Travelin' Mick

Extras - Issue 15

Travelin' Mick is a photographer and a journalist. He has been researching, travelling and documenting the last remaining tattoo cultures on all continents for more than fifteen years. His aim is to help preserving those cultures for posterity, while he wishes to promote the understanding of the importance of tattooing to the history and culture of mankind and as a veritable form of art. His photographs express the beauty and pride of ethnic groups and traditional communities, who still bear the marks of their people. His work is of high importance and Travelin' Mick holds a special place in the international tattoo community. HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine had the chance of meeting and interviewing him in Thessaloniki, where he was a special guest of Thessalonink, the 1st Thessaloniki Tattoo Convention.

Interview & Portrait Photography by Ino Mei.

What did you do before becoming a journalist and a photographer?

Actually, I am a high school teacher. This is what I was trained to do but I started working as a journalist while I was still a student, so I never worked as a teacher. I also have degrees in English, political sciences, history and intercultural communication and because of my travelling I wasn’t looking for a job. The job came to me and it kind of developed naturally that I started working as a journalist.

So, first you were into travelling. How and when did you get into the tattoo?

In 1994 - 1995 I was travelling on a motorbike to Africa so I went all the way to South Africa, and to celebrate that I wanted to get a tattoo done. I had a few tattoos already and I knew I wanted to have more and I was thinking “now I need to think about a concept’’. So I went into a tattoo shop and I realized that I didn’t really know what I wanted to get tattooed. I was talking to the artist and in the end I got my nipples pierced. I became friends with the artist because we would discuss these things and he’d never met anyone who would plan things like this.

At Wancho Naga / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.​

Where did that incident take place?

In Cape Town, where I got stuck for four years altogether. I came back and forth but I had a girlfriend there and I ended up going to University and working in a tattoo shop. Because of the languages I speak, I could work in a studio. I soon realized that I was not going to be a very good tattoo artist, not even a good tattoo artist, and I started working as a journalist while doing my studies. Then the tattoo convention thing started and I said to my South African tattooer friend “why don’t we go to tattoo conventions together’’? So I wrote letters, actual letters on paper, to convention organizers telling them that there is this great South African tattooist and that they should invite him. So we started flying from Cape Town to Europe to attend conventions and I took pictures and wrote articles for magazines. 

At the same time I was also doing some research about the gangsters in Cape Town – The Numbers Gang – for some sociological project and I profiled them and started asking them about their tattoos and it ended up being an article that I sold to a tattoo magazine. That became like a big thing because I was the first one to photograph these South African gangsters with their tattoos. My article came out in 1999 and it was published many times, even in Playboy magazine. At that time I realized I was done with my studies and I didn’t want to be a teacher, but a journalist. So I started travelling to Borneo and Thailand and doing research about traditional tattoos.

At Chin Myanmar / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

What was it that attracted you to start exploring those tribes? 

Mostly the sociocultural and historical aspects, because I realized there was almost no scientific literature about tattooing as part of a culture. So I went to those areas and took photos and started asking people about their motivations and I realized that there are different groups of motivation, according to which kind of culture they live in; if it’s a warrior culture, a farming culture, a weaving culture for women or head hunting for men. So basically you can put tattoos into groups, but in the end the motivation for tattooing comes down to identity as a sign of the group. So I started thinking and writing about how this can relate to modern tattooing as well.

Which is more “individualized” in the western world. 

No, that’s what people think! You are not making yourself more “individual” if you want to get a Mexican lady you saw in a magazine or on Instagram. Like in the 90’s everybody got the tribal armbands because they‘ve seen it before and it was kind of cool and the guy from the Red Hot Chili Peppers had it.

Getting an Ötzi tattoo in Namibia / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

So are tattoos a trend?

No, we are following role models. We are following “leaders” as sheep, you know. People think they stand out but they don’t. They just put themselves into a group of people. Of course there are ways of individualizing that, which is a thing that we see at the moment. When you get for instance a design done by George Mavridis and he draws it or photoshops it for you. There are more technologies and more possibilities; technically more things are possible and the imagination is much wider for the artistic aspect. The supplies are also more advanced now. However, in the end it depends on what you do with them.
But still we are following trends. I’m not judging this. It is not necessarily a bad thing. If I get a nice tattoo by a friend or somewhere in the jungle by someone cutting me with an arrowhead that feels quite individual. But in the end he does it to others and he probably does it because I give him money…

What is tattoo then; a craft, folk art or just art?

Now you are coming into a territory that is one of my favourites. A very small part of tattoo can be called “art”, because that comes to the definition of art and art for me is creative. You do something new with meaning. Very few tattoo artists have something to say with their tattoos, which is related to the fact that in tattooing there’s an artist and client relationship, which means even if you want to do something really meaningful, you need to find someone who would want to have it on their bodies for the rest of their lives. So we are talking more about craftwork, an estimated 99,9 %.

