Yorg Powell

Artists - Studios - Issue 8

Unique, humble and conscious of himself, Yorg Powell spoke exclusively to HeartbeatInk, about his eighteen year-old career and traditional - classic tattooing.

What lead you to get your first tattoo?

I was born in London. My parents didn’t have any tattoos. However they were up to beat with everything. So in the summer of 1983 we were on a family trip in Mykonos and there was an English tattooist on the island working out of a rented room. It was the age of punk, we were very young and the moment we heard about him we went and got ourselves tattooed without a second thought. I didn’t even ask the price. I picked a design off the wall that was a rat with his hands behind his back holding a pool stick. It was an experience. I remember it well. Then we found out that the inhabitants of Mykonos got him, threw his things into the sea and shipped him home because he tattooed a fisherman’s daughter. 

When I was sixteen, I saved up after selling an old BMX I had and went to Bugs. It was a random choice. He wasn’t known then and did his tattoos in 1,5 x 1,5 room next to the toilet of an underground retro rock n’ roll cafeteria in Camden. Nothing custom existed in those days, it was all ready-made flash designs on the wall.

What design did you choose the second time round?

I got a unicorn. I went for something classic (laughs)! Three years later, fully conscious of what we wanted, me and Mike went to Bugs again for our first official large tattoo. Bugs covered up his unicorn and the rat. 

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How did you and Mike meet?

We’ve been friends for many years, from before we started tattooing together. We met through a mutual friend. We had many things in common, such as our great love of tattoos and motorcycles and going out a lot. Mike had the balls and was the first of our group to dare to do a tattoo on someone, this during an era when it wasn’t cool to be a tattooist. I found it very weird sticking a needle at a person in order to make a design on him. Afterwards, I studied fine art at Wimbledon College of Art and although I designed tattoos, I hadn’t made the move to human skin yet and wasn’t even sure if I wanted to. Mike prompted me after our visit to the 1995 Amsterdam tattoo convention when he said “common man, what are you doing? I’m waiting for you!”.

Then you returned to Greece and began learning at Mike?

Yeah, I came back right away! Mike already had Tas (Danazoglou) as an apprentice for about a year. I didn’t have an entirely traditional apprenticeship. I mean I didn’t go with my portfolio and offer to be an apprentice for some tattooist. I was a bit spoiled (laughs). He was giving Tas a hard time. I feel lucky that my best friend with whom we talked constantly about tattoo and we were drawing on ourselves, prompted me to do this and provided me with the foundations to do so and helped me so much.

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How was it at the studio in Palaio Faliro?

At the time it was Mike, Tas and me at the studio. Obviously then we weren’t who we are today both from an artistic and empirical point of view. Those were different times, when everything was much looser and we were a bunch of twenty five year olds with little experience. Me and Tas slept on the sofas in the studio. We went out all night long. Our first appointment might have been at seven in the afternnoon. We thought we were doing “miracles” because we had discovered Borneo and Japanese. I believe the magic of that shop was that you got something really different for those times. I mean, you got a tattoo that was indeed the real thing. It may not have been perfect, but it had a soul and was artistic with beautiful aesthetics.

During the late 80s and early 90s there was a sort of rebirth in tattooing on a global scale. It concerned the scale and visuals of the designs but also about the body fit. At the same time it also had to do with the type of tattoo studio you could go to. I mean, it went away from the specific style, studio atmosphere and type of tattooist which dominated until then, when there were not many “artistic” tattoo studios around. It was a phase which gradually grew and flourished thanks to people like Alex Binnie and Filip Leu. Specifically, Alex opened “Into You” at the right time and at the right place and “opened” many people’s eyes about a different type of tattoo.

I believe that Mike the Athens’ studio was the first in Greece to deal with tattoos differently when it came to the artistic and traditional part of it. Regarding quality, there were many who tried and there was an improvement of sorts. I respect many people from our scene, like Nikos Katsoulis who I consider to be very talented.

How long did you stayed there for?

I stayed at Palaio Faliro for about five years (1995-2000). I left when Mike was abroad in India. Mike’s tattooing of course never “closed” and we are lucky that this studio exists in Greece.

