Currently reading : Ten Questions: Cokney
After several back and forth email conversations spanning a number of months, for a moment it seemed as if the “Ten Questions” interview with Parisian-based tattooer and graffiti writer Cokney was never going to happen. Understandably so, as 2014 has been a busy, although productive year for this young French artist, with several guest spots throughout the world, a number of exhibitions, and a full time position at Hand In Glove tattoo shop in Paris. Fortunately, I had the opportunity to meet up with him at this year’s edition of Art Tattoo Montreal this past weekend, where he was awarded the prize for “Tattoo of the Weekend”. Among that discussed were his introduction to tattooing, his constant appetite for travel, and one of his other pursuits – graffiti writing. Keep reading below for more, and be sure to check out his Instagram and website for a number of other photos.
For those who are unfamiliar with your work, could you please introduce yourself? What does ‘Cokney’ mean and why have you chosen to tattoo under a pseudonym rather than your real name?
I live in Paris and work at Hand In Glove tattoo shop. I discovered tattooing through the skinhead and punk culture in the early 2000’s. During this period I used to go to every Oi! and reggae-rocksteady show. With few young skinhead like me, we started to do everything together, we decided to organize ourselves as a band. During the evolution of this band I had my first vision of tattooing, something more brutal, a tattoo that take its power from symbolism more than aesthetic beauty. On the side I was also actively painting graffiti on trains and subways… The name “Cokney” was formed, and continues to be my graffiti name… With a small modification, it comes from a band named the Cockney Rejects – an important band from the Oi! movement in England during the 80’s. I have tattooed for eight years but have used this pseudonym for tattooing only in the past two. In 2012 the police broke my door, revealing my formerly anonymous identity. This pushed me to unify my different activities under the same identity. To be anonymous was at first a protection against authority, now its about building an artistic identity separate from my “real” identity. Today every tattooer, artist, etc. participates in social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. I use social media to communicate on my work and share it, but I don’ t want publicize my real name and destroy my privacy.
You have an extensive background and training in fine arts. At what point and how did you discover tattooing? Could you talk about your early days as a tattooist? From what I understand, you primarily taught yourself, what was this like?
As I said before, I discovered tattooing on the arms of people at skinhead concerts, although these were pretty far from the tattoos I am interested in today. For me these were tattoos that were rough and hard, where the meaning was more important than the beauty of the drawing or the style of the tattoo artist. Everyone had tattoso but nobody really went to tattoo shops as it was way too expensive for us. Most of us got tattooed by FABA, an old Parisian rocker who had a private studio. Because of graffiti I was already interested in drawing and I designed a bunch a flyers for the punk concerts we organized. Then people started to ask me to make drawings to be tattooed. I have to say that my friends put a lot of pressure on me to learn tattooing. Someone proposed to lend his tattoo equipment to me – one Chinese machine from a kit and one Lauro Paolini machine. He explained to me the basic setup and I listened to every word with the utmost attention… A truly magical moment in my life. After this all of my crew of friends passed under my needles for tattoos that were clean, cheap, and as I can say in hindsight, not too bad… Everything needed to satisfy a generation of young and stupid skinheads. The designs I tattooed were common and reoccurring – spiderwebs, brass knuckels, knives, skulls, molotov cocktails, A.C.A.B., etc.. FABA gave me some tips and helped me to order my first tattoo machine, a Micky Sharpz. At the same time I made progress in my technique and loosened my vision of tattooing as merely an expression of a street culture and moved from tattooing at my home to a small biker shop. Graffiti previously introduced me to traveling, and tattooing has helped me to pursue this lifestyle. During these travels I have met interesting tattooers from all over the world who have helped open my eyes to the artistic and creative strength of tattooing.
You’ve been working at Hand In Glove in Paris for a few years now. Why did you choose to work here and how has it contributed to your development as an artist?
After I discovered that tattoos can be more than a mark of a particular subculture, I understood that working in a private studio or in a street/biker shop has its limits. I started to feel unsatisfied working this way and needed to meet new people with the same point of view on tattooing and work in a “real” tattoo shop. I had the chance to meet Romain Pareja, who had just opened Hand in Glove tattoo shop, and he ended up giving me the opportunity to work there. Hand In Glove is perfect for me. At the time it was a new shop where everything needed to be build – the shop, the rules, the image, the spirit. Romain helped me a lot with my drawings and encouraged me to discover tattoo history… He opened my eyes to different styles and techniques. By working with him, I made up for the apprenticeship I never had.
Although you are a relatively young tattooist, you are already developing quite a unique and personal style. Who/what do you look towards for inspiration and what do you find so appealing about this work?
I don’t know if my style is unique, it was certainly never my intention for it to be. I have slowly developed my personal style, which has taken influence from a number of styles and techniques. There is good in almost everything – I like to take little parts from many different forms of art and culture, mixing everything together with my own interpretation. People such as Walton Ford, Mucha, Mike Rubendall, the Bauhaus movement, Ingres, Jean Jacques Audubon, Thomas Hooper, Steve Byrne, Timothy Hoyer, Grime, Ed Hardy, Ace MPV (R.I.P.), Hokusai, Salvador Ali, Zao Wou-Ki, Nicolas de Stael, Araki…these are some of the people I find inspiring. Before applying a tattoo, I try to imagine how to apply it in order for it to last the inevitable effects of aging. This is why I often look towards a lot traditional tattooing and Japanese woodblock prints, I like compositions that appear as if a movement was suspended in time. However, at the the same time I try to incorporate movement with dynamic lining.
