The Fox & The Woodcutter - Henrik Gallon

Published: 04 April, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 197, April, 2011

Just when you think you’ve seen it all, somebody comes along that strikes at the core of all you find beautiful about certain tattoos - no rhyme or reason - it’s more like an emotive response and a feeling that embeds itself into your psyche - the end result of course being: “I want this guy to work on me.”Which is exactly what happened when I was sat down with Henrik Gallon. Hailing from Gothenburg, Henrik Gallon comes from an artistic background and today finds himself at the crossroads that sooner or later, most of us come to: parenthood. In the last month, he has become the proud father of a son that he describes as “my best work ever”, but to begin, as with all the best fairy stories, we must start at the beginning:

“I grew up stealing my mothers art supplies and using them myself. Drawing and painting has been with me all my life and I actually sent my first illustration portfolio to a Swedish publisher when I was twelve years old. Well, that resulted in a kind rejection, but inspired me to continue drawing. I didn’t want to be an artist like my mum, doing the whole exhibition thing, hoping to sell, so eventually, I got a bachelors degree in information design and scenography. 

After my education was done I didn’t want to work with scenography, so I moved back to Gothenburg and tried the rocky road as an freelance illustrator. After a couple of years, I realised that most of my clients were situated in Stockholm. At the same time, some friends of mine opened a tattoo studio - Swahili Bob’s Tattoo in Stockholm - and asked me if I wanted to rent a room for my work as an illustrator. So I moved to Stockholm.

Two years later, I felt that tattooing might be something for me, so I asked Nelson Hardie at the studio if he could show me the ropes, which he did. I was also under the very talented eyes of Thomas Rosén, who now owns Hjärtat av Guld in Malmo. My good friends since way back - Erik Lundström and Marika Knubbe who own Buzzstop 28 in Gothenburg - also taught me a whole lot more than I think they actually know. I’ve been tattooing for a bit over four years now.

And in those four years, Gallon has developed a style of his own that encompass all of those years he put in as an illustrator - it’s a style that we don’t see too often in the UK and US. For some reason, some of his more recent pieces make me want to mention Arthur Rackham in the same breath:

“Ah - the thing is when I was younger I only drew with my black liner pens, always. I actually cried a bit when my art teacher had us buy aquarelle watercolours. It took a huge chunk out of my student budget. I still have those by the way, as I only colour my drawings with markers.

It may not seem like it but my earliest source of inspiration was Brian Bolland, working on Judge Dredd, and the first drawing I was really proud of was when I looked at his Judge Death and drew it almost the same. I’ve now got that Judge Death tattooed on my leg. 

Apart from old comics, I’m also inspired by art nouveau, but I do look at other contemporary illustrators and artists a lot. I don’t look at other tattooists work much at all though.

It all started with a customer who came in with a drawing made by a friend of hers, this crazy thick crosshatching punk-styled drawing. I said to her that there was no way a tattoo could be done in any way similar to that. I left it at that for a couple of months and then called her back explaining that if I could redraw it within the same theme and do it differently, I just might pull it off. It’s a full sleeve and the first one in my wood cut style, and ironically it’s about two hours work away from being finished still.

I really thought that was going to be an one-off. 

I try to put a lot of thought into the drawing process, because as a tattoo it will age on a living canvas. So all the lines are drawn in such a way that if the tattoo becomes blurry after a lot of years, the image will still be clear, the blurred lines forming a gray shading. If it’s just a drawing though, I do it a bit differently, coming closer to that comic book style.”

Having established the foundations of Gallon’s work, being both hyper clean and bold, does he find it easier as the years go to develop by or is it still a constant challenge to always trying to better himself?

"Haha, tattooing and drawing tattoos are quite the opposite of the work I did as an illustrator. First of all, all my illustration work was done digitally, with a Wacom pen and Photoshop. So I basically lived inside a computer, and in the end I didn’t even touch pen and paper. Getting into tattooing was a bit like starting all over again, but of course drawing professionally for almost ten years has its benefits.

