I remember the day as if it was yesterday. I was sitting in a barber’s chair at Micky Sharpz tattoo studio in Birmingham back in 1989 when I was 18, getting my first tattoo done. I had picked this standard black Celtic style dragon from the wall to put on my right upper arm and the tattooist, whose name I can’t remember, told me to sit still and relax. Not an easy thing to do when you have no idea of what is coming your way.
I remember the pain was something completely new to me and maybe not as painful as I had imagined but still this really irritating hot burning sensation that was so new to me. Of course we all have burnt ourselves as kids and I have to say that this was the closest I could come to describe that feeling. The whole piece was done in about 90 minutes and I felt kind of stupid after for not being able to sit still enough and look cool as all the other young people around me did. It was as if they were just having no problems what so ever with getting tattooed, like they were just waiting for the time to run out so they could go back home.
I have been a metal head since for as long as I can remember, and this first tattoo took me closer to this scene for me back then, well this is something I thought anyways and I was pretty happy that I had taken this step. The influences came from music in many senses but also from having at that time one year behind me as a deck boy in the Swedish merchant marine. I signed on my first ship aged 16, a ferry that went between my hometown Gothenburg in Sweden and Kiel in Germany. On that ferry I met for the first time some real old-timers who had semi retired from a life on the open seas and now waved cars onto this huge passenger ferry. The tattoos these guys donned was a whole new thing for me back then, I remember I thought it looked really shitty with all these badly applied eagles, anchors and hula girls and I thought I new better because back in the early 90’s, the so called tribal style had made a big impact on the metal scene and I thought that this was the style to go for, not some blurred out “Sailors Grave” shit. I wish now when I look back to the ten years I did in the merchant marine that I had paid a bit more attention to all these old-timers and their stories about their tattoos. I worked as an AB Sailor for 10 years and whenever I had the chance to go ashore to get tattooed I took it. Most of the times you were obliged to head out to some dingy local bar and try to hook up with the even more dingy local bar girls. But I managed to slip away many times to find out about the local tattooist if there was one to be found. I got tattooed in New Zealand, Thailand, the States, Denmark and of course Sweden as well as when I was on leave. The second tattoo I got was a black eagle, done by Henning Jorgenssen at ROYAL TATTOO in Helsingor in Denmark, also this one in what was then called the Celtic style, just to match the Micky Sharpz one. What was I thinking? If someone who doesn’t have any tattoos but wants one asks me what I think I always say –“ Think big, make it big once and for all, no remorse” is my answer.
Then something happened in the beginning of the 1990s that would take my lifestyle as a free individual limited tattooed person to a much higher level. One of my best friends ordered a tattoo kit from Huck Spaulding and started to learn to tattoo by him self, using both his younger brother and me as guinea pigs. I might have been the harbinger to his decision to start this tattoo thing since I was the first one in our little Klan of head bangers who had a tattoo, but it was pretty obvious that he had a talent for this from the beginning. This friend of mine and his younger brother are now busy running one of Sweden’s best tattoo studio back in Gothenburg, Ulrik and Markus Winther at the BLOODWORK TATTOO studio. We had many sessions with Ulrik and myself trying out various techniques and styles and most stuff of my arms are results from that time. So here we are, having gone through getting my sleeves done, with patches of ink in various forms and sizes all over your body but still not even close to what you really want, i.e. that fat piece that separates you from the masses, the piece that screams “rise above”. I had make a promise to myself at that time girlfriend, now wife, that I would just get some more on my chest and legs to get the “balance” going, then I would think about calling it quits. We all knew that it was a pretty empty promise but it sounded good and we both kind of took it as the truth, but things change…
In the later part of 1999 I decided that I had seen enough of the life on a ship, so I wasn’t really on the edge of mutiny when the company I worked for declared that we were all fired and a bunch of Polish bums would come over to Canada and swap places with us. I saw this as a chance of starting over and to do something new. Life at sea had taught me so many valuable lessons about people and as well as about myself. Most of the crew on all of the ships I served on during my 10 years in the merchant marine were the best people I have ever had the chance be with. A true honour to have met all these freethinkers and self-taught life artists and this is just something that is hard to find if you don’t spent lots of time in places like these. Coming from a working-class background I have always liked to hang with the hard working and for many, the “simple” people, thing is when you look at it on a deeper level, it’s just from the simple stuff in life you get the core of what shapes you later in life, your ideas, ideals and way of conducting your time on this planet. This is something to treasure and hold in high esteem through life.
From the first time I at the age of 18 set my foot in Asia, this time Singapore, I felt at home instantly. This was life in the true meaning for me. Smells, lights, and colours all very real, great people with cultures that really appealed to me. I started to pick up the camera more and more and made my way back to Asia as often as I could. Being single with a steady job that required me to be on duty for just 6 months of the year, this was just perfect for me, free as a bird and alone but never lonely. I usually travelled as a backpacker when on leave and started to get a pretty good “eye” for travel photography and Asia is still my favourite place to be. Having travelled through all countries here except Brunei and Bhutan so far. So when that day came where I had to look for a new job, I decided to settle down with my girl in Japan. Tokyo must be one of the most interesting cities in the world, Istanbul, Paris, Hong Kong and New York also somewhere there on the top fantastic of cities if you ask me. Life here in Tokyo as a freelance photographer with more or less nil public exposure in the beginning proved to be a challenge for sure but after awhile I got some sporadic assignments and saw that there was a possibility to actually go after a career as a self-taught photographer with no more merits than being able to take good photos of whatever fell in my path. I was shooting people, lifestyle, music, architecture, anything that was new to me and I loved it, I still do.
