Don't Blink - Ivana Belakova

Published: 19 September, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 203, September, 2011

If tattooists were to pass down ten commandments to their clients, surely one of them would have to be ‘thou shalt bloody well sit still’. We all know how important that part is, but practising what you preach is always tricky, and for Ivana Belakova it would likely be impossible, because she’s one of those people who’s in perpetual motion. Blink and you’ll miss her…

“I travel a lot!” she says, “in many cases it’s for work but not always. I love to travel and see different things.” That might be guest spots, but you can also glimpse her distinctive style at a few conventions every year. Try not to distract her, though – “it’s kind of stressful for me as I have a hard time focusing, and it’s too distracting to have so many people around me. When it comes
to comfort I definitely prefer working in a shop!”

Her shop of choice is Slovakia’s Tattoo Rascal studio. “I call it my base, although I’m still a freelance tattoo artist, as I’m constantly on the road!” Her time there started with a guest spot three years ago, and now it’s the European shop she returns to the most, but her’s is a peripatetic lifestyle to the extent that she only takes on smaller projects that she can finish during her stay, wherever it may be. “Sometimes I stay couple of months in one shop, sometimes less than that, so I only take work that I know I can finish.”

It must be like getting inked by the Roadrunner; does it ever cause problems? “The disadvantage is that sometimes I can't do big pieces,” she admits, “which I would love to do!

On the other hand, I'm glad that I get to finish whatever I start within a couple of months, as opposed to the next year or so. I like it because my way of thinking is constantly changing and sometimes I find it hard to connect with old pieces that I started a while ago.”


Ready, steady…

This roadrunner’s tattoo journey began in the back of a Slovakian pub with “a guy”. It sounds like the setup for a classic horror tale, but as she explains, tattoo shops weren’t big in her country at the time. “It was so exciting, especially because I was under age. It was a little ornamental thing, I was hiding it from my parents for some time.”

Since then things have become much easier for tattoo collectors, with young people in particular becoming much more open minded. “They’re getting bigger, more colourful pieces done,” she says, “and they’re not hiding their artwork as they were before. The tattoo scene in Slovakia is getting bigger and more exciting every day, which is great!”

Whether tattooing achieved wider acceptance or not, it feels like it was the inevitable destination for Ivana, as she talks about her childhood love of art. “When I was around 13, I used to cut out pictures from magazines and had my brother draw on me with marker so I looked like the models,” she says. From there it was on to her first tattoo encounter down the pub, and then work at a friend's studio. “I had no idea how to tattoo, so I tried them on my friends and after the first one, I was hooked!”

In typically speedy fashion she pretty much decided to become a tattoo artist on the spot. It was a leap of faith motivated by real passion, she says, “what drove me the most was definitely my passion for the art! I thought tattoos were sexy, and I saw the beauty in them.”

To see her pastel-like creations these days, it’s hard to imagine that she began with only black and grey work until the desire for colour arrived. Luckily she had some willing skin to indulge her craving on. “I started doing colour tattoos for free after work on my friends who let me create pretty much whatever I wanted. I was experimenting with inks, needles, machines… to the point where I sort of developed my own style,” she recalls.

So, several inked pals later, is she content with how the colour developed? “It took me years to get to this level, but I’m still never satisfied,” she says. “I look at the tattoo I did yesterday and I would change it today. My style is constantly evolving, with every tattoo I do I learn something new, and the level I’m at right now is not final and never will be. I constantly try new things and that’s the beauty of it; I can’t get bored!”

Sometimes her new ideas just arrive, unbidden, and on other occasions she’s inspired by another artist, but behind all this shifting development there’s a firm philosophy: this is one artist who knows what she’s trying to achieve through her work. “I don’t want to be just an ordinary tattooist who does flash all the time and copies other people,” she says. “I like it when my tattoos look like artwork and not like stickers! They have to have a nice flow, be proportionate to the body and be different... I want my tattoos to be individual. Just like my customers are!”

In the chair

Ivana is a very client-centred artist. Whether it’s getting the design right or making them feel comfortable on the day, their needs are always at the front of her mind. She can take this to extremes, keeping hours that even the most determined needlesmith might baulk at – although alcohol might play a small part. “My good friends are my worst clients, they’re so demanding! There are times when I’ve been out, and a friend wants to get a tattooed by me at five or six am while I’m still drinking, and I’ve actually gone to the shop and tattooed them.”

