Currently reading : Kali
I met Kali around 4 years ago, when he was just about to open his own studio Never Say Die! in Croydon, in the south of London.I then gave him a hand with the set up of the shop where he let me first experiment with tattooing. I am thankful for that and wanted top sit down with him and discuss his art that translates into biomechanical and realistic tattoos, but also in music (guitarist behind the legendary polish black metal band Witchmaster) and painting.
Should we start by the beginning I guess, how did you start tattooing?
I started tattooing about 15 years ago in Poland. In the first place I was just drawing designs for my friends, because most of my friends were metal heads, so they all wanted demons, skulls and shit like that, you know? And they couldn’t come across the proper designs for that, so I was doing custom designs for their tattoos, and they would get them done in tattoo studios over there. Eventually, I thought that if I can do the designs, I can try to tattoo them, because I was not happy with the results when they were done by someone else. The artists could not translate to customer’s skins what I did on the paper, and thought I could do better than that! That’s how I started.
So you were drawing a lot beforehand? Were you an illustrator or just a doodler that your friends knew about?
It was not any serious illustrations. I was just scribbling on the back of my school books, something like that. I was doodling all the time, and my friends just knew it.
When you started to tattoo, did you started by buying or building some machines, tattooing in your bedroom or did you start in a tattoo studio?
Well the first one I did was with a machine I did myself, out of a pen and a motor from a tape player and the E string from a guitar, the thin one. It was some sort of homemade rotary machine. I did maybe two tattoos with it ad it was so fucking terrible. So after two tattoos I decided that it wasn’t the way to go. I didn’t know how the real machine looked like to be honest with you. I did it with trials and errors, and it was not good. I could not do a straight line, because the needle was all wobbly, and the simple answer to that is just to put a rubber band on it , but I didn’t know that you put a rubber on it. I was walking with my eyes closed in the darkness! After that I gave up for a little while and I decided to get a proper equipment. Obviously I did not have any money, so I had to pair up wit a friend to buy it all. We had to order it from a tattooist in Gdansk, a town maybe 500km away from where I lived, which was pretty complicated at the time. Nobody would sell any tattoo equipment in the town I was in. And as far as I know that guy from Gdansk was the only one in Poland selling supplies then. I had to go through friend of friends to get in touch with him, to get what I needed. I had one tube, one tattoo machine…
…and one needle?
No, no! It was more than that but obviously I had to make my own needles. I had to learn how to do so! And here you go that’s how I started.
How did you learn to make your own needles?
When I found out what he actually sent me, I went to a friend of mine who was doing tattoos in my hometown , and he came around my place and showed me how to put the needles together, how to set up a machine and everything, and how to run it. And within ten minutes I rolled up my trousers and was tattooing my leg.
Did you have any tattoos at the time?
Nope! The first one I did it myself. It was a skull on my leg.
And you did not have any idea of how a tattoo machine looked like then?
My friends were making machines out of something like a doorbell but I didn’t really know how to do those. Back then I only had a vague idea of how to build a rotary machine, and I had to learn how it all worked obviously.
And how was the tattoo scene in Poland at the time, if there was any?
Well there were not any tattoo culture, or a tattoo scene as far as I knew. There were some tattoo shops in the bigger cities, but just a few of them and nobody knew what they were doing. When I started to get interested in tattooing and started experimenting with it around 1994. And the first tattoo shop to ever open in Poland did it only four years before that in 1990. The reason being that until 1989 Poland was part of the soviet bloc and in a communist regime where private enterprise was not as easy to open and tattooing was only something for criminals, and they were not interested in that. It was actually illegal to tattoo before 1989.
Do you know who opened this first one?
As far as I know the first one was in Gdennia and the owner was Piotr, the guy I mentioned earlier, who sold me the equipment. I don’t know what he is doing right now, but back in the days he became the godfather of the polish tattoo scene. He was going abroad, visiting other tattoo shops in western Europe, buying equipment and flash. He was the first person in the country to have a connection with the tattoo scene outside the eastern bloc and for a few years he was the only one that was offering official professional tattooing there. That’s were my friends were getting some of their tattoos. There was not any tattoo magazine or convention, only a small group of people that were fascinated by that and were tattooing each others. Regarding the public reception, it was without any surprise quite negative.
So did one of your designs got tattooed before 1989?
None of them were.
Ok. so I guess you wouldn’t know how it was before the fall of the USSR?