Then I went to Medusa Tattoo, even though it was a different kind of studio. Vasilis had said something very nice to me at one of the tattoo conventions he organized in the past and it had stuck with me. He dreamed of opening a tattoo shop one day where many different and good up and coming Greek artists would work together, instead of everyone opening their own little shop. Because of this, he was the first person I went to for a job.

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Even after so many years in the tattoo scene, you still don’t want to open your own shop?

No way! I don’t want to be a shopkeeper. That’s something else.

How did your partnership with Vasilis at Medusa work out?

I explained to Vasilis that I just wanted to do my work. That I preferred Japanese, but that I would do all the styles that are associated with the classic tattoo. In the beginning I ranged from Tribal to fairies; the fairies now will be crap (laughs). I learnt a lot at Medusa. The tattoo journey is continuous and doesn’t stop or complete itself after a few years of learning. I learn every day. 

I stayed at Medusa for ten years. During that decade a lot of people passed through the shop, such as Tassos Sgardelis (Honest Tattoo) and Christ (Endangered Species Tattoo). We had a really good time. Medusa always had a wide range of tattooers, from the most artistic type to the most commercial. Both are of course a part of tattoo.

Ten years is a long time…

It was a conscious decision to stay in Greece so I could focus on what I wanted to promote. Large tattoos need a lot of time and patience. I worked a lot and I knew that that was the only way I would be able to do what I really wanted to do and, in some way, I made it. In in the early 00's, people for whom I had done entire back pieces and sleeves were walking around in Athens, which was something amazing for that time… Specifically, I remember one of Vasilis’ conventions when Jacqueline (Spoerle) had also come from Switzerland, and there were six – seven of my clients with full back pieces among people with small tattoos taking part in the competition. That’s why I never replied to any of the calls from abroad that I have received over the years. I just went for short periods of time.

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I have a feeling that it’s been a while since you last attended a tattoo convention… What is your actual opinion about conventions?

I am not a big fan of conventions and specifically competitions. I like the fact that you meet a lot of interesting people but on the other hand it seems to me surreal for tattoos to be “competing”. Instead of that I’d prefer if it was a tattoo exhibition where tattoos would be just exhibited so people could admire them. In the past I have also been among the “judges”. What anyone likes is entirely subjective. I find awards and trophy cups sad, not only regarding tattoos but also generally in life. We don’t need to receive “awards” for everything we do. I find low the level of someone who chooses a tattoo studio because it won an award, or even the tattooist who advertises his studio because it won an award. And unfortunately, today, many people do it even though they don’t need to, because they do a fantastic job.

How did your collaboration with Honest Tattoo come to pass?

Tassos and I are very close friends. I respect him both as a person and as a tattooist. I first met him a long time ago as a client. He used to come and get tattooed by me. The truth is I have given him many tattoos. Tassos was always conscious of what he likes artistically but also about where he wanted to go with tattoo. He is the classic example of a person who has a plan and makes it happen one step at a time. It’s 2013 and no one knows what is going to happen in Greece… and he goes and opens a superb tattoo shop and he basically does it for us, so we can all be ok and work “ideally”, because the customer will come in, get his tattoo and leave. He has created an amazing and talented team at Honest Tattoo.

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How do you see tattooing nowadays?

Tattooing has become too “tidy” and fancy for my taste. It has lost the bad-assness and ‘edge’ it once had. Even extreme tattoos are now nothing really extreme at all. For example, I was walking in Monastiraki the other day with my friend Christos (aka Christ) who is full of tattoos right up to his face and people weren’t looking at us the way they did ten years ago. People see tattoos all around them and on the tv and are more acquainted with it. That of course has both pros and cons.

What are the pros and cons of this phenomenon in your opinion?

It’s a positive fact that many people are now entering the tattoo phase. They like getting tattoos there is space for a lot of creativity. The fact that it has lost the magic it once had is bad. Of course, on the other hand, there were always “slickers” and superficial people in all cultures, like good and bad artists. Amongst all the “rabble” there were always hidden diamonds – artists who were hundred years ahead of their time. 

All tings commercial, trends and fads, especially in the western world, come and go. Good tattoo always existed. It hasn’t changed in Japan for three hundred years! Nor have the religious tattoos made by monks in Thailand changed either.