Travelin' Mick's Borneo tattoo von Eddie Borneo Ink / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Some of the great classic painters were getting financed in order to do certain art projects…

There were quite strict limitations on what they could do, however they still managed to put in some hints of political things. Some of these painters are much, much better that even the greatest tattoo artists in the world now. It’s a fact you know. If you look at what some tattooists are doing painting-wise and you go to any museum you will see greater stuff. I know, a lot of people don’t want to hear this… On the other hand, many of the new generation tattooists see this and started going to museums, while trying to learn more about painting.

There is actually a younger generation in tattooing that comes from the School of Arts.

It is actually less people than we think. I’ve been asking everybody. I’ve done hundreds of interviews with tattooists and there were many times that I thought that is quite easy for this guy, as he has done four years of art degree and knows how to do portraits. Well, quite often that is not the case, but there are people like that of course. If you go to an Art School within a year you know how to make a perfect portrait. It’s teachable you know, you can learn it. This is not art. I think we can agree on that.

Yeah it is true. You get to learn the rules and the technical part.

Then you have to master the medium whether it is painting or drawing or tattooing. It is quite technical, I would say. But again there is the psychological aspect. You have to deal with the client, you have to find what the client wants and that can be hard.

With the Prime Minister of Samoa / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

What does it take then to be a tattooist?

Discipline and patience.


Not necessarily. It helps; it speeds up what you do. I know some guys who are celebrated tattooists and I don’t think they have any talent.

They don’t know how to draw?

Yeah, and I know several of them that they did admit they can’t draw freely. They see a photograph and they copy it perfectly, but if you ask them to draw an amazing eagle attacking or catching a fish on a canvas or a paper, they can’t do it.

It feels nowadays that quite a few tattooists have become some kind of rock stars. Are these tattoo artists “overvalued”?

Again it comes to the definition of art. I mean some of them are rock stars by right and some others just happen to be stars and happen to be tattooing but they are not necessarily great tattooists. I recently met a German guy who is very well-known in Germany, in the mainstream, and he told me “I can’t tattoo shit. I am not even a good tattooist but because of the media, they made me look like it”.

With Tufi people at Papua New Guinea / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

How difficult has it been to approach all those different tribes all over the world?

It varies. There are places like the tattoo festival in Thailand or in Borneo where you can easily get coverage, while in other places it’s much harder. Quite often I only have some black and white photographs from the 60’s or the 80’s and a rough idea anthropologically. I collect the literature. I read old reports from the 19th century; some British colonials said that they saw some tattoos there and then I start doing research in the net libraries. I also have a huge library at home.

Are there any tribes that you have discovered?

I have discovered some tattooed groups. There is a small group who live in southern Ethiopia, called the Tsemay. They were not even in anthropological books. Now, there are more photographs of them and they are on a short note in literature, but when I was there they were really remote and it was a coincidence I met them. They have big facial tattoos. There were no photographs of them before. 

Some French colonial in Laos wrote about a group in the Boulevard Plateau but now I don’t think there is anyone from the tattooed ones left. It’s a race against time you know… I met four of them when I was there, ten years ago. I took photos of them and they were totally forgotten.

Last November I was in Taiwan to find the last two of the Atayal; an ancient tribe that lives in the mountains. They were the native people of Taiwan - they are not Chinese. They are about 2% of the population of Taiwan now. Part of their culture was the women to do a huge a “V” shape tattoo all over their face. People said that the tattooed ones were extinct. So I kept asking my Taiwanese friends again and again and then they saw a Taiwanese TV show, and they contacted some people in this area and they found out that there were two still alive. So six weeks later I was on a plane and after driving four hours in the one direction and four hours in the other direction we found the two ladies. The one was 100 years old and the other was 108 years old so I almost dragged them out of the wheelchair and took pictures of them. Actually, one of them was quit active, still working in the garden.

Konyak Naga headhunter from Nagaland, India / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

How many ethnical groups do you estimate to have visited?

I think I did about sixty ethnographic articles.

Does that mean sixty different tribes?

I would say so. Sometimes you group several tribes together like in the Philippines where there were several head hunting tribes who used to tattoo, or in the Naga group, who live in the border between India and Myanmar. There are at least ten – fifteen sub groups who have different tattoo styles to distinguish from each other. Or the Chin in Myanmar, the border to Bangladesh, they have at least ten different facial tattoos on women, which brought them to extremes. In the 90’s I met one group, there was only two tattoo ladies left and both of them had their face tattooed entirely black, in really good quality actually; really opaque black. I think they are gone now.

At Tharu Nepal in 2013 / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

How do you approach these people?

