The name Buena Vista Tattoo Club may not roll off the tongue this morning, ring noisy church bells and make you sit up and pay attention, but I guarantee – eventually you will. You really will...
Volko Merschky and Simone Pfaff are the most unassuming artists I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Both are softly spoken, humble in their estimation of their own work and professional to the core. This, combined with their far superior command of English than my German, makes it an absolute thrill to be in their company.
The first time I met our intrepid pair, I was so taken with their unique style, I demanded to be immediately added to their rather long waiting list and bludgeoned them with questions out of genuine personal curiosity, totally forgetting that I should probably have been recording the inquisition for a future interview. Moments like this happen rarely in life. That first listen to an album that you know you’ll love for the rest of your life, meeting somebody that you have to make no effort to get along with... it fell into that category for me and the reason behind it was good old simple honesty.
You may look at their creations and decide they’re not for you. You may also look and not get what’s going on. You too may also fall in love. This is what true art does - it evokes a response at the emotional level that demands either taking part or moving on. They have branded their unique style as Realistic Trash Polka. It’s an obvious question to start the ball rolling - one that causes much hushed conversation in their mother tongue wanting nothing more than to get this right for the record:
“Well, the tattoo designs we create don’t fit into any known or common styles, so we made up our minds to think of a term that would describe it best. We came up with Realistic Trash Polka because all in all, it’s a mixture of realistic elements combined with abstract or sometimes, graphic parts which represent the ‘trash’ part of the phrase. While this may be an unusual combination, it’s familiar from music, as a polka. So, the term polka comes from our inspiration from the music - especially from our own music and songwriting. Basically, Realistic Trash Polka is all of those things combined with what happens when we come together to create. It’s simply the two of us, our name, our brand and our style.”
I look confused and it shows. It’s hard to wrap your head around what polka actually is when the last band you saw live was Alice Cooper. For the sake of continuity and understanding though, I nod knowingly – and have since established - that it’s a dance and a genre of music that originates from central Europe, but I’m not going to let my ignorance of European culture derail me...
“You see, when you come to us, you have two opportunities. The first is to give us total freedom to create the art freehand - but the customer can also give a certain theme if they wish, maybe some keywords in combination with a song, poem or a quote. Out of this, the design will be created by us from our understanding of the theme. By doing it this way, we can always be sure to develop our style and create completely unique designs that are one of a kind.”
The brief lull for an intake of water gives me pause for thought - surely then, along with giving some clues as to what sort of person you are and the kind of design you’re looking for in the Trash Polka style, it’s just as important to mention any imagery you particularly don’t want as well?
“Yes, of course, but you mustn’t confuse that with telling us exactly what you want in the design, that’s not how we work. It is more an abstract way of working - working with moods - desperate, happiness etcetera - that kind of input lets us work to our best.
You see, before we became tattoo artists, we went to art school and through this we learned a lot. It may be that the Trash Polka style came about from our paintings and drawings. Step by step, we got more ideas to design tattoos in this way and over time, we found we had many customers who were open minded enough and trusted us. Without them, we wouldn’t have had a chance to tattoo this style at all!”
We all take a moment in time to let this sink in - as though a stake has been driven into the ground claiming the territory - and it feels right. So do they ever take the time to check into the larger world view and see what others are doing in this creative space?
“In the last few years, it has become more common to tattoo designs or styles that belong more to art than well known tattoo styles. A few artists have started to work in their own style and really are producing designs that have never been seen before. But for sure, the more creativity and originality there is out there, the easier it is for others to come to the table with different and new styles. There are always artists who are happy to copy but this is not our way at all - we think it is better to see the new designs and be inspired to make even more new styles and designs.
We are at our best when we work together, getting inspiration from each other and discussing our ideas - it is only out of this environment that the style and the tattoo designs develop. In fact, we work so closely and have so much the same style, that there is virtually no difference in the way of working our creations. We don’t have to explain our ideas in detail to each other, each of us gives an idea or proposal for the design that can be an inspiration for the other and so on.
We always saw tattoos as art, not as tattoos in themselves. We made new designs and sketches for each new customer. Apart from tattooing, we do a lot of drawing and paintings as well, simply because we are interested in all kinds of art.”
Over the years, I must have talked to hundreds of artists in all manner of genres, ranging from tattoo artists to surf artists and poster creators but I’ve never come across artists that have harnessed colour in quite the way Simone and Volko have - and it’s not that obvious either. It’s almost as if something rather supernaturally subtle happens when they come to understanding the way colours work with each other:
“This is strange. People often ask us whether we use special ink or needles or techniques to make the colours look that strong and bright, but we do not use anything different than other artists. For sure, the quality of needles, inks and everything we use is very important to us, but we have no secret about it. We often use red because it is a light colour - one that fits nicely with skin tone, but at the same time, has enough contrast to the skin to be seen well. In combination with black, you get a great contrast - but we do use other colours apart from reds and oranges - for some reason, many think those are the only colours we use!”
