All Worked Up
In a world of vanity, Russia’s revival of rebel culture comes with an attitude and requires a thick skin.
Text and photos, James Quentin
As the Soviet Union crumbled, newly found freedoms had Russians quickly catching up on the latest in Western cool. Music, movies, clothes and food were embraced for better and for worse, with the Russian soul finding its price in capitalism. If the UK and Japan is where most of today’s cool culture is born, and the US is where it is mass produced, then Russia is the place where pop inevitably comes to die. Moscow is filled with cliché styles of black and white emo wear, skateboarder shoes and the all too frequent appearances of leather pants on middle aged moms at grocery stores. Tattoos, however, are personal and not mass produced. Because of its individuality, body art culture prides itself on attracting the “outsiders” community, and is therefore difficult to predict.
“Like most things about America, we discovered tattoos through Hollywood,” smiles Serafim, a Moscow tattoo artist with his own studio by the same name, understanding he may come off somewhat misguided. Be that as it may, Moscow’s tattooists certainly did their homework. Every studio I visited, whilst researching this article has walls covered in framed samples of flash, artist slang for butterflies, hearts, tribal bands and other tattoos often seen on peoples’ lower backs or arms, widely viewed as the vanilla ice cream of body art. The biker rock n’roll music coming from the speakers further perpetuates an atmosphere where upon closing your eyes, images of the legendary US 1930s tattoo artist Sailor Jerry crafting an original comes to mind.
Serafim is one of a handful of artists who has maintained a constant presence on the popular ink scene from its beginnings in 1991. Today’s tattoo culture is very small in Russia, with about twenty studios owned by individual artists. Fifteen years ago, artists worked from home. “Everything was primitive. We used pen ink and guitar strings, no electronic machines.” New methods came from the only tattoo knowledge sources available at the time: criminals and military men who honed their skills by practicing on each other in prison cells and army barracks.
This serves as a reflection of the 1950s and 1960s, post-World War II Europe and America, when body art started to take off in popularity after service men, returning from duty on the Asian war front, re-introduced it into youth culture. “If I brought a boyfriend home with tattoos, my mom would faint,” says Mila, confirming the notion that a generational gap remains as clearly as it did sixty years ago. She works as a counter girl at Moscow’s Sphinx Tattoos, a shop specializing in permanent make-up, and is perhaps a sole survivor free of ink in an industry where it is practically a job requirement to be pierced and tattooed, preferably in a shocking manner. Arms covered in ink are a definite quality you should look for in a tattoo artist. Consider it their business card with style, quality and experience on constant display.
Sphinx was busy on the day of my visit. Not long after a metalhead gets “Life is a Miracle” tattooed over his heart, a tender dedication to a favorite movie by the same title, nineteen-year-old Anna plumps in the chair for her sixth ink job. Russia’s legal age for getting a tattoo is 18. It’s one of few existing laws on the subject, and not always observed. In Anna’s case, she had her first tattoo done at home, where the artist did not have to check her age. She was 16 at the time.
“It is a big problem for us [no official laws], tattooists had to develop a code of honor to gain the public’s trust,” acknowledges Serafim after I tell him about the tattoo home delivery service. Some of the artists have traveled to Europe or the US to learn about their business practices, bringing back information on which a code of ethics was founded. “It’s a matter of status and reputation in our culture. We worked hard to get to this point. If a customer comes in and sees something they don’t like or gets a disease, everybody will know. Then the public will fear all tattoo shops,” says a concerned Serafim. “If a person is serious, they will find a way to open a small studio, but never go to people’s homes.”
Health is a primary concern for tattoo artists, and it should be the same for the consumer. All utensils are sterile and saran-wrapped. Gloves, needles, ink containers and anything else that come into contact with a person’s blood or skin must be disposable. In fact, the artist should always open any new equipment and disposables right in front of the client.
“People like to think they are all different, but in the end, faces are faces,” says Alina, the owner of Sphinx. She carved out her own niche in Moscow’s world of body art by focusing on permanent make-up. Most women would consider it a fashion faux pas to appear looking the same way twice in a week, let alone two days in a row.
“I work in an industry that requires me to have a lot of contact with people, but I do not have time every morning to put on perfect make-up. This gives me the freedom to focus on something else,” explains Alla, who’s about to receive her first permanent make-up application. “Most of the ink I use, I try to match it up with natural colors so that women can still apply lipstick or eye makeup when they want. Few people can tell it’s permanent,” says Alina. “My husband doesn’t know I’m here today and I won’t tell him, until he notices,” shares Alla with a mischievous smile.
Be honest with yourself
Getting a tattoo is all about being honest with yourself. Understand what looks good now and, most importantly, in ten years. Listen to the artists. You will never get a true original California tattoo anywhere else in the world, or an Amsterdam style or even an Asian traditional tattoo unless you go there. Thankfully, Russian body art culture is not meant to imitate its predecessors. Most artists work hard at developing a style of their own.
A tattoo is a lifetime commitment, some would argue even more so than marriage. Do not tattoo a lover’s name on your body. After all is said and done, life may change, but a tattoo will be under your skin forever.
Being original is what we all strive to be, but few succeed. A unique tattoo comes with a unique experience. For the ultimate thrill seekers, open to anything, simply showing up to a studio allowing any size, any style and design to be tattooed anywhere on your body will cost you nothing but regret. The rest of us can follow a less daring path of giving the tattoo artist a theme, body location and freedom to improvise from there.
Communication is essential, the best artists in town speak English.
Tattoo Angel Studio
Original style tattoo’s so real, he just might be re-designing your body. Prices: Starting at 7500 rubles, you may become his next prize winning muse.
Russia’s musical elite highlight the reputation of this award winning permanent make-up artist.
Prices: Anywhere from 1500 rubles to 10000 rubles, depending if you want Marilyn Monroe’s beauty mark or the whole face.
Serafim Tattoo Studio
Old school tats with American attitude that can only be learned from masters across the pond, which he has.
Prices: Original designs go for 3000 rubles and up, still cheaper than flying to California.
Notables: Tattoo 3000, New Ethnic Tattoos, True Art Tattoo Studio.