Snake Eyes - Robert Witczuk

Published: 22 August, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 202, August, 2011

Sometimes the postman brings you something that makes you sit up and pay attention. Usually it takes a certain amount of chocolate/alcohol/alcoholic chocolate to do the trick in the Skin Deep camp, but then there are the happy moments when a portfolio hits the mat and we think 'ooh, you're a bit special'

That's certainly what happened when Mr Robert Witczuk got in touch. One quick look through his eclectic back catalogue of pastel-like portraits, biomech and black & grey – with splashes of colourful surrealism thrown in for good measure – was enough to convince us that here was someone worth putting the liqueur caramels down for. And a few tales of toy tanks, self-discovery and tattoo geekery later, we were very glad we did.

Originally from Poland, Robert is now based in Dublin, where he's been tattooing at Snakebite Tattoo in the city centre for the past three years. The shop's been there for 15 years, he tells us, and the location is great for the mind – “loads of people from all over the world pass through so there's always something to keep you occupied.”

One thing that doesn't occupy his mind, however, is trying to dictate the mood and feel of the studio, as he’s too busy being himself and cracking on with the job at hand. “Whatever impression a client gets of the shop is a reflection on themselves,” he says, explaining that every client is different – some talkative, too nervous for chat. “I’m not there to make an impression or be an actor, I’m there to do my thing as well as I can. I just do my job and the rest comes out naturally. Ask my clients what they think!” he laughs. 

Tattooing didn’t always come naturally for Robert, though; there were a few learning experiences first. The journey of discovery started over a decade ago when he – along with a lot of us – got his first tribal dragon tattoo (a wry laugh accompanies this admission). “That sparked my interest in the world of tattoos,” he says, “so I dug into it a bit more and in 2000 I did my own second tattoo on my ankle.” As you might expect from an unskilled hand, it didn't go all that well, healing but “falling off” and needing three touch-up jobs before it stayed put. “But that's just the natural flow of the learning curve. Good thing it was on my own ankle, I realised it wasn’t as easy as I thought!”

Undeterred, he says these early failures made him even more motivated, and further experiments followed, also on his own skin. “It taught me a lot about how hard I need to push on the skin without causing too much trauma,” he says. Trauma? Ouch. “I wouldn’t say it was the smartest way of learning,” he concedes. “I needed a few cover ups later.”

It's not all that surprising that Robert ended up taking this route. Poland's tattoo industry wasn't exactly booming back in the day, he says, and finding an apprenticeship in his home city was “impossible”, which really only left him with the self-teaching method. He'd also fallen in love with the process and practice of tattooing, “and the tattoo gun became my preferred way of expressing myself.” He had to wait a little before dedicating himself to his art, finishing a Master's in Visual Arts and then sharpening his skills under the tutelage of Marcin Sonski, who was the first industry pro he worked with. “Working with him for a few months took my art to a much higher level than the previous years of working on my own. And the other person with a huge influence on my career was Pavel Lewicki,” he says, “his different style and approach helped me develop my own technique and way of working.”

Now that he's a few years further down the line, how would he describe that technique, and style? “I wouldn’t see myself as having one particular style,” he says, “I like to experiment.” Rather then pigeon-holing himself into one school he prefers to be flexible and takes a genre-mashing approach, messing around with different styles and sometimes even mixing them. “I don’t want to shut myself out to new techniques, it’s more fun to work like that, in my opinion!”

That said, he's noticed that his diverse portfolio does throw up certain patterns. “Although I work in many different styles, I love realism and for inspiration I pull a lot from photography. And if I have to draw something [freehand], usually it comes out more cartoon-y.” He doesn't mind this seeming contradiction, though – “a big fat power line hasn’t killed anyone yet!”

Neither – as far as we know – has music (at least not directly), which is handy for anyone going under Robert's needle, because “even though it's annoying sometimes, it must be playing; and I sing to my clients even when they aren’t asking!” He says he likes to work fast, but still paying attention to every detail; and some days you might find him noisier than on others – “sometimes you can’t shut me up, but on the odd day I keep to myself.” 

