outside the city. It was a guy wanting to learn everything, we showed him stuff and helped him, and he even occasionally washed tubes! He also gave me a tattoo and it’s amazing!

I never had an apprentice; I can't do it - plain and simple. I think I'm not capable of properly transmitting knowledge.

You are still part of the studio you started working as a tattooer since 2003. How would you describe this twelve-year course in Eightball Tattoo?

When I first started tattooing, studios were not as organized as they are nowadays! That went for Eightball too. The studio opened around 13:00 and closed at 22:00, maybe 23:00, or even 00:00... on a daily basis! The whole thing was quite loose. I then had time to even participate in art exhibitions, so in a way this whole thing was convenient for me. I gradually started working more and more, the years went by and the studio went on a more professional mode of functioning. I personally matured and demanded everything to be more organized and seriously taken. The same went for Tolis. Our professional demands were increasing in parallel. From the beginning there was a very good relationship between us. Since day one he respected me, believed in me and supported me, he helped me and still does. Now that I'm a mother, he respects this part of my life, as I work different hours than the other folks in Eightball. These are therefore ideal working conditions, when one goes to work and leaves happy!

It is obvious that tattoo has won your heart. But do you love it more than the Fine arts?

Yes, I think that tattoo is something magical. It deals with the 3 dimensional part. The design is flat but you draw it on a human being, something that refers me to sculpture.

Do you then think that tattoo has common references with sculpture?

Yes, and actually this fact is like an answer to me personally that explains why I love it so much… Because I am also a sculptress. Tattoo has common grounds with sculpture because in both you are dealing with the body’s space. You don’t just draw in a single level. You are touching the body, which is a living organism that is moving, breathing and changing.

Tattoo work photographs courtesy of Eightball Tattoo Studio.