I go there with a translator of course, with a guide, and sometimes even with guard security. I present myself or let the guide present me, they see that I am heavily tattooed myself so they kind of understand that I am asking questions about their tattoos, because I have tattoos as well. So that is kind of a link and I am just patient. Sometimes I am done using my camera on the second day or after an hour or then minutes. Of course I don’t put my camera in front of my face and walk up to them and start shooting. This is actually one of the reasons I don’t work for television because it’s very difficult to build this bridge, and the bridge is often abused as well.

And I would imagine that you can't control the outcome.

That is another part of it. Also, if I am in front of the camera the interaction is much more difficult and it is not as honest because you are not looking to each other’s eyes, there’s something in between. So it is hard to build this trust and I have seen it often in documentaries. And it is not what I want to do.

With a Moroccon berber tattooist / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Has everyone been positive so far towards you or were some tribes not that friendly?

It happens that they are quite reluctant. I was doing research in an area of Naga tribes, on the Indian side of the India - Myanmar border and I was going from village to village with my car and my guide. Sometimes I would come to a village and people were very open about it and I could easily take photos and ask them. Then I came to some villages who had missionaries there before, so they were very ashamed of their tattoos and they said “no, no this is not good, don’t take pictures” which I respect. If they don’t want then I move on. Discovery channel was in other villages in the same area some weeks before and they simply gave money to them, like a lot of money and the people were sitting next to the road waiting to be photographed and get a $100 each, which is like a month’s salary in this part of the world.

How do you fund your missions?

I have to advance all the money myself. I take care and pay for everything, and then I do my products and my articles and I hope I get a return. Quite often these projects are so expensive that I can never get it back. One time I was in Papua - New Guinea for three weeks and it is a really expensive place, and it was very difficult. But sometimes I just do it for the love of it and I finance myself by doing another kind of photography work, conventions or interviews, which is more profitable. But I really need to do the travel stuff.

Travelin' Mick's Unalom tattoo by Pier Makanda / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Is your mission to “save” those tribes through documenting them?

Yes. Over the time, I started doing more actual portraits in order to show the face behind the tattoo; to get a little bit of the personality of the people, not just the stereotype of the tribe.

Have you ever been in danger?

Most times you are in danger you don’t really know it. But I narrowly escaped a car accident. I was once in danger in Laos because a rabid dog bit me and I had to get my injections every week. Luckily, the infection didn’t go to my brain because then you die.

With a Drung lady, Dulongjiang China / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.​

You have quite a few tattoos. Would you like to mention some of the artists that gave them to you?

Actually most of my tattoos are not by very famous artists. They are done by the tribal people or people who do tribal revival work cause I want to support them as well and I want to make it better known that there are people now in Borneo, Philippines or in Samoa that wish to revive these traditions. So I get tattooed by them. It is fun, not a formal business transaction; it is more like a communal experience. I mean I have a few souvenirs from famous tattoo artists but often you wouldn’t even see it as a great tattoo. I have a tattoo by Boris but it is not typical of his work so I’ve never shown it and I have some work from Hanky Panky because he is a pioneer and I do what I do  a little bit because of him as well, because he has done that kind of research in the 70’s. I’ve got a small tattoo done by Mike the Athens. It’s an ancient Tibetan Om, that he did at the Milan tattoo convention, about ten years ago and of course by hand.

Are you familiar with any other Greek tattooist?

Mike was the first I got to know. I met Vasilis from Medusa Tattoo a long time ago, because he used to do all the German tattoo conventions. I knew Savas of course because of the “Malaka Crew” and then I met George Mavridis; just a few years ago because he came as a miracle on the tattoo scene, because he was doing something very different at the time. Then many people started doing what he does. So, that was really interesting for me, to actually meet George. 

I went to the first new Athens tattoo convention in 2007 because of Mike. For various reasons I didn’t manage to go back. A lot of Greek artists started travelling again and I saw them in the Milan and London tattoo conventions and I was amazed. What a big step it was between what I had seen back in 2007, of what Mike and Taki Tsan had done at this time. Which was great but totally different to what these young guys were doing. So I became really interested in the Greek tattoo scene.

I believe that all these guys that went overseas, came back and started building their own tattoo scene, which I think is now happening in Thessaloniki. So I’m happy about that.

With Borneo headhunters / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Have you come across any information concerning Greek tattoos in antiquity and in later years?

Well yes, I just spent a few days last week in the Pindos mountains to find some Romanian Vlachs, just on the odd chance there is still some tattooed. I didn’t find any and I quite doubt that are any left. If you go there with the right people you might find one or two somewhere in the village but I didn’t have the time and the means because of course you have to speak Greek and probably Albanian to get near these people and the last photos I’ve seen were from the 80’s and they were all very old ladies, already.

Were they only tattooed ladies?

Yes, only ladies with Christian tattoos and basically exactly the same ones with the Bosnian Catholics and also some in Albania and Kosovo.