Travel seems to play a large role in your life. Has this always been the case or did it come as a result of tattooing?
Travel used to play a larger role in my life in the past. When i start tattooing I didn’t have any fixed workplace, so I took any opportunity to work and travel that I could get. During this time I moved from shop to shop around France, and eventually Europe. I was also painting graffiti more and really into the InterRail graffiti scene and tattooing was a way to get a little money while traveling. When I started working at Hand In Glove I started to travel less because the shop was new, and I wanted to spend as much time as possible to progress artistically and help the shop grow. Now with my schedule and waiting list it’s hard to travel as much as I like… In the past I would travel and stay as long as I desired. I love travelling in Eastern Europe, especially the Balkan countries. Although it is not that far from Paris, it’s a place that hasn’t been overrun by commercialization and technology. In the Balkans, sometimes things don’t run as smoothly as in Western Europe, but everyone deals with it.
You also write graffiti, and make no attempt to conceal your efforts, often posting work on your Instagram and website. For many this would seem counterintuitive to the typical nature of graffiti. Why have you chosen to work like this?
Before my first arrest I never advertised any graffiti online at all. For me it goes against the essence of graffiti to use the Internet and other forms of media to get personal fame, especially when it is a lie. In another way, and from the first step, it is always about fame. Media was part of the graffiti game very early on with books, zines, and journalism (and even “good” media will still only bring part of the story). For example, a writer like COMET got way less fame than others during the the New York subway era, although he painted way more and better than others, but he wasn’t published in any books or videos. After the New York subway started removing graffiti, specialized subcutlural media such as magazines and videos become a way to share your work… So what’s the difference between that and the Internet ? For me it is same-same and the only difference with the Internet is the freedom for everyone to do it…and for free. For my part, before a heavy investigation and arrest in 2012, I only gave photos to a friend for a small magazine from Croatia. In 2012, my identity was reveled and I chose to group all my different artisitic activity under my graffiti pseudonym. I just want to communicate my work, whether it be tattooing, graffiti, or writing. Graffiti, by its nature, is already a public act. You just have to try to find a balance between you, your vision of graffiti, your ethic and your time, although sometime it’s not easy, and someone will always have something to say about it.
You recently helped create a video, alongside The Grifters, for the song ‘Dipodaine” by DJ Pone featuring Didai. Could you talk about the concept of the video itself and your role in bringing it to fruition?
I won’t talk about my part into this video, because I’m under one legal proceeding that includes this video. This video is a movie, it’s cinema, it’s fiction. DJ PONE was a graffiti writer who started in 2000. He was active with his crew (MB) on the RER line A, and that’s why we choose the setting to be an old RER A yard. The purpose wasn’t to do one graffiti video with electronic music behind it, we wanted to do a music video with a strong aesthetic. We chose to talk about graffiti, although without it’s aggressive and self-absorbed qualities. In this video there is no hood, no mask, no bolt cutters, no crowbar, just abstract painting with some graffiti qualities, alongside certain body languages, materials and decor. Showing how a train is painted is not only vandalism but also an explosion of color, form, and matter, which creates a sort of dance with the writers involved. We tried to explore a different way to film graffiti, showing more detail of the action and processes of painting itself with close and fixed frames. We tried to play with our materials and the support, exploiting inside, outside, and the transparence of different layers of a train yard to remind the viewer of the invasive and intrusive aspects of the graffiti painting.
You’ve been featured in a handful of exhibitions. How do you approach your work in this context as oppose to tattooing?
I consider tattoos to be an exhibition in and of themselves, created day after day and in almost non-stop motion. The main difference is in the purpose of an exhibition. With tattooing you translate what your customer wants to express on his or her body to your own language and “style.” In an exhibition at an art gallery or museum, it’s more about what you have to say and what will be the best language to speak to people with. I don’t oppose this, but I prefer that they work together rather than be separate entities.
Who have you been tattooed by and what did they give you? Who else is on your tattoo “bucket list” and why?
Come and get tattoo by me and I will let you play the game, “Guess who did it.” As far as being tattooed, I don’t really have a bucket list.
2014 has already been an extremely productive year for you. What are you hoping to accomplish by the end of the year? Aside from this, what are your other long-term goals?
The end of the year will be a rush. My main project ending in November is the creation of two books. The first includes a long interview and 64 analog photos I took a few years ago that were confiscated by police from my house, but ultimately returned to me undeveloped. The second book will show how graffiti is treated by the French justice system. Aside from this I, I came to the Montreal convention, and in October I’m part of a tattoo group show organized by Dimitry Hk, an old school French tattoo artist. I also have one print that is supposed to be released soon. At the shop, we continue to have walk-in Sundays, something that doesn’t really exist much in France.