Meeting with Elena Borio
interview Emilio Bondioli, photo Elisabetta Colombo / Gilda Iannoni
What was the path that led you from the IED to becoming a tattoo artist?
Fresh from the IED I encountered the difficulties of the publishing world, where now it’s hard to express yourself artistically, and the fees are lower and lower. Meanwhile, my then-boyfriend had started tattooing and so I was coming into contact with the tattoo world. The temporal aspect of tattoos immediately fascinated me: the design remains tied to the person and evolves over time, ageing along with them. The tattoo is a traditional art form with a strong cultural background, as recent as 20 years tattoo artists were welding the needles together by hand. At the same time, however, the designs and techniques are constantly evolving so there is still room for innovation. Compared to a simple illustration, tattoo design also has a symbolic value for those who decide to get them, it’s something that remains permanently attached to the person.
Why did you choose a style so different and so special?
I think my style is mainly from my training as an illustrator: an environment that quickly pushes you to create a unique style. In the world of tattoos, up until thirty years ago, no one asked for a personal style: the tattooist was a workman and there was no harm in faithfully reproducing the reference material. Today, with the boom of new tattoo artists, the competition has increased and to stand out from the others you have to create your own niche, with a style or a particular technique. After a period when I worked with tattoo machine, I decided to start with stick and poke. It’s a more laborious and less precise method which is appreciated by people who like the hand made aspect, but some customers avoid it because the tattoo is of ‘lower quality’. The first convention I went to I used the sticks, I thought that no one would want a tattoo with this technique, but because I was starting out and only tattooing very small designs, my prices were also very low. In a scene like the one in Turin, where many people want to get tattooed but are also very price-conscious, my small, low cost tattoos have been successful, so much so that people have begun to cripple my hand getting ‘pocket’ tattoos.
Why stick and poke? How did you come to this technique?
I began to follow a Canadian tattoo artist called Slowerblack, who is so precise that it was only after seeing her working in a video I realized that her tattoos weren’t done with a machine. Since then I began to experiment with this new technique. Fortunately, the environment of tattoo artists has always been very open and collaborative, there’s an atmosphere of continuous exchange in which many people gave me advice about needles and different colours and slowly after experimenting with various combinations, it culminated in my current technique. Even though I don’t use a machine, I follow the rules, the line weight and illustration of the classic tattoo, and improving my technique constantly has led me to the point where my tattoos are indistinguishable from those made with a machine. As a tattoo artist I regret this a little, you lose the hand-made nature of the tattoo, but at the same time, customers want a quality design without the hand-poked imperfections.
How did you practice?
At first me and my boyfriend at the time tattooed each other to practice, and many of our friends came over to get tattooed, encouraged by the fact that I was already an illustrator, although drawing on paper and using a machine are two completely different things. The best way to learn, in my opinion, is to get tattooed and watch how other artists work. As I said, the tattoo world is very cooperative and if you ask with due humility, many people will be willing to help.
Who are your customers? Why would a person want this kind of tattoo?
There isn’t a particular type of client, a lot of people come to me because I was among the first to experiment with this technique. Most of those who come to me have other tattoos and are interested in trying this new technique, which is more intimate than a traditional tattoo machine. Although some people are doubtful because they think it’s more painful (it’s not), the design is bad and will get easily ruined, so often my clients are other tattoo artists, who are more knowledgeable on the subject and want something sophisticated.
What is your relationship with the business side of things?
I find that Facebook, more than Instagram, is very useful for my work: it’s a good way to network and get visibility. I don’t even use emails, most people just send me a message on Facebook. Some of my colleagues in Rome have created a forum called “Let’s Ink” to keep track of events and conventions we attend. It’s really useful because now, when I go to another city, I have a lot of customers who are waiting for me and I know I’ll have work.
What’s the most ridiculous request you’ve had?
Any customer who asks for an infinity symbol like it’s an original idea! One of my colleagues was asked for a tribal Pope Pius, and a guy wanted a bat in an intimate area (you can imagine). Many ask for a gigantic drawing as a first tattoo, or want to get a tattoo in unlikely places. For example, I think it’s absurd that anyone would want to get their first tattoo on their hands: the hands should be the last place to be tattooed, when the rest of the body is already covered. In a country like Italy, if you’re a tattoo artist yourself, you have to be careful what you tattoo because prejudices at work are still a very real thing.
Do you think your style will evolve again? Are there other techniques you would like to learn?
I’m slowly enlarging the size of the tattoos I do and I hope to do whole limbs sooner or later. The problem with stick and poke is that it takes a very long time, which is why tattoos usually are smaller and simpler. As for techniques, I’d like to learn tebori, with the long wand and thicker needle, but I’d have to learn on my own because no one could teach this technique. Also, as another traditional technique, I’d like to learn how to cut the skin with a scalpel and smear the ink in the wound, like you’d see in prison tattoos. The problem with that is that the tattoo tends to be of bad quality.
What advice do you have for aspiring tattoo artists?
Get tattooed. No one does. Now with so many courses available many people arrive and don’t know how to draw and maybe don’t even have any tattoos.I think you just need to get tattooed and watch the artists, then, like I said before, there’s no competition, as long as you ask nicely everyone’s willing to give advice.