I could not say. At that time I was 12 or 13 years old, and I was too young to get mixed with the people that would have known. It was quite difficult to come across anybody that would do tattoos. It was all very underground and was all going through friends of friends. There was no internet, no polish tattoo magazine. We only had german tattoo magazines. We could only rely on the word of mouth.
Well obviously now there is quite a few famous polish tattooists around, looking at conventions line ups and magazines. How did it change there? Had tattooing became more mainstream?
To be honest I lived in London for the last 12 years so I would not really know how it is exactly but it definitely seem that there is much more relaxed attitude towards it nowadays. There is more and more people having visible tattoos and people are just getting used to it. Tattooed people don’t bite in the streets so mentalities are changing. There is also a lot of really talented people working there at the moment, which is surprising when I compare the UK scene and the polish one. It appears that in Poland there is people with abilities and talent who get into tattoo and within a few years of practice they make massive progress and develop a personal style. They move so quickly, it’s overwhelming sometimes. We are also getting really good conventions and magazines. The culture is alive.
Talking about personal style : you are mostly known for doing biomechanical. Is that something you started with right from the beginning or did it come later on?
Well! I wanted to do bio mechanical right from the beginning because OBVIOUSLY I was influenced by H.R. Giger . Someone showed me one of his book and it was an eye opener. There was a whole new reality for me. I knew what I wanted to do in life. That was it! BUT to do something like that, you need a set of techniques and skills, and to know what you are doing. It is actually quite difficult to do on skin. So even though I wanted to do it and attempted to from early times, it was not any good. So I had to go back to do little designs like kanjis , flowers, dolphins, names etc. to develop my technique. Once you can walk you can try to run. But for sure biomechanical was something that influenced me big times from day one!
When I think about biomechanical I always associate it to a certain era, really 1990’s, and to the metal scene. But what I like about yours is the more timeless feel it holds. I have seen you working a lot and the process you use to build your pieces, by drawing only a few lines with a sharpie on the skin and going from there, almost painting it while tattooing, paired up with the black and grey, might be the reason why I feel this way about it. Is it an aspect of your work you thought about or planned at all?
I would not know if it has this quality to it. It is not something that I planned. I just started with something and with experience I developed my own visual language and my style into something more personal rather than just copying designs from the Alien.
That’s another thing! You include a lot of gothic architecture elements and has a real mineral look to it, quite far from H.R. Giger illustrations which would be more metallic or bioorganic. Can we actually still call it biomechanical?
I don’t know. I don’t really care for the label. As long as this is something that I like and come from my head I don’t really care if that biomechanical, organic or abstract. Some of my tattoos drift away to a more abstract form, and some are more literal and illustrative. So it’s anything in between. Like you said before I always associated it with metal music, and Giger used this dark imagery , death and skulls and sexuality and bodies, all merging together into a mechanical mess which was all really fascinating. What I do with it I don’t really have a control over it. I will see something that I like, and will stick into my head, and I might end up using it the following day sometime without even realising it. For example if I see a nice painting or a photograph which have a nice texture to it and makes a big impression on me, I might use it without even noticing. It’s not something that I plan much. It’s more the results of successful experiments, that I would develop and integrate to my work. There is no book that will tell you how to do biomechanical at the end. It’s all made up by artists. It is however certainly a really 90′ style. I associate it with 90’s but don’t really know why. I guess it’s because when I started tattooing and I looked into tattoo magazines from abroad and saw those half baked japanese dragons and hearts and anchors, most of them badly done, this was not for me. I wanted something strong. This is when I discovered Paul Booth, who can actually do something really dark and strong, to which I was like “fuck yes!”. I now have different views on the old school tattoos. What I saw back in the days, progressed into something aesthetically much more developed and pleasing. I don’t hold the same opinion anymore.
There is another thing I was thinking about when preparing this interview, thinking about your work and biomechanical in general. As we already discussed we agreed on the strong link your tattooing has with a specific music scene. Adding to this the way you are laying down your tattoos, in a similar way a traditional tribal tattoo can be applied, with this strong ornamental aspect, fitting the body perfectly, I was toying around with the idea that biomechanical, the way you do it, would be some kind of european neo tribal tattooing. Would have any opinion on this?
Maybe it is. The people of western europe nowadays they create some sort of postmodern tribes. It could be a tribal as an expression of the subculture regarding the way it looks. But for instance if we compare it to polynesian tribal tattooing there is all the social meaning as well, and telling the story of the family, which is not something that is translating into biomechanical. But when you just look on the aesthetic surface of it, I think there are a lot of parallels. In a same way that large polynesian or maori style tattoos flow on the body, with the body, with the anatomy, biomec has to follow similar kinds of compositions. For example it can grow into a body suit, there is no limits to it and it has to flow with the muscles, the bones. I think on this level you might be right.