The creative process for me is filled with both relief and anxiety, sadly rather too much of the latter. I’m happy with my drawings when I present them to the customer but it often happens that something bugs me, and when the customer comes to their appointment, I’ve stayed up all night redrawing everything from scratch. When I’m tattooing I’m always thinking about what I can do differently, trying to improve on the technical aspects and being the worst critic you can think of. 

Somewhere in the middle of a tattoo I want to put down the machines and walk out the door, but in the end I’m usually quite happy. But I never approach a job as easy, because tattooing is really hard, and you can always improve your work. 

I used to research a lot when working as a illustrator, when I was doing school books, especially when doing books on history and religion. I would also try to find alternative solutions to the image. For example I was doing an illustration for the story of David and Goliath, and the space I had to fill was tall and narrow. So I drew David seen from underneath, lifting Goliath’s decapitated head, with the sling in his belt. This happens in Bible after he kills him with the sling and stone, but it’s not the classic way to do the illustration.

I tend to work the same way with tattoos, trying to find a new way to do the image. I usually try to run wild with even the simplest of ideas, making it a lot more than they expected. I had a customer who wanted ‘something with a dead man’s hand’, so I added some other things from the shooting of Wild Bill Hickok, like the Nuttal No. 5 and Deadwood Pioneer magazine, hidden in the background. 

Sometimes you can become a bit lost for words, when customers comes with their ideas, but then the brain kicks in and things start to pop up. I also like it when customers have their mind set on something they can’t define and send you back to the drawing board a couple of times. Some of my best work has come from that, when I get help pushing my own limits. The collaboration part of that can give some interesting results.” 

I’ve been hearing from more than a few people recently that Scandinavia is becoming a very cool place to find tattoo artists, I put this to Gallon and ask him his opinion on the matter:

“I can only speak of Sweden, but I think we handle tattoos in the same way as we do with a lot of things. We are few in numbers but tend to really specialize in what we do. In Stockholm we really have lots of really talented tattooists, working in every style, and if you look around in the country as a whole, you have some real talent. In Stockholm I think flash tattooing is a bit dead, and every customer has the notion that you can tell the tattooist what they want and it gets custom drawn for you. 

The problem with that of course is that every tattooist is now suddenly able to work custom designs, even when they can’t draw or don’t think the customer is actually worth the time to get a real custom drawing. Anybody can buy a couple of Dover books, scan them, Google some images, copy-paste that together in Photoshop, print and trace. Voila! Instant talent: no skills needed. 

I have total respect for Flash tattooists who say, this is a flash tattoo. It’s the ones who “cheat” that annoy me. I don’t see the pride of your work in that.  Needless to say this has also led to some really good custom tattooists and customers with great imagination and great ideas.”

Taking “Foxes” as an example - I ask Gallon how he sets about bringing something like that to life? Is it a collage of images that are then put together in his own style or something the client has brought in almost complete? 

“I just need some very brief guidelines. The guidelines for the fox tattoo were that she wanted something from the north of Sweden, with some northern plant life and foxes playing. After that I had free hands to do as I wished.

One of my more recent customers had the idea of a Russian chest piece, with Katiusja-missile racks instead of the classic wings reaching for the shoulders. Other than that I could do what I wanted, within the theme.” 

As the clock ticks away in front of us - and I feel more comfortable here than I have anywhere for a long time - I wonder if he is able to see where he sits within the grand scheme of things. 

“Oh, that’s a tough question. It’s hard seeing it from my perspective but I’m still at the beginning of my career and it’s definitely going in the right direction. I get asked for to work in my own style more frequently now than ever before and usually end up doing a piece like that a week. But I also tattoo a lot in colour and a lot in black and grey. That’s what I really love about tattooing right now, tattooing all those small lines and dots at the beginning of the day, continuing with a sleeve in black and grey in the afternoon, and planning a full-colour piece in your head in the meantime. 

