Kostas Pliakas

Artists - Studios - Issue 21

The unique Kostas Pliakas spoke to HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine for the tremendous love he has for the tattoo, the magic of geometric tattoo, the significance of spherical knowledge on tattooing and tattoo styles, the importance of apprenticeship and its complexity, the priority of the technique, the responsibility of all tattooers, his influences, the old days with the late Andreas Marnezos, as well as his relationship with the divine.

Photos & interview by Ino Mei.

How were you “initiated” in the field of tattoo? 

I wasn’t initiated (laughs). The first “serious” contact with tattoo was when I met Tolis (ed. Tolle') from Eightball Tattoo. We were classmates at AKTO and Tolis became the stimulus that got me started in order to understand what exactly tattoo is. Until then all we knew about tattoo was whatever we saw in foreign magazines. Personally, from the beginning I liked the tattoo design process and not tattooing. I did not consider myself capable enough for tattooing, I felt more comfortable designing drawings that were destined to become tattoos. I remember several friends and classmates of mine asking me to make a drawing for them, so that they could later go to Susana and get it done by her. I think it was important that I had this inclination and love for design from a young age. Of course, this experience and my acquaintance with Tolis made me love the art of tattoo even more.

What period are we talking about?

Somewhere around 1995-96. 

So before Tolis opened his studio. 

Yes, at the time he was tattoing at his house and tattoo artists were very few in Greece. Even around the world actually. 

How did this “stimulus” evolve later on?

First of all, the army slowed me down during this phase. However, after completing my military service and after I had finished my studies, for some strange reason I found myself in the studio of the late Lektikos (ed. Andreas Marnezos), “Barcode”. As it is known, it opened many doors to people of my generation. Many did some time in his studio. In Marnezos’ studio, we witnessed a different approach to the art of tattoo and to what it means to be a professional and have a tattoo studio.

What were your studies on? 

I studied graphic design, which I never actually practiced later on! But now that I have found my way with geometric designs, I think I understood why I had to go through graphic design: so that I could put my mind to work, to get in this design process. Because graphic design is very close to the desings I do at this time. 

What lead you to geometric tattoo and when did this start? 

The start was about ten years ago. The truth is that the geometric style has no beginning nor end. There are so many stimuli. All this began from observing nature and deepening in what you see: the reality of things. The same way you deepen while doing a tattoo, because the tattooer’s perspective is different from the client’s. So focusing on this detail, I began to notice a lot of geometric elements that excited me artistically. This was something I wanted to incorporate in the way I would present a tattoo. All these elements combined with a primitive form of art - as in the ancient Greek style of painting, where geometric elements were used - all this linear design and black lines and the combination with the tribal scene, finally I think all tend to become one. We are all one and all of us are different, however all this should somehow blend well. 

From which artists have you been influenced by

As I mentioned before, back at that time there were few artists, few and good. As we stood watching them create their tattoos, it was as if we were seeing a work of art. We observed full of excitement, trying to analyse the technique and the conception of the idea through a picture! So, some artists from abroad had great influence on us who saw them in the magazines back then, especially Filip Leu, whom to me is still considered the tattoo guru. Also, Anil Gupta who is a pioneer of that era and showed us what it means to introduce new ideas in the art of tattoo, by making incredibly realistic detailed tattoos, which granted him the first Guinness Record. This act in itself brings a new air in the art, doesn’t it? Moreover, around that time Guy Atkinson taught us a new and futuristic way to design: Biomechanical combined with a feast of colours, which left you in awe... When we saw Bernie Luther tattooing Andreas - he was brought as a guest by Medusa Tattoo - I cannot begin to tell you what our reactions were (laughs)...

There are of course pioneers of that time in Greece too, whose tattoos can be “studied” for their work, like Mike the Athens in Oriental and Japanese school, along with Yorg Powell and Nico (ed. Nikos Katsoulis), as well as Tas (ed. Tas Danazoglou) and Fat in Blackwork and Tribal school. I think all of them shined their lights in order to show the way to the rest of us. 

I have to also mention some great painters who gave me the stimulus to get to where I am, like MC Escher and Alex Grey.

What role does religion play when it comes to tattoo? 

Religion is a personal thing. I want to have a good contact with the divine. Or at least that’s what I want to believe. Not so much with the concept of religion, but with the fact that I don’t want to lose my desire of going close to the divine. This is definitely something which helps me in my everyday life and in the way I work and think and the way I interact with others.

