"Tattoo" Art Exhibition by Panos Georgoulias

Extras - Issue 25

This summer, we visited the Athens School of Fine Arts on the occasion of the thesis of tattoo artist Panos Georgoulias. We entered a space that looked like a private tattoo studio, while Panos Georgoulias "performed" live tattooing, we photographed the exhibits - among them the admiring and highly realistic tattooed skins in the formaldehyde - and we talked with the graduate now artist for the idea, influences and realisation of his major project, the difficulties he encountered, prison style tattooing, the reactions of his teachers and visitors, and the "eternal" question whether tattoo is art or not.

Photos & interview by Ino Mei.

How long did it take you to prepare your major project and what kind of difficulties did you encounter while realising it?

Learning and deep dedication and love for tattooing began about three to four years before my introduction to the University and specifically the School of Fine Arts. After a two year period (2010 - 2012) at the School of Fine Arts in Thessaloniki, I succeeded in introducing myself to the corresponding Athens School and even ranked among the top five students, according to the performance grade.

I very much remember that tattoos in either of the two universities were not accepted, creating and triggering a series of prejudices, conservatism, stigmatisation and stereotypes, both inside the University and in society itself. I believe that the source of the problem was the non-familiarity of teachers with this new form of art, on the one hand because there were not many recognised "artists" in this particular subject, and on the other hand because the approach and the way of work was not the traditional one with which they are accustomed working with their students. The overwhelming majority considered tattoos an applied art such as graphic design, comics, etc., which are taught and follow very specific rules and standards. "The tattoo cannot be included in a painting workshop and in a School of Fine Arts", the professors of the University said.

Although my teachers admired and commended the way I painted, they did a lot of effort to direct me and introduce me to their own "traditional" art-painting, because they thought tattoos were something which does not seem to have a future and on top of it because it is done on the order of the customer. Somehow, and to a certain extent, it turned out that they were not that unjustly for the tattoo scene as it is shaped today.

The truth is, I never saw the tattoo as a job. My tattoo machine represents the means of expressing my artistic work and my "customers" are the source of inspiration. The relationship with the “customers” is the cornerstone of tattooing, a relationship that above all requires respect for diversity, honesty, persistence, flexibility and the foundation for creating a relationship of trust.

After many controversies and quarrels with the majority of my professors - especially in the early years of my studies - I felt that my tattooing, which I spent at least 12 hours a day, was incompatible with the School of Fine Arts. So, spontaneously and without much thought and analysis, I made the decision to travel around the world in order to observe, train and acquire new experiences inherent in painting exhibitions, museums, galleries, conceptual art, and the tattoo offered me the financial capability.

I have met many tattoo artists and made new friends in many parts of the globe with my main search, the different presentation of this object called tattoos and a more "visual way" of presenting it in a completely different space, such as a gallery or at this stage with such a school. In fact, my travels have been the trigger for starting a global perspective on my job, which will not leave anyone out.

By dedicating many hours of thought and research to the subject I sincerely love, I made the difficult decision to return to the University, but this time full of new experiences. So, the suggestion to the professor of my workshop was to do a thesis on - what else? - the tattoo. My hard work and devotion to the tattoo for about ten years has now come to my teacher's understanding, appreciation and acceptance. That was exactly where he found it difficult to deny and reject my proposal.

I worked intensively about two years for this project, dedicating one year to looking for my materials (silicone, animal skin, etc.).

What is unique about the specific space – tattoo studio you created for your thesis?

In the exhibition I tried to present a simulation of the private tattoo studio that I have and I have been working on in recent years. For me, this place has a double hypostasis; my work place for tattooing and painting, but also a place where I read books, think, listen to music and seek my physical and mental calm in every way. Undoubtedly, it is an integral part of my life and I am there more hours than in my own house!

Why did you focus so immensely at prison style tattooing?

It is a style that despite its simplicity and immediacy, it gives a lot of power. I have a particular sympathy and tendency in symbols and meanings. Many of these I consider to be relevant, especially in the age we are in.

In 2013 I made my first tattoo project on the tattoos of Russian prisoners, based on a three volume encyclopaedia with designs that fell into my hands, giving me the opportunity for a thorough investigation. The search led me to get a lot of information about the origin of the tattoo in general. One of the most important elements I collected was the codes of communication used by the prisoners and the concepts of protest, which indicated the socio-political situation in Russia, as well as the prevailing situation in prisons. It is noteworthy that in today's modern times, similar designs with completely different markings revert to young people as "fashion", with the result that tattoos lose (or modify we could say) their meaning and strength as a symbol and thus represent simply a way of decorating the human body.

All the prison styles pieces presented in your major project bear a real story, as they are reproductions of real findings. Which one is the most “extreme” story behind them?

As I mentioned before, while exploring this subject I met many designs that reflect our time. Naturally, under no circumstances will I be able to place myself as I would have liked, since I did not experience this era of the 1930s - 1950s in Russia – I wasn’t even born! 

After a thorough study, I found that the interpretation and punctuation of several symbols has been greatly modified. A typical example is the symbol of swastika, which is nowadays greatly recognised as a Nazi symbol and is falsely interwoven with Nazism. It is remarkable that at that time tattoos depicting the swastika were found in prisoners with anarchist beliefs. This extreme example summarises the history of centuries.

Along with the prison style skins, you also created some other pieces that are characterised by your tattoo style. Does their subject matter appear somehow political?  

The truth is that I do not like tattoos that are simply done "superficially", without any meaningful reason or interpretation, simply decorating the human body (I do not claim, of course, that I do not like to see them or even admire them). I'm pretty strict though with my own "customers" so I often deny or reject many projects.

