Chat With The Taiko Gallery's Tattoo Artists
“Your client does not have a second skin; you have to do [the tattoo] correctly”.
The idea behind the Tattoo and its social acceptance has changed dramatically trough recent history, jumping from being a way to recognize drowned seamen to one of the most peculiar form of art of our decade.
Today, we've paid a visit to one of the temples of this art: a Tattoo studio that doubles as an art gallery, located at Schönleinstraße 33, in Kreuzberg. The TAIKO GALLERY, and had a talk with the owners, Mr. Matthew Gordon and Ms Whendy Pham. It is quite interesting what can be done with tattooing and the stories the artists share about their pasts and motivations.
How did you start tattooing and what moved you in this direction?
Matthew Gordon: I always wanted a tattoo when I was younger, 14 years old maybe, so I eventually started exploring, going to tattoo studios, asking about getting an apprenticeship. I was turned away again and again, but now I realize why: when I turned 18 I got a tattoo on the back of my hand, and it was really crappy, so later I had to cover it up.
Before tattooing, I was an animator, I went to university for animation and then worked for several companies. One day I realized I hated my job so I went to a tattoo studio. They reviewed my portfolio and a week later, I was in. It was in Brisbane, about eight years ago.
Whendy Pham: I was about 15 and was looking at bands with tattoos...I spent my time at school drawing on my arms and not studying, to the point that one of my friends said “Hey you should be a tattoo artist”.
So, when I was 16, I quit school, went to my parents and said: “Mom, dad, I want to stop school and be a tattoo artist”.
MG: …and look at you (smiling).
I suppose it also has a lot to do with where you're living?
MG: Well, when I started, tattoos weren't the hype and you had to work like a dog to earn your stripes, for example, preparing your own needles. Nowadays if you ask a beginner to do that he or she is going to look at you and go, “Huh, what?” That does not exist anymore. Most of the time the apprentice begins tattooing a month after starting and most of the time fucks up people's skin. Also, most owners are businesspeople, not tattoo artists, and they try to pump out as many tattoos as possible.
How did you two get together?
WP: Five or six years ago we met on Facebook and then opened a private studio together in Australia. Later we traveled together to Denmark with a friend that was moving to Berlin to open his own studio, and we came along.
MG: We were both very bored of Australia. We looked forward to moving to Berlin, to be with people we admired. We said, what do we have to lose? Now we have been here for almost three years and we opened this studio about a year and an half ago. It takes a while to take off the ground but that's the same with every business.
When it comes to subjects, do you take suggestions from the clients? Do you have a favorite subject?
MG: I think people look at my staff and just say “snakes!”
WP: I have a favorite: skulls. Then, my mother like rabbits, my dad likes flowers...but it depends on the client. They come with their ideas and we go crazy about it. I like when clients come up with their own weird idea but are open to my interpretation of it.
MG: My favorite kind of clients: Just sitting there, have a conversation with them, developing their feeling of a tattoo.
How was your very first tattoo experience?
WP: People want tattoos for various reasons. In the beginning, I practiced on melons. My boss would send me down to get pigskins and I'd also practice on that. But a lot of people just want a tattoo and don't care about what kind of experience they have. My first tattoo was on my boss' foot. I was very calm and it actually turned out quite well. I had practiced it on my pigskins...it was a very tiny tattoo, but it was good having her there to guide me.
MG: I never had that. I did my first when I was fifteen with a group of friends; the most amazing bunch of guys ever, punk-hardcore scene. One day I really got obsessed about tattooing and they had the equipment so I took it apart, cleaned it the best I could, and put it back together with them. And then, only then, I did this terrible skull with mushroom and spider webs. It was a laugh; the guy I was tattooing screaming at the top of his lungs to put me off. That how great those guys were, so I told myself, “I'm going with it.”
How did you develop your own style?
MG: I wouldn't know where to begin. I just take most of what I draw straight out of my head. A flower, a face...and then I build from there. I think there is a huge following in Berlin for a near-traditional American style kind of tattoo, like heads, which is something I used to do. Original style does not much matter to me, texture and shapes that look cool to me and I want to put them into my work; that is it. I like to combine organic and static shapes. When I started tattooing it was also about improving my drawing skills. You develop your own pattern and then apply that to any subject, one at the time: like flowers. You make it yours, so you can turn the subject inside out, and you can have it then anywhere in a dimensional space.
WP: In the studio where I started my apprenticeship I had a more Japanese-influenced style. With Matthew, he has a more American style. I think mine is more modern. I'm not Japanese, I'm not traditional, and so I like to add some modern elements to my own stuff.
Where are most of your clients from?
MG: A lot of my clients are English, some American, Canadian, and German...I would say I've tattooed more Australians here than in Australia! Most of our clientele is from abroad, which is nice because it means we can also travel: visit America, England.
