Kostas Tzikalagias

Artists - Studios - Issue 11

Kostas Tzikalagias spoke exclusively to HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine about the reason why he considers Japanese tattoo the most tattoo of all, what lead him to it, the first years when he didn't know how to draw, the relativity of "apprenticeship" in Greece, the various tattoo "waves" in Thessaloniki and Athens, the fleeting joy of winning prizes and how he feels about realistic tattoo.

Photos & interview by Ino Mei.

Where are you at right now with regards to tattooing?

I work all the time. I am completely devoted to tattoo and my appointments. I have my goals and I go wherever they take me. Simple goals of course, nothing crazy! Doing my job as best I can and improving my designs even more. I don’t have any personal aspirations for recognition etc. I didn’t aim for so many people liking my work. Even so, I don’t cater a very wide range of people because of the style of my tattoos. Japanese tattoos aren’t among the most commercial tattoos of the past five years anyway. Regarding my own work, yes it has been accepted but it has been accepted by the people I want. An audience that knows what it wants.


You specialize in Neo Traditional Japanese tattoos. How would you describe your style?

I definitely deal with Japanese themes. My tattoos are in no way traditional, but also, regarding the term Neo Traditional Japanese you used, my tattoos have also other elements other than that. Some have Asian elements such as Tibetan skulls, masks and shells and also the Buddhist hands etc. Also, you will sometimes come across elements you won’t see in the work of other artists – mostly foreign artists - dealing with Neo Traditional. Not because I have discovered “something”, but because that is how my designs are. 

What sort of elements are these?

A lot of linear elements which you wouldn’t usually find in Japanese tattoos. You might notice that some of my tattoos have a 3D effect. In any case, my goal is not to complicate my designs, that’s why I generally choose and prefer something more “simple”.

How did you “end up” doing Japanese tattoos?

When I started tattooing I didn’t draw. Of course, I don’t think there were a lot of tattooists who did draw back then. They got their tattoo machines because they thought it was “badass”… Soon, however, I understood that I had to start dealing with that part of it as well because it is interconnected with tattooing. I’d get a small design and start tampering with it a little and I gradually started seeing and understanding the design rules. I did a variety of tattoo styles at the beginning. When I did Japanese tattoos, for some reason, I found them a lot more interesting. So I gradually stopped doing all the others and began dealing solely with that. I think it kinda just happened of its own accord. It was there in front of me and it attracted me more than anything else.

What was it that attracted you most about Japanese tattoos?

The culture and the movement it has and the fact that it has a wide range of themes – regardless of the fact that we deal mostly in five or six things. When it comes to tattoos, for me the Japanese tattoo is more “tattoo” than any other one. Along with all other traditional tattoo types – from Polynesian to Old School – I think these are the most “tattoo” of all of the other styles. It is no accident that whoever deals with Japanese tattoos will rarely do anything else, whether he is a tattooist or a tattoo collector.


How and when did tattoo enter your life?

When I started dealing with tattoo about seventeen years ago, I confess I didn’t really know what it was. We were kids from Kastoria and my friend Vasilis (body piercer and partner at Dirty Roses) had gotten some tattoo machines. He didn’t really get into it in the end because he went and did his national service in the army. So I asked for them and he gave them to me and that is how I started. I already had some tattoos from some of my punk friends, who did them at home. I did tattoos at home for about a year – all my friends are after me for the ones I gave them during that period (laughs) – and then I started working at Nico Tattoo in Thessaloniki. Vasilis was already working there as a body piercer, he spoke to Nikos Katsoulis and I went there.

What attracted me at first was the overall cool situation; every day in the studio and the fact that we did a lot of tattoos. Over time that began not to satisfy me. I had already started drawing Japanese themes and I started doing solely that at home and as much as I could at the studio. I stopped going out a lot and it went well. After about ten years I felt that that cycle had run its course and it was time to do something of my own, the way I wanted to. Not because I wanted to be a businessman, no! I now craved for my own personal space to work as I wanted, because when you work somewhere else, you are restricted, however much freedom you are given. You have to follow the preexisting rules. Alex Gotza was also at Nico Tattoo then and we had become friends. When I told him I was thinking of leaving, he said he wanted to come too. I told that if he did come with me, it would be on equal terms and he wouldn’t be my employee. And he fell for it (laughs)! Because now Alex does all the work while I sit around and draw.



