Mark Halbstark

Published: 10 February, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 188, July, 2010

I first met Mark whilst he was working at the Brighton show this year and I was pleasantly surprised at his style of tattooing and artwork.

Interestingly, Mark has clearly had some influences from the current school of graphical tattoos combined with realism and colour work that are in the spotlight these days. Guys like Simone and Volko from Buena Vista Tattoo Club and Lionel Fahy have set new trends on this path but Mark has forged his own distinct style with his graphical and often ‘tongue in cheek’ tattoo style.


Ok, fill us in on what your earliest memories of tattoos are? What inspired you to start tattooing and when did you start and where?

Already at the age of 4, I started drawing; it always inspired me to draw three-dimensional pictures. Tattooing is for me a high form of art, giving each piece a unique approach. It all started about a year and a half ago for me in a little studio in Belgium, close to the German/Dutch boarder. A friend of mine taught me all I had to know in a relatively short time.


Where do you think your interest in tattoos and tattooing comes from? Do you think it was something that you may have been born to?

 I don’t really know exactly, I have always loved to sketch and create something which is always an original and that will leave an individual footprint. 


At what age did you get your first tattoo and by whom?

My first tattoo I got quite late in life at the Bregenz-Tattoo Convention. Tommy Lee was the artist, and it brought tears to my mother’s eyes. Guil Zekril introduced me to the wonderful tattoos of Tommy Lee at the opening of his tattoo studio.


When you eventually picked up a tattoo machine; how hard was it to try and transfer what you had been doing on paper and canvas to skin?

The actual tattooing was easy for me but getting started wasn’t that easy. I started studying graphic design but my heart wasn’t in it. I spent all my spare time drawing abstract tattoos. My best friend gave me the money to get my first tattoo machine etc. and then I took off from there. I gave up graphic gesign and started tattooing.

I have not done an apprenticeship. A friend of mine put me in contact with a tattoo designer who runs a tattoo studio on the Isle of Sylt, a small German island. So I packed my suitcase and went to Sylt. In the coming weeks, he taught me so much and I designed my first tattoos there.

Then I jobbed at the Talisman Tattoo Studio to help expand my knowledge in this field by tattooing friends of mine and at the same time, continue my studies. This was a great time, as I could work on both my passions, the art and tattooing. Six months later, I realised that tattooing was my real passion and from then on I devoted my entire focus on this area.


You were very lucky to get a foot into the door, so to speak, but do you think an apprenticeship is the best way to learn the business?

Well like I mentioned before, I myself have not completed an apprenticeship. In my opinion good tattooing is a combination of two components; the technical proficiency of technical aspects and the other component is the passion for art. You can learn the theory and some technical skills in an apprenticeship, but you can’t learn passion. This is something you either have or don’t have. I learnt a lot from Guil Zekril and Frank Dietzel.


What’s the atmosphere and ambience like where you work?

The atmosphere in the studios I have worked for have always been very whacky and lots of fun. I love my work and I find that this atmosphere inspires the people who come to our studio. 


Have you worked at many conventions? 

Yes I have worked at a lot of conventions and I learn so much at each one. You meet so many interesting people and create your own network existing of all kind of artists and interesting personalities. Sometimes I also have a new tattoo done.

Those who are interested in extraordinary tattooing are very interested in my work at the shows and love to check out my sketch folder with various motifs. As I mentioned before I love to have a unique footprint and this is to be seen when you see my work.

You also have those kinds of people who are only interested in mass tattooing, like stars, they tend to move on pretty quickly.


Did you pick up any additional tips and tricks from the artists working at the conventions? 

Well yes, sure, even if it is just a new idea which is triggered by talking or watching artists working. That is the good thing about conventions.


Have you worked overseas at all and do you find that certain styles are prevalent depending on whereabouts you are?

I frequently travel abroad and also visit many exhibitions in foreign countries. I would say so, as every country has its own culture and fashion. So based on this you do notice different trends. In general one could say that the French people are more open for crazy motifs and designs and the Germans like old school!

In my experience England is very welcoming to tattoos as the British people have a cool attitude in terms of “live and let live”.


Have you had any kind of formal art training and do you think that formal art training is beneficial to a tattooist?

Absolutely! I would say that this is one of the key success factors. With art training you are able to put every motif “into place”. It can though also slow you down, if you can’t let go and let thoughts flow. This depends on your own attitude what you make out of your apprenticeship, art studies or education.


Who would you cite as your main influences, including both tattooists and the more traditional artists?

I am very impressed and influenced by the work of Wim Delvoye.