Surely the most original and "strange" designs - especially concepts - are in priority. The key words not to do a tattoo is someone telling me that he wants to have a chick, a skull, a rose, a watch etc. done or to ask him why he chose to do this design and replying to me with generalisations such as like it symbolizes the infinity, life with death and other similar crap. These are usually the people asking for something of the above.

The tattoo should represent and keep up with our personal beliefs, and imply who we really are. This is true not only for the "customer" but also for the tattooist. Not carrying in what the world is going to say or interpret somewhat differently the design we chose. Because if the design is "US" then we are in a position to support it and we do not have to feel uncomfortable with people who have more knowledge of the arts than we do.

As far as my personal style is concerned, it has influences from a variety of tattoo styles. In general, it is good that each tattoo "artist" specialises in a certain style rather than doing it all. That's where the difference between the tattooer and the tattoo artist lies – though I do not think of myself as “artist”-. The "artist" title is conquered over time and with hard work. Besides, I never liked to be self-crowned and plus I am not the guy who enjoys flattery, just the hard and persistent work.

During the art show you were tattooing various people. Did tattooing act as a performance? 

Without knowing the consequences and risking my graduation work and by extension my degree, I decided to try - for the first time in the 180 years that the establishment of the School of Fine Arts functions - to make live tattoos in the presentation of my diploma work. 

To be absolutely honest, the realization of the project took me a lot of time and I think it was inevitable not to try it because tattoo is something I sincerely love and there are few times when I put tattoo even over my own self! 

My goal, not only in performance but also in general, was to create a bridge of communication between people from two different places (tattoos and art) to discuss and exchange views on the subject that everyone is working on.

How many tattoos did you do during your show?

The exhibition worked as a small tattoo convention and I loved it very much. Many people have sought not only to get information about me and my work, but also to do tattoos at that moment without any thoughts. Tattoos I made all day to my friends and fellow students, who helped me and supported me both in my report and during my studies at the University.

What did your professors think about your thesis?

On the first day a group of seven university professors judged and rated the exhibition, receiving remarkable comments and criticism from both attendees and teachers. Although I was not anxious at all, because of the world, the intensity, and the fatigue that prevailed, I was not entirely sure of the end result.

Finally, a few days later, when I received the final score, I noticed that I scored the highest score among all the students of the school for this year, although the work of my fellow student was excellent indeed. 

My professors emphasised that it was not the ten (10) as a grade that pleased and impressed them but that above all they appreciate and praise the effort to introduce a new perspective and a new pathway to the University for tattooing and they have stressed me never to stop to evolve - which is what I do and will do anyway.

What were the reactions of the (unsuspecting) crowd?

The basic stimulus for my thesis was the visit to Museums of Criminology, such as in Ohio and Amsterdam, where tattooed skins, taken from dead or killed people, were converted into exhibits inside the Museum. The spectacle provoked a lot of chills and curiosity, which led me to the research of my graduate project. 

The reason for this search was the work of my most beloved photographer, Joel Peter Witkin, and the shocking themes of his work, based on issues such as death, corpses - and sometimes divided parts of them - as well as “different” looking people such as dwarves, transsexuals, etc. and the sculptor of hyperrealism Ron Mueck, where he gives compassionately the textures of human skin. This influence gave me the central idea of ​​creating my major project. Apart from the thirty frames with my work in digital format that I used before I tattooed, I also presented forty-six works, forty of which are about glasses with realistic simulation of tattooed human flesh points, accompanied by tabs with their history of origin. The use of silicone, which I managed in the same way as I do tattoos on human bodies, helped me achieve the desired result. 

Many of the people that visited the exhibition wondered if the skins were real! Others, until they realize what is happening, walked tentatively around the exhibits. I think I have greatly managed to impart the feeling of true skin.

In your opinion is tattoo art?

What is defined as art I think remains an unanswered question for centuries now and it is certainly not my responsibility to answer. Therefore, I will clarify that I will mention my personal opinion on this question.

Tattoo in the way that it is promoted and performed in most tattoo shops and tattoo conventions is certainly not an art, regardless of the final result that offers a stylish picture - in this case a tattoo - and what feelings it might convey to each person individually. But the majority of the tattoo scene does not follow art, so it is not able to compare it with "WHAT" art may be. I have attended many conventions and many tattoo shops all over the world, so I am quite sure of my point of view.

The tattoo machine for me personally is a means of expression. The same could be a brush, a pencil, a spray, and so on. 

Therefore, it holds a very important role in what can be hidden behind what we call "art" and how it is perceived by its creator. For example, I cannot argue that the tattooer who is into the Buddhist tattoo style, listens to metal music and charges his tattoos of 800 or 1,000 euros, is considered an "artist" when behind it there is a whole religion and history of centuries that in most of the countries where this kind of religion is embraced, they are so poor they have no proper food or are totally committed to ascetic life.

I tried to look for another way of presentation and to address a totally different space, putting as a main purpose aesthetics rather than tattooing as a tattoo, without saying that I am an artist and that what I am doing is art. I urge you, therefore, to ask art gallerists, artists, and art historians for what I’ve created might have been, and not the tattoo businessman from your neighbourhood or your cousin with the tribal sleeve.

Summing up, I firmly believe that everything may or may not be art. Art does not come into moulds and is not based on rules or guidelines.

Τι έπεται τώρα που αποφοίτησες;

Όλα τώρα αρχίζουν. Εξάλλου, η τέχνη είναι μια κατάσταση δυναμική. Τι έπεται; Δουλειά, δουλειά, δουλειά.