Sozzled sunrise sessions aren’t compulsory, of course, although she confesses to being an early-starter. Instead, normal procedure is taking one client a day to give them all her attention. “Above all, I want them to be happy with the artwork,” she says of her aims for any tattooing session. “Although they’re nervous, I want them to feel good about the whole process. I want them to have
a memorable experience and also have some fun! My clients’ tattoos matter to me and I want them to know it! I always want to do the best job possible!”

When she’s in the zone she’ll work almost non-stop apart from food breaks or comfort breaks for clients, and there’s a fair amount of preparation before needle hits skin. “I like it when my clients have an idea of what they want to get,” she explains, “but I also appreciate some references so I can get a better understanding of what they’re looking for. I definitely prefer to have freedom when it comes to designing it, though!”

She sums it up by saying she likes to have an idea and a little description and then being left to work her magic, which means she’s not afraid to offer some guidance if she thinks it’s needed. “I’m very honest and if I disagree with something I’ll say so.” This is easier said than done in some cases, she explains, with clients overlooking the fact that skin is rather different to paper and that tweaks are often required to their designs. “I have a hard time convincing them that it needs to be slightly different,” she says, but she tends to persevere as “I also want to enjoy the tattoo I do!”
While Ivana won’t do every kind of image and style, she doesn’t really have any pet hates when it comes to artwork (apart from a mild aversion to “big, black and bold tribal”). “If a tattoo is done well, I can appreciate it,” she says. The same is not true of people’s behaviour, though, where she definitely has a few commandments of her own. “I don’t like it when my clients whistle while I’m tattooing or when they take cigarette breaks every ten minutes,” she explains.

“Also if someone is constantly asking me questions I can’t concentrate very well."

“And there are the ‘naughty’ customers too,” she continues, “the ones who don’t come in on time, the ones who leave before I even get to finish their piece because they want to go for drinks with their friends.”

Top of the list though – and many would sympathise – are people who are rude to her. “I don’t appreciate it!” she says, “if someone doesn’t have respect towards tattooing as an art form and for me as an artist, I’d rather just not do the tattoo! I put lot of effort and energy into my work because it means a lot to me, and I want them to feel the same.”

Catch Her If You Can

These are minor gripes in an otherwise cheery picture, though. Ivana describes her favourite aspect of being a working tattoo artist in one word: freedom. “I like the freedom that comes along with tattooing. It takes me to many different places in the world and through it I’ve made some great friends! I am constantly meeting all sorts of people!”

So it was the right path, from marker pen on skin to globetrotting artist? “Yes, I like it very much as I like to mix other people’s fantasies with mine! I’m also very happy that people give me so much freedom in leaving their designs up to me. They let me create something for them without controlling me too much, which I really enjoy.”

It also looks like tattooing provides the stillness and serenity in the middle of Ivana’s whirlwind working life, especially when she talks about the tiny details of a working day. “I like to prepare my design, I like to set up my table, and to actually create the tattoo. The best part is when I complete a piece and I see the smile on my customer’s face,” she concludes. “And when I feel down, tattooing is like healing for my soul.”

Getting it right

So what makes a great tattoo, in Ivana's opinion? “It's the idea, the composition, the quality, placement...the whole artistic feel,” she says. But there's also forward planning: “I like to see something that will look good in a few years' time, not only for the first few months.”

Ivana’s Ink

Ivana’s latest addition to her collection is a chest piece from a certain Jeff Gogue, and the plan is to get her next piece done by him, too. Also on the artist hitlist is Buena Vista Tattoo Club’s Volko, but she confesses that although she’s trying to collect artwork from all her favourite artists she’s keeping things restrained for now.

“I’m very picky with my tattoos and artists, that’s why I’m still not very tattooed. It takes me some time to figure out what I want to get done, and then, in many cases, I end up doing the tattoo on one of my clients. So I just wait until I figure out something new!”

She keeps it simple when healing a new piece, washing it twice a day and keeping it covered for the first three days, adding a little moisturiser and keeping it out of the sun. Before that is the small matter of sitting for the tattoo, of course, and here she's pretty honest. “When it comes me getting a tattoo, I’m very quiet because I have to be mentally prepared. I actually hate getting tattooed because of the pain involved!”

Tattoo Rascal

Slovenská Republika


Text: Russ Thorne; Photography: Ivana