Moving on to another subject, I see that you are going to a greater amount of conventions those days. Do you think that they are still relevant for modern days tattooing, in a time when it’s possible to get 10K followers on Instagram when you just started tattooing tow months ago, in time when it’s super easy to organise guest spots all over the world and get to meet people (other artists and customers). It seems to almost be harder nowadays to find someone who does not tattoo than someone that does. Conventions were, historically, serving this purpose of putting together people interested in tattooing and male them meet up, and create some kind of network. Do you have anything to say about it?
I did not use to do so many conventions before. I only did a few some years ago, but stopped to focus on my work. When I opened my new shop I did not have the time or the resources to go away. But I am now starting to go again and I would like to do more. I think it’s a different type of connection when you have 10 000 followers on instagram. Anybody can do that. I think connection with people is more organic. It’s better if you meet them in person, you look at them in the eye and you know if you like each other, if you’d like to be hurt by that person who’s there with a sharp object in their hands. You can have a chat, discuss some designs, this is all that matters.I don’t know if the conventions are still relevant. They certainly were in the past, as the scene was much smaller, it was more of a special event, when people could get together, all the tattooed people, the freaks in the society, could meet and show off their tattoos and discuss. Now they are getting so common, with more tattooed persons, and so many conventions in every second little town and village, so I don’t think it makes that much of a difference. But I do think they are still quite important. If you seat in your studio, and never go outside, and interact with other artists you lock yourself in a box, in your little comfort zone. Even if you have co workers you only get feedbacks from one person. And I think this is quite dangerous thing. I did it for a couple of years without a chance to look at the bigger picture, without the chance to get someone else look on it, with a different attitude, completely different eye or ideas. And even though you can survive without going to any conventions , I think it’s still really beneficial for an artist to do it.
Do you have any favourite one that you’ve done so far?
I think that the London Tattoo Convention is the best and the most prestigious one I did so far. I did it two years in a row, and hopefully I will be doing them in the years to follow. Looking at the line up of the artists and at the size of the whole enterprise it’s overwhelming. Working with all the legends!
It’s one of the rare one to still have this prestige for sure!
Yes it definitely has a “Waou” factor. Some of the smaller convention they hold 50 completely unknown artists. There is not much happening. It all depends who and how it’s being organised, and what their golas are, whether it’s to make quick money or to encourage the tattoo culture to grow. This being said there is a few nice conventions around Europe. Hopefully this year I will go to Barcelona, and I went to a good one in Berlin also. I have never been to America so maybe that’s a new territory for me but I am not rushing into that.
Something else I wanted to discuss with you : you now have some apprentices working here and even though you were totally self taught, do you think an apprenticeship is an important factor of tattooing.
Yes. I think it’s really important if you do an apprenticeship and with who you’re doing it. I, for example, did not have one and just learned tattooing on myself that got me a job in a tattoo studio, doing little designs, and I was learning from my own errors. If I have had somebody standing on my shoulder and telling what to do, and were an amazing artist with a developed style, I would learn so much quicker, because a good teacher would have given me proper directions. I had to discover it all by myself and I feel that I wasted a few years because there is stuffs that comes after so many years of experience, will it be the technical or the artistic aspect of tattooing. It is all quite difficult to do by yourself. So yes, I think apprenticing is important. It also eliminate people who are not worthy of being tattooists, as we know a lot of young people think it would be easy money, rockstar lifestyle , internet fame or whatever. But it’s not like this! And even if someone is talented if they don’t have determination, they don’t have passion and if they don’t know 100% they wanna do this and nothing else then clearly they are not gonna be tattooists. And if you are doing an apprenticeship, in my opinion, it’s like a probe, to now if someone is going to be a good tattooist or not. If after two weeks of cleaning tubes and stuffs like that they think it’s not for them, then it’s clearly not.
And I guess the last question I would ask you is how is Witchmaster [Kali’s black metal band] doing?
Witchmaster is doing very good. We just had a tour in Poland in November for 2 weeks, to promote our new album, that came out on a french label called Osmose Records, a black metal label. By the end of march we are going on tour in europe for about two weeks probably. We did the last album 5 years ago so it was not much happening, but now our drummer, from Behemoth, is back and we run it and we are already working on a new album. It’s a new momentum for us.
You can check out Kali instagram here
If you wanna grab one copy of Witchmaster last album go there