To searched out the local tattoo scene over in Tokyo with absolutely no contacts proved to be a harder task than I thought, but I got some tattoos done and saw that the level was many times higher than what I had seen on the road or in various port towns. As a freelance photographer struggling to get a foothold in the Japanese media and publishing wheel, I could see that this tight and traditional society hardly recognized the individual as a very positive thing, nothing you would count on really. The group as a unit, a body of sameness was clearly the way to go if you ever wanted to achieve anything worth mentioning. But with my background as a solo traveller, and a loner I saw in the people I met who were involved in the underground scene of any of the art forms that are being more accepted in the “West”, that you could tell that we had all something in common. They were all living this life with a certain “lifestyle”. They had all gone past the point of no return and seemed proud in having done so. This interested me and I came up with the idea to make this whole concept into a personal photo project and if it worked out in the way I wanted it, I would make it into a photo book (which is something I am working on at the moment, to find a book publisher.)
First step was to contact as many tattoo studios I could find and ask them to let me hang up my flyer about my search for tattooed models. I also asked if I could shoot them while they were working and being a complete stranger (and non Japanese) with really low level Japanese language skills this proved to be a challenge, many times the lack of trust showed me where the door was. People I met during this time was Ruyji from the Ryu family, Han from Intersection Tattoo among many others that I still have contact with today and consider my close friends. They have all helped me so much during the years.
After some time I was told by someone to visit a small shop run by a Brazilian/Japanese tattooist. The shop was TATTOO CHURCH and I think me and the owner, Carlos got along well from day one. I’m not so sure he really trusted me to be able to do what I came to do at first, i.e. shoot tattoo related materials and make something worth of printing out of it all. But at least he gave me a chance and this proved to be the trigger to where I am now in the field of tattoo related media. After a couple of month I was talking to Carlos and he asked me –“Why don’t we tattoo a whole back piece on you? I need some help with some photos for my portfolio and web page so we just swap trades.”
I jumped at this chance to get a whole back tattooed and especially by Carlos because I really liked his style, using lots of black and dark shading. I went for a session once a week for a couple of hours each time and it was not before long (around 50 hours) that I had a classic “turtleback, a back piece that goes down from your shoulders covers your whole back and buttocks and half way down the back of your thighs. I recorded the progress by myself with a 35mm camera on a tripod and with a cable releaser in my small studio after each session and got a nice series of shots with patches of newly tattooed areas filling up the back as time went by. We developed a close friendship and I got deeper involved in the local tattoo scene many times, thanks to Carlos and his acquaintance Cambada. Then one day Carlos said to me again –“ Hey, how about just finish the whole body while we’re at it?” Not a small thing to be asked and something you really shouldn’t take lightly, but I completely trusted the guy and had developed a great friendship with him by then so it took me about 3 seconds to decide what had to be done. The “balance” thing I was discussing with my wife turned out to be the truth after all, even though in a slightly larger scale than I originally set out.
In the process of getting your whole body tattooed the meaning of each “individual” tattoo and design loses its meaning to a certain point, the wholeness takes a bigger part of “the” tattoo or suit as I would like to call it. The full coverage of arms, legs and torso as one gives the suit a whole new meaning. For me this is a strong reason why I was glad to get Carlos to do it all, because I know the suit will stand out even over time, fine lines and small complicated details don’t reflect on my lifestyle and this is something he understood as well. I have heard all kinds of comments for my suit but when it comes down to the basic understanding of it all, beyond the symbols and designs it all is made up of, it’s the lifestyle I want to represent, a statement if you like. I guess a tattooed body suit means so many different things for so many different bearers, well; of course, we are all different and have our own perspectives on what/how things should be done and look like. I know that after getting tattooed almost continuously for 3 and a half-year that it took to finish the piece my view of things changed for the better in so many ways. I could write a whole book about this experience and what it means for me, but it would be pointless since at the end of the day it’s up to yourself to get a whole body tattoo done, a body suit. You are the only one, man or woman to carry it all your life with pride and understanding. No one else has to be involved in this decision.
To lead a positive lifestyle and believe in yourself and your ability to reach your goals whatever it takes, to understand that giving up is not what you are and cutting out the word “impossible” out of your dictionary is a small step to take to find out more about life than you thought was possible. For me these messages are often related to and even adopted by people I meet, the music I listen to, the books I read and the life I lead.
My career as a professional freelance photographer here in Japan continues and after I started hanging up fliers on notice boards I am now doing freelance work for Japan’s leading tattoo magazine TATTOO BURST as one of their regular photographers. And since the world is such a small place from time to time, my works have now spread to the European market working for Skin Deep magazine as well as titles in North America. It’s funny how things turn out and lead into unexpected directions on occasions. I have always seen myself as a travel documentary photographer and to tell you the truth I would like try my hands on newspaper correspondent minded work and war photography. Of course Magnum and National Geographic is for me what I will strive for even if many of my peers say it’s just a waste of time to aim so high. But if I look back to what can be done with a little free will or what is happening as we speak, I might get that chance too someday, I’m ready!