How did you learn to tattoo?

I didn’t learn, I am learning. I still am.

Did you do an apprenticeship?

I did an apprenticeship with Andreas, whom was in fact very tough. For about a year, I had definitely a lot in my hands, with cleaning up and bringing coffee. After the first year I started the real apprenticeship. When I went to Andreas, I didn’t know anything on the technical level. But I knew quite a bit about tattoo design. Originally he hired me to do drawings. Then, due to the high demand, and with the help of some other guys who were there with me, we got started. 

Who were you with at the time?

We were quite a few… Sake, Taki Tsan, Luca e.t.c. 

Andreas was a very powerful figure in the world of tattoo. He was a pioneer for his time and a man who kept his word, because even now it is difficult to find people who honour that. This of course applies generally, not only in the world of tattoo, but also applies to the world of tattoo. He wanted Greece to start accepting the tattoo, that’s why he did several things to help achieve that, such as the magazine and several others. Truth be told, it was not the right timing to do it because his thoughts and deeds were far ahead for his time. I think if he lived now – may he rest in piece - and was thinking and behaving a little different than he used to, he would have been one of the best, at least on a business level.

His studio was a true hit back then, especially when it came to the more mainstream group of clients. 

It really was a hit. The truth is that at the time we didn’t know specialization nor the various tattoo styles, especially compared to the knowledge that young artists are acquiring right now, who have access to the internet, to information, to communications, to each other etc. At that time, we used to solder the needles ourselves, so this is an art itself, so we cannot really talk about information. There was a magazine called “Tattoo International”, which we expected each month to come and we used to go through it cover to cover, paying attention to every single person that was in every shot, to see what tattoos he had, what he was wearing etc.We are talking about a magazine that could also serve as an Encyclopedia. Such things of course, no longer exist. 

For how long did you stay at Barcode? 

I stayed for three and a half years. After that, we unfortunately couldn’t work it out with Andreas and I went into business on my own, a move which was quite risky at the time. I did not know if it would work out, if it was worth doing alone what I was doing. But I had a lot of love for tattoing, and to be honest, I did not want to leave Andreas but the situation was such, which led me where I am now and I think that it was the best I could do. But I wanted to work with other artists, I did not want to alienate myself and say “I am opening my own shop, because I want to be a boss” for example. Anyway, the art of tattoo is a communicative one, either between the artists or between the artist and client let’s say. There is this energy which most often is good, but when it is bad we must really be very careful of our actions.

Do you think that the apprenticeship is necessary even in our days?

In my opinion, it is a must. I do not believe that we can just get the equipment that is necessary and start alone from home. At this point, the suppliers have a very big responsibility, because on the one side they are looking out for their jobs and they are trying to make a living but on the other side, it would be wise to make sure whom they supply and what they supply them with before they do so. Certainly I think that all this is purely a weakness of the law. As with many other things in Greece, this is a matter that is still unresolved. The apprenticeship however is a “mandatory” thing with its good and bad sides. It’s an experience which normally all tattoo artists should live.

Do you think that the teacher or the student is faced with the most difficulties? 

I would say that the most disadvantages are with the person teaching the art to another person, because the teacher is responsible for the student. The problem is that young people believe that the student has to handle the difficult part. Because you say something to the student which might be taken the wrong way or you might hurt his ego or even make him go see a shrink…

Imagine if we were in Japan… 

Don’t even go there! You couldn’t imagine the things I’ve heard from a Japanese friend of mine who is a tattoo artist. Things like, me calling you at 03:00 a.m. on the phone to ask you to bring me cigarettes. 

It’s the obedience. 

It’s the obedience. Personally I do not believe that the teacher is the “teacher” and the student must obey whatever the teacher says. In the end we are all artists and nobody wants someone bossing them around. However, we should all understand, old and young, that there must be some respect for the art and the good will of someone who’s prepared to teach you, because it is the student who goes to the teacher to learn and not the other way around. The students want to learn and he should be ready to accept some “habits”. I speak from my own experience, which proves that Andreas was trying to teach me some things at the time, which were not really “habits” but lessons. Along the way, I realised that. 

Have you had your own apprentices? 