Were they Christian Catholic or Christian Orthodox?

Originally, I think they were Catholic. They might have converted when they came to Greece but they come from a Catholic area. I did a lot of research on the Bosnian tattoos and it always said it is Catholic but it probably goes way back to early Middle Eastern tattooing.

Mick in Bosnia / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Aren’t tattoos supposed to be forbidden in Christian religion?

There is this Bible quote, which we all know. It is forbidding a certain way of mourning the dead. A lot of tribes worldwide were doing tattoos to show the mourning for deceased elders and apparently at a certain point in time when these verses were written, they forbade this kind of tattooing to make a distinction between the people who converted to Christianity and the ones who haven’t yet. It’s a quite complicated sociological concept. Tattooing very often, like I said, is a kind of identity, so what you find frequently is a minority taking tattoos as a sign that they are different from the others. And it is also, “I stand here, you see the cross on my face; I am a Christian”.

Long time ago I read that on the island of Skiathos there was tattooing as well. Which of course I find really odd and I couldn’t find any other sources. It was actually in a travel-guide book, but it is very obscure and you never know. This guy might have been told from someone and that someone might have been from a totally different place.

In ancient times, the Thracians were tattooed. There are Roman reports of barbaric Greek tribes that used to be tattooed. It was very widespread in this time. Basically, all the areas from the Balkans to let’s say Iraq were just tribal areas and I think most of them were tattooed. In any case, you always have to look really closely at the sources, cause quite often let’s say a Roman author or historian would make up horrible things about these people, because Romans found them horrible. They captured many tribes and these guys had already tattoos on them.

With an Ollo Nocte lady in India / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Earlier you mentioned the tribal revival. Is there a new wave when it comes to tribal tattooing?

Yes, there is.  It started in New Zealand and Tahiti in the 80’s, when people were tattooing basically in prison; because of the conflict between the French colonial people and the Polynesians, a lot of Tahitians ended up in jail. They started tattooing their own symbols on themselves to also show that “I am a Polynesian’’. Which is quite funny, because they used patterns that were from the Marquesas Islands, which are a couple of thousand km away, but these were the only designs they actually had. The ancient Tahitian tattoos looked different to what Tahitians are tattooing now. They used to have this pattern book from the Marquesas, and that is what they used. I spoke to the guy that actually did that. Nowadays Tahitians work in Europe, in Hawaii and they work with other tribal people together and they made a poly Polynesian style. They are mixing the Samoan with the Tahitian. Quite often these things are quite nationalistic. Like in New Zealand the Maori want to emphasize their identity. Just recently I heard that there is also a bit of a Native American revival…

Why have people always modified their bodies in your opinion? 

Again when you go back to the sociological routes of why do people put earrings in their ears, it is quite often a sign of identification with the group. Like you wear a certain kind of jewelry or a certain kind of modification means that you are part of these people. On top of it, there is the issue of hierarchy. If you have a gold earring it means you can afford it so it distinguishes you a little bit. Almost like a designer bag. It is a cultural thing.

With Sepik warriors at Papua New Guinea / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick. 

Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to share?

I have been sitting on book projects forever and I have so much material but I am still talking to editors and publishers. I did some books before but they are not really what I want to do. I work as a ghostwriter as well, so I wrote books for other people and I did like a standard volume on body piercing in 2002, because at that time it was kind of a big topic. At the moment I have a calendar out, which is about facially tattooed people. I did one before which was called “In your Face’’ and this one is called “Facing History”. It’s from various groups of tattooed people and I even included some body piercings; body ornamentation I would say.

Travelin' Mick photographed by Ino Mei at Thessaloniki, while at Thessalonink.

Christian boy from Ethiopia / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Christian lady from northern Ethiopia / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Ollo Nocte lady from Arunachal Pradesh, India / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Wancho Naga headhunter from Nagaland, India / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Taking photos of Muun Chin shaman / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

With Ramanami family, India / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

With Tufi people from Papua Newguinea / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Getting tattooed at Thailand Tattoo Temple / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Getting tattooed at Thailand Tattoo Temple / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Travelin' Mick's Borneo adoption / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Getting a Coptic cross tattoo in Cairo / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Getting tattooed at Jerusalem / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Travelin' Mick's Jerusalem pilgrim cross by Razzouk family / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Travelin' Mick's San medical tattoo / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Travelin' Mick's Carpe Diem from Chad Koeplinger / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

Getting tattooed by Colin Dale in Paris / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

At Burma with Shan Tribe / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

With Kelabit people in Bario, Borneo / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

At Ollo Nocte India Myanmar / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

With an Ollo Nocte lady, India / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

At Kathmandu with local tattoo artists / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

In Hampi India / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.

On the Chinese wall / Photo Courtesy of Travelin' Mick.