He makes crazy things like tattooing pigs. He has a really cool attitude as he does what he wants to do and not what is commercial. French and Belgian tattooists also inspire me a lot as they have taught me to be open-minded for new and crazy ways of working.

As to my own style, I like to create abstract motifs. It can even look a bit child-like, as I don’t like to stick to benchmarks. My aim is to create something special and unique by letting my thoughts inspire me. Sometimes this is not the easiest way, but it is my way. I like to work in a crazy way, choosing motives that nobody else would even think of using. I have chosen say, shopping bags, “holy” toast or a sunflower with teeth! I also like to experiment with different kinds of techniques. Creativity has no borders and with experimenting you can define and develop new styles or ways and suddenly it can turn into a trend. Maybe one day, even a benchmark.


How do you go about designing a tattoo? What processes do you go through to get from the initial idea to the finalised design?

I do not have a specific pattern. Creativity is like I mentioned, infinite or unlimited in my mind. There are many methods which lead to good results. I keep a sketchbook with each tattoo design I have made and these I take along to exhibitions. These sketches often inspire my clients and lead to new ideas for tattoos.

And at the same time I also have another sketchbook, which is not related to tattoos. That way I keep a specific independence and open-minded attitude. At the same time my subconscious is always working on solutions how new ideas or even techniques can be designed or developed.


What would be the ultimate tattoo for you to create? What subject matter/placement/techniques would you use?

Wow, that is a very interesting question, something I have never thought about yet. Well if a client would have total trust in me and wanted to have a huge tattoo, I think I would create something that would only exist of one - or at the most, two subjects – it would be asymmetric and would involve the entire body. No other tattoo should be involved as this could demolish the harmony completely. I would even consider developing different needles and creating new tattooing methods. Have I triggered your interest? Then contact me please!


Where do you draw the line on what you will and won’t tattoo?

Today, I would draw the line – in my opinion – with stupid ideas. With designs that just do not fit to my style. I also draw a clear line when it comes to the first tattoo somebody wants to have done. Regardless of what they are doing for a living I do not place the first tattoo in visible areas such as hands, face or on the neck. It does not matter how much money they are willing to pay, this is a “no no” thing for me.


How do you spend time away from tattooing?

For me relaxation comes with drawing. It can happen that I can fill an entire sketch book within two weeks with all kind of new designs; this can become an addiction. I also love to work on my Vespa scooter and in future may be even on a Lambretta. I like to meet with my best friend and with friends I have met in this business. Well I love everything that creates fun!


Who has tattooed you?

I have a tattoo from Tommy Lee Wendtner, Guil Zerkil and Little Swastika and one from Paul Acker.


Are there any other artists that you’re planning to get work from?

Yeah, I have planned quite a lot. I hope to be completely “coloured” one day, a kind of a “collection book” of various artists, but not only with tattoos but also with kind of a picture screen from the various artists. This is a dream I have.


What’s your favourite part about being a tattoo artist?

It’s just cool. Being independent and being able to create art which inspires and motivates me. Of course this often involves a lot of time. I think it is great if you can earn your living by making your hobby into your business. I get to travel to foreign countries, meet interesting people and this pushes me to develop my horizons and to never rest. That is my motto.


Do you have any ambitions in either the tattooing industry or otherwise?

In a few years time I would love to have my own shop, which will be more like a kind of art gallery. Not a street shop. On only one day in a week I will take appointments and the rest of the week I will fully concentrate on doing the tattoos. That way I achieve the best results. The shop will be located in a suburb, so no walk-in customers but clients who are really seeking for this specific kind of art. Something of course, I will first have to work hard for!


Have you seen any changes in the tattoo industry that worry or concern you? 

Well like in any kind of business, you have some people, who just want to make a lot of money, regardless of what they are doing. Tattoo business is booming and therefore you find tonnes of new tattoo colours and other items on the market. This I find irritating at times as some artists are sponsored and used to push brands and products – to increase sales and make money. 


Is there anybody you feel deserves some credit for helping you over the years?

Oh, definitely. I would with all my heart thank my family and my best friend Matias. Matias inspired me to go down this path. I want to thank Guil Zekril for the reincarnation. My thanks also go out to Frank Dietzel and Xandi from “Nadelwerk” and Sven from “Scratchers Paradise” and Sabiene Jacobs from “Talisman Tattoo”. All these extraordinary people have constantly helped and supported me a lot.

I would also like to thank you for this interview and the chance to express openly my thoughts and opinions. See you soon at Tattoo Jam!


Interview: Neil - Photography: Mark


Artist Profiles: 
Skin Deep 188 29 July 2010 188