For the last three years I am working in the studio with Ant One. A young artist when it comes to his age, yet humble and full of appetite for work. Ant One for me is what we call "new blood". Full of energy and willingness, ready to implement new ideas and layouts. He is a design school graduate, with solid foundations and knowledge so I don’t have to correct him - at least not in terms of designing.

Yes, there have been a few people. I wouldn’t say that they have left the studio with the best impressions about me, and I wouldn’t say that they left me with left me with good memories. 

It’s not like I am holding a grudge or something, I would just like that everyone who goes to a studio to learn - no matter how long they stay - to speak about the person who opens their door to them with some respect. Because, we open the door to our house. Tattoo is my life and I put everything aside to do it. Meaning that I have neglected my personal life in order to be able and invest in tattoo, which is something I love. Because in the end, it’s a result that stays. It’s the tattoo that will be seen. 

From what I understand, it has to do more with respect. 

Exactly as you said, respect. Firstly it has to do with the respect you show to your customer. I believe that that’s where the basic concept of being apprentice lies. You learn and invest in knowledge and action which will be transfered and “worn” by your client. This is something very essential to be understood by someone who learns this art, that what he learns today, tomorrow will be transfered onto the customer - on someone else's skin. And this is the most important thing. In the end, as I said, one is the remaining result and it would be great to have a good result because we all have the right to have an amazing tattoo!

Do you believe that there is awareness about the responsibility of it all?

I don’t think there is. And I am not just talking about Greece. It is a global phenomenon now. The tattoo is a movement, not just art. I think the primordial, the primitive, the deeper meaning of the tattoo, is a little lost. It is “a bit of fad”, a style to follow, or “maybe now that the taboo is broken, I’m gonna get a tattoo cause I’ve always wanted one” kind of thing. All is well, but let’s just not to lose the real essence of things. The essence is to expose something that’s eating you on the inside. There is a sense of anxiety, and that is what the customer wants to unleash from inside him. The artist has to do it the best way possible.  

Of course in a country as small as Greece, even though we have a good level, it wouldn’t hurt to open our eyes a bit and see what they do abroad. What quality there is, what artists there are, so that there is a point of reference that will make us better. It’s good sportsmanship to look at the other and say, “I wanna reach a higher level, I wanna give more of myself to this”. I think that’s what they are looking at abroad too, good tattoo artists that are valuable, but also all the people who are not artists but who want to find a good artist. They are looking for someone who is very good and has more to give than what we see every day on the internet etc.

Do you think you have to possess a spherical knowledge of tattooing to be an “accomplished” tattooer?

For me it is important too. It's part of the apprenticeship. To know the style, learning the style- up to a point because if you do not specialize you will not really know - and understand the style. What is New School, what is Old School, what is Japanese, what is Tribal, what is Ornamental, what is Dotwork etc. A good tattooer should be excited by all styles and not only by the one he does. Which means that just because you do Realistic, you don’t hate Tribal. It’s not good for you. A tattooer must love with equal passion all the tattoo styles. And there are so many! Which one to love first?

Just because everything is a part of tattoo, knowing all styles is what gives you the impetus to give something extra to what you do. Meaning to mix a technique or a style with another, which would lead to a new result, which is something new, because it will come out as something different. In most cases I think that there’s a good result when tattooers give the same love to other styles and not only to the one they do. This is what I believe. Now of course the young artists think that with specializing there is no need to learn any other new styles and if something is off visually to them, they reject it. To me this is wrong.

Initially you got your hands on everything. Since when did you start specialising? What attracted you to the geometrical?

I keep doing all the styles. I continue to do tattoos with the same respect and the same love as when I was a student. I do it all with the same love. If an old client of mine would come and tell me “I want you to write me that name”, I would still do it and I would do it with the same love as if I were doing a full sleeve. I do not mind it and I do not snub it. And the truth is now that I think about it, this is something that my teacher passed on to me. To show the same respect to an ant as to an elephant. The world is - allow my expression - of limited responsibility, because not all are artists or connoisseurs, nor do they have the sensitivity and judgment to understand if what they do on them is stylish. Here comes the tattoo artist and his love for what he does to the other. Simple as that. 

How would you define your style at the moment? 

My style at the moment, is no style, since I do everything. 

I do not deny anything except things that are in conflict with my personal beliefs. I generally do not refuse to do different tattoo styles and certainly when the other gives me the freedom to express myself as I want and he does not care if there are rules to follow, then I think that is when it is the best.

