Currently reading : interview between Brody Polinsky and Jenny Hoepke
Jenny Hoepke met Brody Polinsky ‘Clean and Sober Tattoo’ at his old apartment in Kreuzberg Berlin, and then AKA Berlin, where he now works, to have a few words with him about his work and life. His style is defined through etchings, patterns, symbols and dot-work.
Alright, so my first question is. Where did you grow up and how would you describe your childhood?
(laugh) I grew up in Canada. It’s a touchy subject. Growing up was pretty chaotic. I was happy enough though. I mean I was a lucky kid. I grew up in North America. You know. I had shoes, went to school, had a roof.
And what were you like as a child?
(laugh) I was introverted and scared. I guess I was just always inside my head as a kid, which was my first escape, but as soon as I found skateboarding… I just skateboarded and that was it. Then I finally had an outlet that was just for me, by me, away from my family life.
Did you study?
I somehow finished high school in 1997 but I don’t know how, luck I think. Then did some art in summer classes at a university called Emily Carr. I don’t learn very well in a classroom setting. I wouldn’t even consider it studying. It got my feet wet, but it made me happy that I didn’t get in as a full time student. It showed me that I didn’t need that to find my way, ‘cause I will continue to find my way on my own, for myself.
When did you realize that tattooing was your thing? How did you learn to tattoo? When did you start considering tattooing as a profession?
1995. My cousin who was my biggest mentor, someone who I always looked up to. He was also the one who taught me to skateboard and do drugs. He started getting tattooed and I went along to watch and hang out. We went out and got the Vaseline, the saran wrap and the soap from the Chinese grocery store across the street. His best friend, who had just finished his apprenticeship, let me watch him work. It was just like that…(finger snap)…I was hooked! So I started drawing tattoos at that time. I was a young kid, barely 16. I finally convinced my friend to tattoo me. We traded for the drugs I was selling at that time. In 2002 I finally got sober, CLEAN AND SOBER, then everything started. It took a couple of years to build up enough confidence in myself to try to get an apprenticeship, because I felt like I failed and didn’t deserve a chance, I had gone so far in the wrong direction. I should have taken up tattooing in 1997, after I graduated from high school, but I chose hard drugs instead. Then in 2004 I started drawing again, it took four more years, until 2008, to finally get an apprenticeship in Vancouver with Jay Tierney. He gave me a very amazing opportunity I won’t ever forget.
I read you have been clean and sober for 11 years. What does that mean for you as a tattoo artist and your personal life?
I am trying to keep myself in the present. Today I want to be better than I was yesterday, and tomorrow I am going to be better than I was the day before. So that’s the whole purpose, to keep myself going forward, ‘cause I am extremely obsessive, I get addicted to anything. Getting sober gave me self-esteem, to do what I wanted for 19 years when I felt like I wasn’t worth it. For me tattooing people is an honor, I only deserve that honor now, because I made it happen for myself. Finally! I enjoy the process so much, to create permanently. The process is my favorite part, almost. And how it evolves, who you work with, where you’ve been along the road. What I like about traveling is getting uncomfortable. Move to a shop you don’t know, you don’t know the people, the language even. That’s something that pushes me and motivates me. Working with amazing people that I value, this is what I always wanted, and the chance to stay. In most countries I have to work illegally, but here, in Germany, Berlin, there was a slight possibility that I could get a work visa and stick around. I came to AKA for a one-week guest spot and sort of wiggled my way in. For me this is a chance of a lifetime.
So you are working at AKA now. How did you hear about it?
I moved from Vancouver to Toronto and first worked with Sarah B. Bolen. Like a month or so later, she moved to Berlin to work at AKA and I went to work at a street shop. To me, it was still out of my scope of reality to be at AKA, and I knew I still had to live my life… work in different shops… and travel more before I settled down. I kept my eyes on what was happening here, and when it felt right I tried to manifest a residency.
Okay, then who were your main inspirations concerning tattooing?
My friends from Canada, Dave Knight and Danny Gordey, they were pretty much just into Japanese then. They loved Filip Leu, it was the 90’s and they were pushing themselves. I was hanging out at the shop as much as I could, I don’t have a single Japanese tattoo though. In my first years tattooing, the first 4 even, I tried to do color, I tried to do whatever came my way, and hoped that I would naturally find my own style, a definitive style, which spoke to me. The first thing that was sticking out was script, which is rampant in North America, I really enjoy it, and of course I was still doing color. But color didn’t speak to me. I started to disregard it and get interested in other tattooist, who made me appreciate the total value of black and grey, which I think is timeless and classy.
Concerning tattooing culture and your own life, what role does mystery play?
I think tattooing itself is a mystery thing to me. Clients used to talk a lot more, why they are getting tattooed and what it means to them, telling you their life story. It seemed a lot more sentimental and meaningful. People are changing quiet a bit, and are quick to just get a tattoo, which I also equally appreciate. I dig the mystery, though most my tattoos are memories. They are memories of the past, most of them sad. These days I get tattooed because I’ve been making amazing connections with other tattooist, especially through being here at AKA and our constant guests. We trade tattoos, which are a product of the moment for me and for the value of the art, which I love. That’s what I want. The vibe has to be right. HB Nielsen tattooed me the other day. I wanted a tattoo by him because of the human he is and his aesthetic. I think it’s mysterious walking down the street and seeing someone very tattooed, cause you don’t know why someone gets tattooed, but yeah actually it doesn’t matter.
In terms of your style and aesthetic what are you trying to do now; what are you trying to focus on or evolve towards to? Generally in your life, beyond the tattoos, what are your projects for the future?
These days I am truly enjoy exploring my creative process. I do quite the opposite of what most do. Tattooist like to have a nice clean stencil with a definite idea of what it is going to look like when it’s done. And I don’t. I get into it by approaching each project loose to see what will manifest. The energy of the client affects the moment. I feel that spontaneity pushes me away from having a perfect stencil. Now I make a rough drawing with a few pencils, I stick it through the stencil machine, which makes a big blurry mess. I put the big blurry mess on them, which concerns some clients, not my coworkers, they laugh at me. It works very well. It makes me feel really free.
And the future will be… I made my home here. I am going to continue to put down roots. This is where I’m going to be. I fell in love here. I couldn’t be more honored to work with these dudes and the people who come through here. I will still travel but not as heavily as I used to, more small adventures in and around Europe for now. Keep pushing my creative process and looking where it’s going to take me. I can see my aesthetic coming around, combining techniques or simplifying. I’m excited. And I foresee having the comfort of a home, being here and still getting out, exploring and learning. Also being able to give back, in particular. Passing energy between two people. Tattooing for me is huge, cause you learn so much about life through it.
Are you interested in art besides tattooing and if so what in particular?
Yeah, I love Renaissance-painting, oil portraits. I have to be careful because there’s not enough time in a day… I still need to skate and make time for life outside of AKA. I loose track of time. I love to watch my friends work. It’s inspiring. I don’t have a lot of free time. I try to give the most important things the right amount of my energy.
What are your plans for the distant future?
One day I’ll retire at the beach somewhere when there is no more work to do. I don’t think I am a workaholic, but I am happy to be here twelve to sixteen hours a day, especially during winter. Winter is really motivating for me. If we are talking about when I am seventy… yeah… I see myself surfing, having a ramp to skate. Two dogs and a partner…in no particular order! But for now… I think I will stay here, settle down and find something to live in… here… here in Berlin. Thanks!