Ivan Sabakin, Nizny Novgorod tattooer talked with Mark about attitude to hand-made tattoo in early 00s, strange tools and “tattoo as an adventure”. It turned out more than just an interview: a meaningful dialogue between two like-minded people who keep the culture of analog tattooing.
To begin with, you are a rather mysterious person, and there is not much material on the net about you and your work - information on your site, one video and a chapter in book about handpoke artists.
Tell us a bit about yourself. As a man, not a craftsman.
OK. as a ¨man ¨ i feel it hard to identify with (as a term), for many personal reasons, and that is still something I'm working with. But as a person I like to try my best, keep my chin up and get busy, in relation to work and other aspects of my life. Finding time for meditation and yoga / stretching practices each day. Time with my family and all that entails is a priority, as is my personal time. I don't tend to court publicity, but in this day and age becoming a ¨shameless self promoter¨ seems to be a game we must all learn to play.
I'm very lucky to have had the support of Hilary, since the beginning of this tattoo making path, as she was the first person other than myself that I tattooed. I´m very thankful for her continuing support through the thick and thin times of which there has been many.
You’re perceived as a big man by tattouers and connoisseurs of tattoos, if we talk about machinefree tattoing.
That's very nice to hear, thank you.
So, how popular are your works outside the circle of tattooists and connoisseurs?
I have no real idea about that sorry, I'd say they probably get lost in the deludge of the tattoos being shown on the internet. I'd hope though if someone stopped to have a closer peek at my work in real life, they would find something a little off beat and intresting in each of them.
How long ago have your practice started? What were your first steps? Tell your story!
Since 2005, I came a little bit late to the party.
I was lucky enough to have gone to art school (albiet, only for the foundation year) and met Shep, who I ran into years later and he´d already become an incredible tattooer and a man of seemingly unlimited talents and abilities, quite literally. He was kind enough to trade my paintings for tattoo sessions. Which I must say ended up being kind of random and abstract, fun . He ended up getting way more of my work than anyone in their right mind could need / want, but that being said we ended that whole time with a handpoke session at his house just before we left Australia to live in Grenoble.
He graciously made me an asanoha pattern on the back of my hand with some syringes and ink. It was such a fun session, and just so much more D.I.Y, less tech, I loved it. forever thank you mr.Sheppard.
So in the next few days I sourced needles and ink and got busy tattooing myself and experimenting. This lead to the unquenchable thirst for self tattooing that lead on to an apprenticship with the very dedicated and meticulous Catherine Vial, at MYSTIC TATTOO with her partner at the time Pascal Renaud. They were so kind to teach me everything I could absorb over the next nine months. From needle making, to sterilization, cross contamination, how to treat your clients, to just about everything really. It was an amazing time (
Was the non electric tattooing your first and only choice?
I started by hand, tattooing myself and friends, as I had been shown by Shep. But I also learned some what rudimentarily, how to tattoo with machines. That started in France and ended in Spain.
It wasnt until I started working in Spain really, I came across the work of Tatu Pier Makanda, whose work was incredible and done all by hand.
“Tatu Pier” Makanda
I just didn't realise that it was possible to create professional work by hand, I think nearly everybody else, whose hand work I had seen, also worked by machine... the purists were very thin on the ground.
So, you’ve tried the machine — what is machine tattoo for you?
The machine is a tool.
And a tattoo made with a machine is just that.
But yes and I did get somewhere with them as a tool, but I really was left feeling that I hadn't done enough or maybe achieved enough when I finished a machine piece, whilst making the tattoo by hand I would always feel a sense of accomplishement and each tattoo was something that I learned alot from. It was more of a battle and with that comes achievment.
How much time did it take you to achieve a level that you would be happy with?
Each one is a ¨work in progress¨, a marker in time if you will and if you can't find the faults in your own work you are just not looking hard enough. The best one is always the next one.
What was the reception of non electric tattoos at that time? Has the attitude changed now?
Hahaha, great question, I think to many it was just a joke, kind of like riding a push bike in a car race really, to alot of people. But I think over time that has changed. I´ll always be thankful for the people who supported my first few years, you know who you are.
There will always be the more curious people who usually had some link to the past of tattooing who had a broader perspective informing them. These or similar techniques were how humanity had tattooed itself for centuries, and deserves respect for that alone, no?
But that was, and still is, somewhat of a well-rounded point of view not shared by too many... and really contines to be ignored a bit ... but hey, each to their own. I'm very happy to be able to be a part of creating modern tattoos in this way.
You work in Adelaide and Barcelona, for large periods of time. Looks like you do not tour between the studios and popular cities and spots among tattoo artists where your work, for sure, would be greatly appreciated. Why so?
The tattoo artist nowadays rarely sits in place. Tell us about your view on this.
I think having children has slowed down alot of our travel.
I´ve had some great times doing guest spots and conventions around Europe. Sometimes its hard to get that balance right. But, right now I think, we´re doing quite well. ¨Life is complicated enough¨ truth be told.
There are great benefits to both traveling as well as engaging more fully with your immediate community. To be sure, however, I am at my most available to clients when we are in Barcelona every year. It's such an amazing city in the summertime, a great place to explore and discover around your appointment.
And, staying there, how often do you get to work?
At the moment I work part time, since the birth of our son and recently our daughter it's very important for us to spend time with our favorite people during their formative years. So, we've chosen to work part time to allow us the freedom to be a big part of our children's worlds.
How often do you take up work that goes beyond your preferred aesthetics and style?
Any time a client would like me to really. It is a service industry after all. If I'm really uncomfortable with a request and being able to ¨handle¨ it professionally, I would put the client in touch with a friend who could make it happen.
Your style is more than recognizable.
Tribal tattoos, natural and artificial patterns, traditional motifs are just a few of what an attentive viewer can notice.
Were there any turning points in forming of your own style?
I think really, the major shift in this sense, was a change from making mostly geometric work. Just trying to cleanly represent something on skin, that was very detailed and drawn on a computer, became a bit mind numbing and hectic.
I'd actually love to do some of that work again, now after such a long break. But at that time I was just done with trying to be a perfectionist robot everyday, and coming up short. Through continued exposure to the extremely rich ¨traditional western tattoo¨ trend /movement, in Europe, I became a little bit stuck on this freer and looser approach to making tattoos. And I loved getting back to drawing really. But as long as there's movement in what you're creating, I think you're doing well. It's a healthy sign.
How long did it take to create your recognizable manner?
It's still a work in progress, and perhaps should be always going forward :) If you're keeping it interesting for yourself and your clients, there's always new inspiration to draw from both inside and outside of tattooing. Keep on keeping on.
What is a tattoo for you in general? Your thoughts and views on the tattoo process.
Tattoos are, I think at their ¨core ¨ (of sorts), are tales , stories of your adventures.
Where you got them, by whom, and when.
I think when people speak about their tattoos these are the interesting things, maybe much more so than the significance of the imagery.
The process with the right tattooer for you, (at its height) can be one of profound personal transformation, and I think you can make extremely positive changes in your clients world, and vica versa on occasion. Its an honour to have been part of that process for so many people. From first tattoos to the avid collector its an amazing journey thats kind of easy to forget in shop environments sometimes.
And finally, any advice to beginning nonelectric tattoo artists?
Love and celebrate the fact that you are a bit out of the industry, and enjoy that path, Tattoo yourself, try new things, keep your head down, be clean and learn about cross contamination.
Get some years, not just tattoos under your belt and find likeminded people to work with, keep pushing and remember listen to your clients (they are №1, without them you are just wishing).
Be your harshest critic and surround yourself with people who will call you out when you need to be..
Special thanks: Ivan Sabakin