Of course, as I told you my big engagement this past decade with the geometric – which was born from my love for nature and for all that sacred geometry that surrounds us and that all of us fail to see and few people realize - it is a big love of mine which I cannot distance myself from. You know, it’s endless. We split the atom, the disaster is over and we start over. I know it’s weird… but I love it.  

Which do you think is more “important”, the design or the technique? 

The technique. It is very important and I know many people who are not very good designers, but are very good tattoo artists. That shows us that technique and love can bring better results from someone who is a good painter but who has an average technique. In the end, what he will give to the customer will be mediocre.

Between the tattooers here, is there really respect and solidarity?

I think that there is respect and solidarity, but not towards everybody. The truth is that I'm not very fond of this whole situation, because we are all artists, so I like to think that we are all free spirits.

I don’t want to believe that there are people in the business who do tattoo for the appeal the image of a tattoo artist has, or for money, or the lifestyle. Although unfortunately the actions of some, prove that such cases do exist... I think the people I know and with which I have good relations, they are all respected, there is solidarity between us and we want to help new artists, because we always learn something from the young generation. It is of course necessary to see that they are willing to be very good at what they want to do and that they want to reach the level of some foreign artists whom have developed their skills very much. 

Certainly, but we now have a rather good level in our country. 

Yes, there is a good level and in every style and this is in our honour. Nonetheless, this does not make us “different”, nor does it mean that we need to rest on our laurels. What I think we need to do is to be more united. In the sense that when you go for example to a festival abroad, you should feel proud to be at this festival and of what you represent. It may sound a little cliché, but this is the reality. Because when you win a prize people will say “Ah! A Greek won a prize”.  It has happenned many times and not only does it raise the level of the artist, but also the country’s. Imagine that in the future a foreigner would realize that there are some very good level artists in Greece and will want to visit the country to get a tattoo. And this is important, because we help the tattoo scene, but also the society because this man will come to stay in a hotel, he will go eat at a restaurant, etc… You bring people into your country and I think that it is important.

Do you have clients from foreign countries?

There are some madmen who leave their country to come to our beautiful country. That to me, is a great honour and I tend to work harder to prove that it was worth his time and money and that he made the right decision.

What advice would you give to young person who wants to get into tattooing?

First of all to understand that doing tattoo is a very important thing and that to love what you do, is even more important. Surely at the time we live in, attending a seminar or finishing a school that has to do with design, I think it can be the basis to start doing tattoos. It is very important that your foundation is strong and that the knowledge you will get, will not to be transmitted through the internet. A lot of what they show are lies (laughs). I don’t know what is the ultimate purpose of showing something silly.

Also, it is important - as I mentioned earlier - to sit down with someone who will show them the basics, the way they know things and learn a few facts about the rest of the tattoo styles and not just look into what they like.

On a personal level, what has tattoo offered you so far?

It has offered me many many hours of work (laughs) and also many many experiences. It has given a lot of clean energy, love for my fellow man, a lot of love for the skin and has also given me experiences I would otherwise never have the chance to have. One really important aspect of it, which I have only discovered in recent years, is travelling around the world as a tattooist, going to different places around the world and searching for what you really love. The truth is that I have also lost of a lot of things with regards to my personal life, but this is something that does not bother me. In the end, everything is a choice. I have just chosen to do what I do, to do it with all my heart, my entire self, and that demands many hours. 

You wake up and sleep with it.

Exactly, and I love it and I will love it until the end. Tattoo is my life. 

You married it.

Along with Xenia (laughs).

Does your wife Xenia support you in all this?

To be honest, my wife has supported me in all my decisions, good or bad. She is always by my side, whereas I am not always by hers unfortunately, due to the many hours of work. One of the reasons Prive Tattoo is a succesfull studio, is the communication part which Xenia has taken on almost entirely by herself. I believe that communication is also very important for a business, and especially when it is with people who come to get a tattoo. You never know the reason someone wants a tattoo and we always have to give everybody the correct attention. It is a shame when someone asks for a tattoo, small or large, beautiful or ugly - everyone has its own taste - but does not get the service he ought to have had.

The real reason you are a tattooist is because the other person chooses you to put something on his body and we have to give the necessary attention to everybody, just like we would want in return. I think that it is good to see people in that way, in your own shoes. If we all thought of our client as ourselves, then I think our tattoos would be even greater.

Tattoo work & artwork photographs courtesy of Prive Tattoo Studio.