You must have one client that is from Berlin, at least one. What would you say the local taste looks like?
MG: It's really odd. It s not really like what we do...it is more abstract.
Is there a regional difference about clients and taste?
MG: Well, clients differ...let's take Australia. When I was working there, a client would pay a full round trip, about $2500 and then $1000 to get tattooed, you may say they are motivated.
I'm sure it was also about the place. I've heard it is beautiful: the sea, the air...
MG: (Joking) The place is full of spiders. The sea is full of spiders. The air is full of spiders...
…and the kookaburras.
MG: ...the kookaburras spit spiders to people, that is why they smile all the time! I like spiders myself but it's not something I keep in my room. Koala, on the other hand, (to Whendy) did you ever tattoo a koala?
WP: People think I'm Japanese, they don't ask me for koalas.
You are both from Australia. In Asia, tattoos have a very different history than in Europe. Indeed, in Japan it was relegated to the crime scene for a long time. Does your art reflect your cultural heritage? What is the difference between your styles?
MG: Yours, Whendy, is far more refined.
WP: There is no cultural heritage involved; my parents are Vietnamese and in Vietnam people do not have tattoos to be cool, it is a jail thing, at least it was back then when I started, 10 years ago. In Australia it is different, but I'm mostly influenced by what I like.
No one here is tattooing phrases at all I'd guess?
MG: NO. My handwriting is absolutely terrible. When I try lettering, I really have to focus. I like it but it does not come naturally to me. My mother was a signwriter and she was brilliant but she did not pass it on to me.
Do you feel you style has reached its peak or will it change again?
WP: I think that if you're a good artist you get better in technique and in your ideas as your experience grows. I always want to push more to get better at my own ideas and bring something new to the industry rather than doing one thing constantly. If you look at my work over time it is constantly changing.
MG: if you feel like you are not getting better you should give up. Where is the love in doing the same thing over and over?
Paying the bills and the rent I'd guess?
MG: Well you shouldn't put your art at stake for that. You can still pay bills doing something you pour a piece of your soul into. For example, I'm tattooing a guy from the neck down, it takes years. Maybe after three years it is finished, and you've really learned a lot. I try to stay very conscious about it. Planning is everything. Your client does not have a second skin, you have to do it correctly. It not like brush strokes on canvas. You also need to pay attention to your color palette. Once your tattoo is there, it's hard to change it.
WP: I may darken or deepen the colors a little at the very end of the session, but I like to really concentrate. I'm slow: I work on areas, small areas one after the other during different session, this also helps to not damage the skin too much.
MG: I also feel like I'm slow at working, but you start coloring much faster than I do.
Have you ever tattooed yourself or used your body as a trial range?
MG: It is a weird sensation. It hurts. I'm not one of those guys who say it does not, BTW, they LIE. But, it's a fun sensation to have half of your brain very focused and your body telling you to stop. You sometimes get a tattoo in the worst time ever, out of boredom...but for me it's always better when somebody else tattoos me.
WP: Yes, I made a tiny little burger down here. It was very weird. It's always very strange and I'd rather not tattoo myself if possible.
Back to inspirational part. What motivates you?
WP: I like looking at the art of other people, but a lot comes from my past. Cartoon, books, stories: things that have excited me since my childhood, like Disney. I think that's where most of my work comes from.
There was a media sensation in Germany a while ago for a young NPD member having a concentration camp tattoo on his back while taking a sauna in Wedding. You have experience with people wanting to have tattoos that are openly Nazi or racist themed?
MG: No. Anything racist, awful or harmful for other people, we won't do. Sometime people ask us for something that really would not come out good with our style, so if we can direct them somewhere else, we pass them to someone who will make it great. I had a junkie with a tiny dog in Australia years ago asking for a Hieronymus Bosch on his forehead, telling us that he was a race car driver and that it would have provided great exposure for the studio. SO WE DID IT – no, we did not.
WP: No, I even turn very young people away when coming and asking for the name of their girl or boyfriend.
MG: We also check IDs...but most of our clientele request large works that take time and dedication. They're professionals too.
Do you express yourself in any way other than tattoo?
WP: Yes. I paint a lot: to put on canvas what I can't do on skin. It's a totally selfish thing, very much my thing. Not to have to worry about the blood...
MG: (pointing at the painting behind me) I paint a lot. I do commission work. I can experiment a lot with it; drip a jar of turpentine on it, something you can't do with tattoo...not on a fresh one for sure.
You have a six month waiting list?
MG: Yes, because we travel so much! So we must not get stuck. It may happen that you have only one client booked for September and you cannot travel, you have to respect your client's timetable. So we like to open small windows all year long so we can accommodate everyone.
What will the future bring?
MG: A friend, Guen, is coming to join us so we will be doing some renovation to accommodate her. She has a more feminine style and it will be nice to have her in the studio.
By Guido Mori