What I find weird is that you see clean-cut people with “perfect” body-suits – “perfect” becomes scary in a way – and you think that this guy was never a bad-ass guy. I had a customer come in the other day and we did a Tibetan sleeve around a huge, old 90's tribal and I liked that. I like that the body has also that story to tell. This modern sense of the “tattoo collector” doesn’t mean much to me.

It’s funny… It used to be that, as tattoo artists, we worried about doing sleeves, back, chest and legs. Now they start with fingers to elbow and neck to clavicles. Areas that are visible. I don’t think much of that. I remember saying that if you didn’t get your back done first, you wouldn’t get your neck done! I’m not being strict or anything, I’m just highlighting the mentality that existed, in contrast with today’s superficial one. However, everything changes; it is the nature of life.

Does all this have also to do with our current more superficial era?

Of course. Today it is easy to acquire and have “everything”, if you’ve got the money.

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How do you see tattooing in Greece?

Just like everywhere else, Greece has tattooers who are either commercial or artistic, who offer a lot, really love tattoo and are moving forward. Also, there are many tattoo studios and tattooers who cater to many different kinds of people. I think its very good that you can find everything in Greece today. Tattoo has a tendency to go “global”.

There are people in Greece who you could see from the beginning that were going to have a route in the tattoo and I really respect their work and what each of them has offered so far. Like the old names Mike the Athens and Nikos Katsoulis (Nico Tattoo). I see a lot of very good work from many tattooists and from a lot of newcomers as well.

Do you think that people are getting more tattooed?

Almost everyone gets tattooed nowadays, whilst in the past almost no one did. There is a big difference. The only part of this that has affected me is that I have more work. The other thing that has changed in our time is that people come for their first tattoo and get something “serious” and nice from the very beginning.  In the past there would also be some “crap” too, which is something I like (laughs). Even when I see an amazing bodysuit, I still prefer it to have some old tattoos within it.

Something I don’t like these days, apart from the commercial aspect of the tattoo which is obvious, is that many believe they have become specialists. Of course, that is a generalised global trend, which has to do with television programmes and reality shows, and it affects everything from tattoos to food etc. I have come across clients who think themselves tattoo collectors and they believe they know a lot more than they actually do and start talking about how much time it is going to take, how it can be done, which needles should be used… I am very open in every idea or aesthetic opinion that they clients might maintain. I know what I like and I want to do. I don’t care for that kind of client. I have the “luxury” now to only do tattoos that express me. My clientele comes to me precisely for what I do.

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What do you like to do most as a tattooist?

Japanese and Tibetan are two schools which I like the most and for different reasons. I like the tradition of Japanese and the philosophy and magic of Tibetan.

I want tattoos to be as primitive and as classic as is possible, while at the same time have my own “twist”. I want it to be well-drawn but to still have some basic principles. It is something I stick to. Japanese captivated me from the start, especially its aesthetic and the fact that it covers almost the entire body. It’s like good old wine. It has been around for a very long time and still maintains its magic. It’s classic.

So you have focused on Traditional Japanese and Tibetan tattoos?

For the most part, yes. Any style I do, I maintain the same flair, the same sizes, scales and lines. The way I deal with the body regarding the scale, the technique and the aesthetics is the same.

Regarding the technical part, what do you think is most important?

I think that one of the most important things is for the design to remain clear over time from the moment you do it. My principles when creating a tattoo have got to do with the passing of time. I want cleanliness, movement, scale and good lines. These are elements and principles that exist in classic tattooing whether it’s Japanese or American. I also like playing with thick and thin lines but always keeping the balance towards the primitive - traditional.

I really don’t like that, today, the characterization Japanese tattoo is wrongly used and combined by a lot of people with Japanese and Chinese thematology, when it clearly has to do with the staging and technique of the tattoo. So, if you do a Geisha and a fish in realistic style, it doesn’t mean that that is a Japanese tattoo because the subjects are Japanese. Japanese tattoos have a specific aesthetic, layout and execution to it. It is a austere style with very strict rules which probably didn’t want to evolve and that of course is its strong point.

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Does Horiyoshi 3 do Traditional Japanese tattoos?

Horiyoshi 3 is a school in his own right. Of course he does Traditional Japanese tattoos! But when we talk about Horiyoshi 3’s style, we talk about the evolution of an artist on a style.

