– Thomas Carlyle
For at least ten thousand years tattoos have been installed by hand, poked dot by dot using a variety of manual tools. While most modern artists now use high-speed powered devices, artists like 36-year old Boff Konkerz are keeping the traditional spirit alive as he visits clients’ homes in England’s East-Midlands region and abroad in his travels doing handwork tattoos. Boff has been tattooing for four years now, and recently talked to us about his art and experiences.
You can get in touch with Boff via myspace.com/tattoosbyhand.
BME: How did you get into this career?
I don’t really think of this as a “career”, but I got into it by accident, or it was fate depending on your view. I enjoyed art as a child, but didn’t take it seriously until I started designing tattoos. I designed my first tattoo myself and later started drawing for friends.
As a teenager I was into punk rock and tattoos kinda just went along with that. When I first started I honestly had no intention of doing it for a living, it was a skill I just wanted to acquire due to a genuine interest in the art form. I did it in exchange for pizza and beer back then… I actually can’t remember when I moved into tattooing for cash. Even now I’ll tattoo friends for food and drink.
BME: Besides pizza of course, what is the normal pricing for hand tattoos?
It really varies from job to job, but my basic quote is £30 ($60) per hour, if it’s big work I ask for a commitment of three hours a week until the piece is done, because of the slow nature of handwork I want to be sure they are committed to getting the piece finished. I am able to keep my prices low as I’m not paying rent on a studio. I also add any travel expenses onto the price per session.
BME: How did you actually learn?
I acquired my first piece of handwork from my good friend Xed Le Head and was interested in learning how to do it. I was already quite heavily tattooed by machine at this point, but had never had the desire to learn to tattoo by machine. When Xed did those first pieces of handwork the penny kind of dropped and I knew it was something I wanted to do. I was gonna ask Xed to give me some advice, but the night I was gonna ask him he wasn’t around, so Lucky Diamond Rich showed me how to make a needle and I did my first tattoo on him and tattooed myself that same night. Shortly afterwards Xed shared some of his handworking techniques with me and after that it was a process of practice, trial and error, and perseverance.
BME: What would you say to someone who sees hand poked tattoos and says “I can do that”? How should someone learn?
Find a hand tattooist and get some handwork — just watch at first, and then try asking some questions. And yes, try tattooing yourself.
I’d like to say something in defense of “bedroom tattooists”. I read recently in a national newspaper here a criticism of bedroom tattooists by Louis Malloy [editor’s note: you may know him from TV’s “London Ink” or as “Beckham’s tattoo artist”]. The truth is half of my work is fixing terrible tattoos executed by “artists” working from tattoo studios. Anyone with the money can open a tattoo studio, and getting tattooed in a studio is no more a guarantee of getting a good tattoo than getting tattooed in someone’s home is a guarantee of getting bad work.
Life ain’t that simple.
Although I’m proud to be part of a DIY tattoo tradition, I’m not opposed to working in a studio. Job offers can be sent to me via email!
BME: Speaking of Louis, what do you think of shows like “London Ink”?
I think those shows are the fucking pits. I hate them, they are an abomination, and the worst thing to happen to tattooing in 10,000 years. Would I appear on one of these shows if asked? Of course!
BME: It would definitely be an improvement if they added you to the cast!
BME: You said you do a lot of repair work — how do you feel about scratchers and lower-end tattoo shops?
Tattoos teach us a lot of things, you often learn more from mistakes than from the things you get right. A shitty tattoo can be the right tattoo for someone at that stage in their development, if it teaches them to think things through. You either walk into a tattoo studio with your eyes open or your eyes closed — your choice. Responsibility for your tattoo ultimately lies with the customer.
I really like the idea of “healing” a machine inflicted tattoo using hand tools.
BME: What’s the actual tool you use for tattooing?
I use conventional tattoo needles lashed to half a chopstick.
BME: How long do hand tattoos take to do in comparison to machine work?
It depends on the design, but I’d say three times longer.
BME: What influences you as an artist?
I like to look at textile designs, porcelain, wallpaper… anything but tattoo flash. I love Picasso, Miro, Goya and Frida Kahlo, but I don’t think their influence can be seen in my tattoo work.
BME: What are your favorite sorts of tattoos to do?
I love to tattoo hands, regardless of the design.
BME: Why hands? Because of how they move or how they’re always exposed to the public?
Yes, the way they move, and the way they are exposed to the public, but also something on a more subconscious level… I don’t know what, but I’m happy to be involved with it. The leopard spotted hand for example, which took about twelve hours, is my personal favorite of all the tattoos I’ve done.
Also, I think handwork is better suited for tattooing the hands than a machine is. You often get blow-out on the fingers with a machine, but I never get blow-out.
BME: I know you’ve done necks, but do you tattoo faces?
I won’t tattoo faces until I have my own face tattooed.
Left is Boff’s neck by Xed Le Head, and right is a Neck tattoo by Boff.
BME: Do people usually come to you with a design in mind?
Usually they say something like, “I want a rose on my hand,” and I go home and draw something up, and nine times out of ten they like it and away we go. Even better is when they just say, “I want a sleeve.” Then I can really go to town. A lot of my work is cover-up and repair work, so obviously then I have to work around what’s already there, but I like the challenge of that too.
BME: On a design level, and what works, what sort of tattoos work best for hand-poked tattoos?
I generally only use black ink and a lot of dot shading. I can do solid black but it takes a very long time — shading with dots I believe I can do as fast as a machine though. Other than that, anything goes. On a personal level I dislike portrait tattoos and won’t do them — I think it’s just weird having someone else’s face on your body!
BME: What does the future of tattooing look like to you?
It’s only gonna get bigger, which will be both a blessing and a curse. As any industry grows it also diversifies. This will mean that the industry will be taken out of the hands of enthusiasts and uploaded into the mainstream dominant culture. Most tattooing will become formulaic and be tailored to the mass market. The plus side to all this is that the art will be big enough to support an underground scene. Think major record labels and indies in the music industry — this is already well on the way.
BME: Have you experienced physical problems from tattooing?
Yes, I have problems with my right wrist, but this could be from masturbating.
BME: Have you done any touring?
I took my tools with me when I went to India recently, and I thought I’d tattoo a few backpackers out there, but I only tattooed Indians, which was great. It’s better to tattoo in my own area as I have a reputation there and so people trust me. People who’ve never encountered handwork are often wary of it, and they often think it’ll hurt more — most of my clients say it hurts less — or that the work won’t be to a high standard, which it is!
BME: Is this your full time job, or do you do other work as well?
It’s my only job. I earn a living, but it’s not reliable. I try to limit myself to five jobs a week — Monday to Friday, with weekends off. Having said that I did seven tattoos last week, and one this week. I like to do one tattoo per day because of the traveling involved, but if two of my customers know each other, I’ll do both of them in the same day at the same house. This happens a lot, as all my advertising is by word of mouth, so many of my customers know each other. I tattoo a lot of people who are related to each other. I don’t put out posters or fliers or promote myself in any way.
BME: Finally, if you weren’t a tattoo artist, what do you think you’d be?
A rentboy, which I was before tattooing.
BME: On that note, thanks for talking to us!