While I point out that this is plainly not true - just take a look at the art on display here - the perception may be taken that way because the red/black contrast is almost genetic in a human’s approach to appreciating contrasting colours, but we’re on a roll and aren’t going to stop to prey on this for too long...
“As artists it is important to develop, work on new ideas and never stand still. It is bad for the soul to work on the same designs for years and never create something new. This is also what we tell our customers - we encourage them to get a unique design. We never do anything twice and because of this we are forced to create new things all the time. When we look back at a design - something we did maybe a year ago - there is always a big difference to where we are now and we continually get new ideas for upcoming tattoos, so we are pretty sure that the designs will change! As this is an evolutionary process, we cannot prophesise how our designs will look when the customer turns up for the work! We hope though, that our customers will like it and are as much interested in this type of art as we are. Years ago, we both did all kinds of styles in our tattooing but now we both only work in Trash Polka.”
Our time is coming to an end, and I’m reluctant to take away from the magic of art by examining it too much - sometimes, great art simply “is” and doesn’t need drilling into for an explanation, but knowing Volko and Simone as I do now, I figure no conversation would be complete without mentioning their little side project, Dobbs Dead - although how long it will remain ‘little’ is questionable these days:
“We are both very interested in music. We have been playing different kinds of music and instruments for years and so we decided to produce our own CD.
Dobbs Dead is starting to grow and we can already see it taking a bigger part in our life and work. Soon, we will play some live concerts - for this we have found some really good musicians to work with - and we plan on going on stage in the Autumn. In our free time, we are already working on and planning the next album. As soon as there is concrete news - you will be the first to know!”
The Art of Design
“We are fully booked for at least two years now. We have come a long way from the days when I was studying interior design and Simone was studying graphic design – we also did photography. We were involved in art for a long time before we came to tattooing – in fact, there are many years of learning more and more about art behind us until we began tattooing. We started by drawing on each other, painting each other and only then did we begin to learn how to tattoo. People were a little reluctant to come to us at first but now, we have reached a place where we have this long waiting list but we try to see as many people as we can as well. We do many conventions in Europe but do not tend to get very much further than that because we are quite afraid of flying! We drove the car to the Tattoo Jam this year!”
Dobbs Dead: Birth
As with Volko and Simone’s art, the debut Dobbs Dead album may not be for everyone but if you can get your head around what they are trying to achieve, over time, many secrets will unfold from this little gem. Being more or less totally acoustically based, Volko will take you down a very dark road if you choose to follow. For fans of artists like Willard Grant Conspiracy, Midlake and Efterklang the understanding will come easy as Volko lyrically travels a parallel path. Haunting, heartfelt and dramatically understated because there are no drums, no bass – nothing to forge a rhythm, the sole power of the album comes from the poetic/lyrical capability.
Much like ABBA and Hanoi Rocks and many other European bands that choose to perform in the English language, the lyrical delivery is ever so slightly left of centre in the best way possible and adds a dimension that would never be possible if English was their native tongue. To deliver lines such as “There’s a man in a park, sitting there on a wall” with any degree of authenticity takes no small amount of talent but Volko takes it to a place where it truly means something.
With plans to perform the material live, it will be interesting to see how this pans out – Volko and Simone wearing their hearts on their sleeves will surely be a sight to behold. Meantime, each subsequent listen to the album brings new dimensions. It’s like digging earth – whenever I go back to it, I swear it delivers a song I didn’t hear the last time. Dobbs Dead are an acquired taste that’s for sure, but one that I can’t get out of my mouth.
If Bob Dylan composed a soundtrack for a Dario Argento movie, it may sound a lot like this...
“In every country, if you make something new, it’s really hard for people to accept it quickly because they are unsure and it takes a really long time for it to become accepted. Now, we are finding that - especially in Germany - people are following our lead, not copying us - but are more prepared to create something new, like they have found it inspirational to do so. To copy exactly the style would not be good for other artists! It is too specialised and personal for us for anybody to copy with any degree of authenticity. We are simply story tellers. Each picture is a story. We like to bring old poetry to young people in the form of art. Many people don’t really know the works of William Shakespeare, so we like to use words from him and lyrics from artists like Tom Waits and Johnny Cash as well...”
Buena Vista Tattoo Club
0049 931 702656