But I don’t do old school and traditional style tattoos, unless I can do it my way, with lines and dots in them. I think there are too many rules in those styles, and I don’t draw that way, so it feels a bit constricted."

In wrapping up, we find that we have more common ground than we first thought, not only in our love of tattoos that are moving forward, but also when it comes to classical children’s literature:

“You know, I will probably hold onto my tattoo machine until my hands get spotted and shaky, but I don’t see me returning to illustrating for clients again. 

I want to publish my own work in some sort way. I’ve published one children’s book on my own, but as I’m not a writer, I focused on the pictures, and the publishers tend to look at the text first. So the plan is to sit and invent fairytales with my son, and draw pictures for it, making him the writer - and then we get it published. 

I really miss those old children’s books with good realistically worked illustrations in them. I remember a book I hated when I was a kid, with a red thumbprint as the main character. I got upset with the simplicity of it all, compared to books in which you could dream yourself into the world of the book. To make a book like the ones illustrated by John Bauer, Arthur Rackham or Elsa Beskow would be a dream come true. I hope my son is a good storyteller!”


 John Bauer

As is only right, most of Gallon’s influences are of Swedish origin. Bauer (1882-1918) was a painter and illustrator best known for his work on Among Gnomes and Trolls circa 1912 to 1915. Among Gnomes and Trolls (or Bland Tomtar Och Troll to give it its proper title) is a Swedish annual of folklore and fairy tales which is still in published today, even though it was founded way back in 1907. Bauer’s most famous work is probably Princess Tuvstarr and the Fishpond (above/1913) and one look at The Dark Crystal movie will let you know just how far that influence has spread throughout the world.

As far as we can tell, he is no relation to Jack - which is good news for all concerned.


Else Beskow

In 1894, Beskow (1874-1953) started to contribute to the children’s magazine Jultomten. In her lifetime, she published forty books of her own text and imagery. Beskow frequently combined reality with elements from the fairy tale world. Children meet elves or goblins, and farm animals talk with people. Central themes were the relationships between children and adults and children’s independent initiative.
Beskow became one of the most well known of all Swedish children’s book artists with many of her books becoming classics and are continually reprinted. Beskow also illustrated ABC books and songbooks for Swedish schools. She had six sons, one of which includes the well known artist Bo Beskow (1906-1989).


Arthur Rackham

For anybody who has studied art even in a limited capacity, Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) must surely be one of the best loved illustrators in history. Rather than have specific works that are more famous than he is, he lives on as a law unto himself with many pieces being instantly recognisable as his even of you have no idea what they are called.

Rackham invented his own unique technique which resembled photographic reproduction; he would first sketch an outline of his drawing, then lightly block in shapes and details. Afterwards he would add lines in pen and India ink, removing the pencil traces after it had dried. With colour pictures, he would then apply multiple washes of colour until transparent tints were created. He would also go on to expand the use of silhouette cuts in his illustration work - something that has been taken to a whole new level today in the work of such artists as Rob Ryan.


Brian Bolland

Brian Bolland (1951-) is a hero to many working in illustration today. His most famous and definitive works are from the work he put in on Judge Dredd for 2000AD along with the more seminal Killing Joke which he illustrated for Alan Moore.

Still working today on titles such as Animal Man, Wonder Woman and The Invisibles among his myriad of projects, he is predominantly known as a cover artist, although this would be a huge misrepresentation of the man who brought joy to thousands of us for his gritty depictions inside those very covers.

One of the true originals working in the field today, he’s not above giving a helping hand when it’s needed either as he so ably proved by putting together a poster for his local village Beauty and the Beast pantomime in 2004.


Porky Royale Tattoo, 
Norra Agnegatan 38, 

0046(0)8-642 47 95


Text: Sion Smith; Photography: Henrik Gallon