How has your life changed since Dirty Roses opened?

I started dealing more with tattoos. I was more conscious of what I was doing, with no timetable and a lot more time to spare. Now, when I finish a piece, I don’t have to stay until the studio closes; I can go home and draw. When I am drawing I don’t want anyone near me. On the other hand, when I am tattooing, I want people surrounding me. If I do a tattoo at the studio and everyone leaves, I don’t feel good and I ask someone to stay (laughs).

How can you be equally creative, inspired and manage it all so well every day? How does that work?

It is possible to finish a design in half an hour and the next time I might be “torturing” myself all day and not be able to complete it. It is not easy. But you have to. There have been one or two times when I couldn’t complete a piece for various reasons and I have just stopped doing the tattoo. I said I couldn’t do it and we would continue it on my day off. 


Most artists of your generation seem not to have done an apprenticeship. What’s your view on that?

I was at Niko’s. Of course, an apprenticeship encompasses everything: technique, drawing, life style and with that ‘complete’ form, I think it is hard and rare for someone to have done it in Greece. I believe most people were helped mainly in the technical part of tattooing. When it comes to the art of tattooing, I think there are very few in our country who were “real” apprentices. For example, Rasel and Amok came to the studio without ever having done a tattoo. They could draw and they wanted to learn how to do it correctly on skin through tattooing. I believe that teaching someone some technical aspects, you don’t teach him where to add which colour and which shadow.  

So you don’t see them as your apprentices?

No. Along with Alex we have helped them concerning the technical part. Moreover we have tried to guide them in the tattoo world so that they’ll understand it and learn how to exist within it with respect.  

So you don’t like the term “apprentice” then? 

I like it when it’s real.


How do you see the Greek tattoo scene in and out of the country?

Perfect. Do you know how many Greek tattooists are known outside of Greece? In the past, they only knew Mike the Athens and Yorg. There were eight Greeks in Milan this year! And of course they do a really good job. I think that the Greeks are artists anyway. So the number ‘eight’ is rather small. There is simply no comparison to the way the Greek scene was a few years ago…

So you think we have come a long way when to comes to the level of craftsmanship?

Everyone now designs better and have somehow opened their minds so they don’t look for ways to improve on doing fairies, hearts, letters etc; easily accepted tattoos. Ok, if you want to make money from tattooing you will do those kinds of tattoos. But there are now ten - fifteen people who didn’t want to do fonts, since it didn’t express them artistically, and in the end they each “emerged” for different reasons. 

What was your “goal”?

It just happened to me. It wasn’t my goal to get where I am today. What happened was gradually created. I wanted and still want to be a simple tattooist.


Do you think that the Thessaloniki scene is different from the Athens scene? 

When it comes to Japanese, yes. You get the more traditional ones in Athens, while Thessaloniki is more ‘Neo’. Same with American Old School. You don’t really find it here compare to American Neo Traditional. I don’t think there are much differences in anything else. Both cities have good realists and Graffiti-ists too…

So Thessaloniki tends to be more “Neo”?

I personally don’t like it. Maybe it’s because I see it so often here. I prefer “old fashioned”, regardless of what I design. I like traditional ones, whether it’s American or Japanese. That is what I study. When I come to Athens and see a piece by Yorg and Mike the Athens, I just sit and stare. Beyond its quality, I don’t come across it all the time, wherever I look.

So how come you aren’t involved with Traditional Japanese tattoos if you like them so much…?

The truth is that I may try it at some point…I am not tired of Neo Traditional. It is a habit and I may need to change. I won’t go completely traditional. I might try it out on one tattoo and see what comes out.

Why do you think there so many different “waves”, depending on where someone lives?

Mimicry is part of human nature. They do what they see. The majority of people in Athens do Traditional tattoos. Therefore, someone who wants to do tattoos and is surrounded mainly by Traditional will be attracted to it and will end up doing exactly that. The same thing happens in Thessaloniki which is more New School and that style is perpetuated. If you go to Germany for example, it is very hard to find Japanese, even though Alex Reinke (ed. Horiyoshi III’s apprentice) is German. I remember taking part in a tattoo convention in Germany and nobody gave me any attention. I didn’t see anyone with a Japanese tattoo in the entire convention.