Even on the quiet days, for Robert the tattooing process is a collaborative one. “Most clients have an idea of what they want but then at the same time can’t – or don’t – want to make a final decision on the image, and they need my opinion. 

“I try to get an idea of what they’re looking for by talking to them and asking questions. My preferred way of working is to take the ideas they provide and build something on the skin,” he says, “I've noticed that there’s more impact on a client when the tattoo design is drawn on the skin, rather than a piece of paper. I can also use the geometrics of the body to my advantage, which is something you can’t get from a flat piece of paper, and I can customise the design with the client, letting it take shape, going through colour options to produce the final tattoo.”

It's a delicate balance, Robert thinks, between giving people the inkwork they want while sometimes giving them the steer they need to end up with a great piece of art. “Some people don’t know what the possibilities are for a tattoo,” he says, “and I like to show them what's actually possible. But you also have to keep in mind that tattooing is a customer service industry and every so often you have to feel out a client to see if they want to hear what you have to say. Some clients are just stubborn!”

Does he take inspiration from other studios and artists to help educate his own clients? “I don’t actually read or look into other tattoo artists or studios too much,” he says, and explains that while there’s “a lot of great work out there” and he likes to keep an eye on the tattoo world, he doesn’t want to follow things so much that others' work starts directly influencing his own. Plus, there’s the tattoo boom to contend with – “the industry has grown so fast, especially in the last few years, that it's actually hard to keep up with.”

That said, he’s definitely got his favourites when it comes to his own collection, both in terms of their artwork and the way in which they practice their craft, and his recent tattoos weren’t self-inked – “I've learned my lesson!” Instead, he turned to Denise Conroy and Marcin Sonski, who he describes as “great artists as well as great friends.

“I think that the relation between the artist and the client is important,” he goes on, “and with those two the atmosphere is pure pleasure and it shows in the artwork. Not only is their work fantastic, but the time spent with them in the studio, the three or four hours of pain can – believe it or not – be quite enjoyable.” 

Add to that his plan to head back to his native Poland to get some neck work from Victor Portugal, and it seems like he's definitely moved on from that tribal dragon. Where’s it all going ultimately? “It’s a work in progress, ask me when the journey has ended!” he laughs. 

For the moment, that journey is passing through Dublin, but catch him while you can – the plan is to move to Canada next year with his Canadian wife to see what the industry there has to offer. He also likes to play around with photography to “keep those creative juices flowing”, but it’s something he has to fit in between tattooing and being a husband and father, and in the end it's the day job that really holds his creative interest. 

“I could give you a big elaborate answer about what I like best about tattooing and drag it out for days,” he says, “but to make it simple: I love my job. I love the variety, love the technique, and I love that you never know what the day will bring.” He’s certainly in a good place at the moment, working with a team who are “kind of like new age tattoo nerds. We get excited even after so many years of tattooing, we’re like ‘I got to use a three tight liner [used for tiny details and thin outlines]’, or ‘just look at this avocado green!'” 

Not that it’s perfect, mind – we all have things that vex us about our work, and for Robert it’s attention seeking behaviour, like the couple who came into the studio so the girl could be inked. “I’m working away and the girl is sounding like she is getting murdered while holding her boyfriend's hand, but the minute the boyfriend leaves the tattoo room to get a drink all the moaning and groaning goes right out the window,” he says. See where this is going? “And the minute he comes back, it's like the flick of a switch and it all goes downhill again!” 

It's a small niggle, of course, as is his only other gripe, which is about repetitive ideas. “Of course not all tattoos are fun to do, but I don’t have any designs that I don't like doing,” he says, “but repetitive ideas sometimes get on your nerves. Too much of one thing is never good.”

So how does a good or great tattoo get created? “In my opinion it starts with the idea and how well you execute it. Sometimes the details are the key ingredient, but at the same time, for example, the comedy and humour behind the tattoo could make it great as well.” There’s that potential contradiction again, but according to Robert, well... that’s art, isn’t it? “The definition of art itself is 'producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power’,” he concludes, “so at the end of the day it’s all in the eye of the beholder.”

Snakebite Tattoo

54 Middle Abby Street

01 874 00 11


Text: Russ Thorne; Photography: Robert Witczuk & Marta Trzeciak


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