I am a huge fan of his work and I respect him immensely. I feel lucky enough to have met him and he gave me a small tattoo. He has the energy to give to the world of tattoo every single day.

How is this possible?

It isn’t, that’s why he is the one and only Horiyoshi 3. Horiyoshi3 and Filip Leu are landmarks in tattooing and they were the instigators of major changes. No one today can be like them, however good he may be. Shige, for example, does fantastic work and he is popular but he will never be Filip Leu. It has nothing to do with how good you are. It has to do with what all these people; Horiyoshi 3, Filip Leu and the Leu Family, Alex Binnie, Ed Hardy, Sailor Jerry etc gave to the world of tattoo. Everyone knows them and everyone respects them. 

I sometimes hear stupid comments such as “I don’t like Filip Leu”. Or “that tattoo isn’t that good for Filip Leu”. Things like that should never be said! Filip Leu and Horiyoshi 3 are not just the tattoo you see in the photograph. They have offered and propelled the tattoo hundred years ahead of where it was. They have seriously contributed to making it known to the world. Horiyoshi 3 has the energy to constantly publish his work in magazines and books. He doesn’t make more money; he does it because he adores it.

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Do you believe that traditional Japanese tattoos “sit on top” of westerners, who generally don’t have anything to do with this philosophy?

That is a big question. From some time onwards, the tattoo isn’t about countries. It is global. The knowledge became available and the world now shares it, either it’s tattoo or philosophy. However, the further you delve into all this knowledge, the more superficial certain things seem. Also you realize you can’t be a guru. It’s like you’re playing yourself and your client. It’s best to be frank. When it comes to Japanese tattoos, I have always said I am not Japanese. I like the images and the aesthetic. I believe you have to “support” the tattoo aesthetically. What I read at home at nights – and I do read – is my own business. If you are able to make a beautiful image which has “feeling” then I think you can offer him a lot.  You don’t have to offer him a spiritual initiation into Tibetan Art. Some clients come to me and talk half-Japanese and I’m like “guys, just tell me what you mean; koi fish, snake, simple Greek!”. 

What would you advise a young person who wants to get into tattooing?

I don’t think I’m in a position to “advise”. I have never had an apprentice. I always share everything and I’m not one for hierarchy. From my experience and my standards of an ideal reality, I would suggest going to a good studio where they can show him/her some stuff and where the main activity isn’t everyone's ego and who is the best.

At this point I would like to clarify the term “apprenticeship”. To learn tattooing, just like any other craft, you have to go to someone who is a real connoisseur of that specific art form and has years of experience, so he can offer you his teachings.

The tattoo needs maturity. It requires aesthetics and of course you need to know how to draw. You need to respect your client. Communicate with the world and a happy attitude. You have to decide that you have to make a lot of sacrifices and not to get stuck on one style alone. It would be good to learn how to correctly do all the classic tattoos and then (or at the same time) develop the style of your own liking. One style alone restricts you. Even Filip Leu, who is of course a human phenomenon, started by doing everything. He wasn’t the Filip Leu we know today. Everyone evolves. No one was born ready.

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What is your relationship with your clients?

Tattooing is a partnership. I respect the people who chose me. Friendly relationships may occur with certain clients. However, I always liked maintaining the “working class” aspect of tattooing, meaning that I am offering a service for which you are paying me. It’s good to maintain that boundary. 

On the other hand, the client should also have a certain maturity and since there are so many choices, he should look into it and find the place that suits him/her technically, artistically, in terms of energy etc. Life is energy. I am able to do my job well. However, in order to have forty hours together, through happiness, pain and weariness, it would be better to be able to communicate. 

If you’re a mature character, chances are your tattoo won’t ever “disappoint” you. But let’s not forget that a part of the magic of the tattoo is the risk. The tattoo is permanent, because it just doesn’t come off with a sponge.  But life isn’t permanent, skin isn’t permanent, thoughts and ideas aren’t permanent. The nature of life is to move forward. You live with your decisions. I don’t consider the tattoo that important because in end it is something superficial. Of course, it has a different meaning for each person but at the end of the day, it’s just a drawing on your skin.

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Photos & interview by Ino Mei.

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