How do you see the tattoo in today’s society?

I believe that the tattoo is widely accepted nowadays, especially for the below forty age group. It has become sort of “fashionable”. Now, I don’t know if that is good or bad… But it is constantly advertised. The tattoo is now, globally, a very marketable product. 

How come you became a serial overseas convention goer?

The last year I was at Nico Tattoo Studio I went to Sacramento on my own for a week and I took part in the tattoo convention. I had never been overseas before. I decided to go and I did. Just like that. That trip really helped me with my drawings. I met Eiland Hogan’s father in Sacramento who has a deep knowledge of Japanese art and its history. He told me a lot of things regarding Japanese art form - which is so far away from Greece -  which I wouldn’t have been able to understand unless an expert explained them to me. 

So you think your trip to Sacramento was defining?
When it comes to my designs, yes. Regarding my “relationship” with tattoo conventions, my next trip to Milan was the defining one – me and Alex had already opened the studio. Since then I am always on the move. It’s Alex’s fault for being a travelbuff (laughs). It’s really nice. We have been to all the conventions together. This year will be the first time I won’t go to some of them. I’m old (laughs).


During these last 4 years, you have not only “gone” overseas, but your work has also become widely known and recognized.

Facebook also helped. Facebook is a magazine for everyone. It’s just a big magazine where everyone has his own page and posts for himself. Of course it is not always so objective.

After taking part in Milan that first time, some magazines started to show an interest in me, through interviews and publishing pictures of my work. All that definitely helped. Also, the awards I have won, even though I keep saying “they have no value”, the truth is they do. Even now, whenever I go to Milan, they keep talking to me about my first tattoo with which I won the “Best of Show” award. Of course the award is no big deal. Competitions are there for artists to present their work and not to win an award and of course it is crucial to present quality pieces. If someone presents something that isn’t good, even if it wins an award, it has no importance. It won’t do him any good. It will just make him and his friends happy.

There are people who sometimes say that awards are not always “objective”…

It doesn’t matter. If someone wins an award but he doesn’t deserve it and then someone wins an award that does deserve it, they will both be happy for one day. I say this from experience because I have gone through the process of “winning” in the past and it was tiring. Tattooists go after awards and when they win they are happy for one day but if they lose they are miserable for an entire year. So what’s the point? The thing is to present quality pieces. I for one am happy when Alex wins because he always buys my drinks (laughs).


Which tattooists do you admire and what are your influences?

I admire Filip Leu and Horiyoshi III. I also like Shige, Fuhrman – that’s why I do linear tattoos sometimes – and I really love the guys from East Tattoo. I am influenced by the three first guys I mentioned, books on Japanese art and Black Sabbath.

I am also tired of realistic tattoos. 

I am saddened by the fact that I don’t see any new artists in Greece dealing exclusively with Japanese tattoos, other than Nikos from Eightball Tattoo Studio and Thanos, Mike the Athens’ apprentice.

What are the elements that contribute to a tattoo in order to do it “correctly”?

Design comes first and then the rendering. How you set it up on him or her, although Japanese tattoos are usually preferred by men. I have the feeling that outside of Japan the majority of people who get Japanese tattoos are men. So after you set it up, you have to render technically: make the lines and shadows correctly. The technical aspect is also important, but I think that design comes first. I personally prefer seeing a tattoo with a good design, even if for example the black colour hasn’t really been done right or if the lines are “off” here and there.


Maybe that’s why there are more and more people graduating from the School of Fine Arts and entering the tattoo scene?

Art is an advantage for the fine-arters. Therefore, from learning the technique, they can quickly reach a very good level. However, if a twenty year old from Fine Arts learns the technique, in two years he might present what he can do but find it hard to evolve further from that point. I have seen that in many new tattooists. They do the big bang in the beginning and then do the same thing for the next five years. That is when someone’s quality will emerge, standing out from the rest of the Fine Arts crowd and those who know how to draw. Because many people can draw but there is only one Carlos Torres for example.

What I notice in myself - I couldn’t draw in the beginning and now I draw all the time – is that I have a long way to go yet. As long as I have the strengths, because I am getting older…

But, I am sick of realistic tattoos… (laughs).


Tattoo work photographs courtesy of Dirty Roses Tattoo Studio.