Gypsy Road - The Italian Gentleman

Published: 17 October, 2011 - Featured in Skin Deep 204, October, 2011

The Italian Gentleman, or Stef as he is better known to his friends, is one of the tribe of artists who have hit the road in recent years. Not just for the experience, nor for the added influence you can pick up. No, Stef is one of those artists who choose to pitch themselves against the world, harbouring the ever burning question: “Just how good am I in the grand scheme of things?

Before working professionally as a tattooist I did every kind of job imaginable. You name it, I did it. You could spot my gypsy soul from miles away. It’s been really good to see what working hard means and to become flexible in different environments. That has been fundamental in my life on the road. I haven’t had any formal apprenticeship – it’s not easy to get one in Italy. So I’m basically self-taught, which has meant a couple of years with total dedication on getting as much information as possible, taking in conventions to see the professionals doing their magic, hours spent after work ’til late drawing and ‘studying’ magazines…”

It must be something in the Italian gene pool that makes so many gravitate towards the road and see what the world has to offer, but Stef has been travelling more than most. What makes a man decide to hit the road so hard – and so permanently?

“The first thing that made me leave my home was that I basically couldn’t get a job there. So to work professionally, I had to find a shop that would hire me. And this at the time would mean the UK. The first years have been hard. Hard at work, hard with the people and with the language, but I had great support from my girlfriend at the time (without her, I wouldn’t be here today) and my closest friends, and simply pushed through that.

“Then it just seemed to come together all at once; one change after the next. Mainly to keep learning as much as I could from many artists from all over the world to keep
getting better. The other reason is my gypsy soul – I’m curious about life, people, places, emotions…”

Do you think that working like this is something all tattooists should do? As an artist working all across the world, you must be exposed to a lot of work that makes you work harder than ever.

“I don’t think that it should be ‘mandatory’ for every artist. You should follow your vocation. But for sure, challenging yourself with different realities opens your mind and gives your brain some fresh air. It’s definitely a positive experience.

“And yes, getting exposed to so many different artists, styles, standards and attitudes has been the reason for me to push myself harder and harder to be able at least to do what the other people were doing. It’s really hard for me to accept failure, I set pretty high standards when it comes to expectations on myself.

“I have been working with a lot of people; some of them really good at what they do. But I guess the experience that always challenges me most is working with Henning at Royal. Henning and Beppe (Shiro) in particular are the two best examples I look at for commitment, professionalism, technique and attitude. No bullshit. Another shop I work at that set high standards is Cult Classic in Romford. Great tattoos, fantastic organisation, ridiculously funny…

“Then my norwegian family at LUCKY 7 keeps it real with real old school tattoos and rock ‘n’ roll. As do JFK at Studio XIII in Edinburgh – ask him for the butt on the butt on the butt!”

Hmm. This turns out to be a statement that Stef chooses to keep the meaning of to himself, but I file it in the back of my head for future research all the same. He’s also been hanging out with our old pals at Buena Vista.

“Working with Volko and Simone and all the crew of Buena Vista has been a really nice experience. As artists, their work speaks for itself and as people, they have been exquisite, opening the doors of their shop, their town and their house to me. I’m really thankful. And this is as good a place as any for me to express a special thanks to Dani, the girl that does all the work behind the scene at Buena Vista. Indispensable!”

A life on the road, particularly a solitary one in which you don’t have a crew to assist in the transportation of all your paraphernalia, must be difficult surely? How does a man in that position find the time and space in which to create art? is it something that needs to wait until the man gets home?

“Actually I don’t know what ‘home’ means. It’s just me, my suitcase, lots of flights, shops and hotels. For the last few years I haven’t been based anywhere, so ‘home’ is where I lay my hat! The easiest thing to carry is watercolors as they don’t take too much space – when I’m not too busy preparing stuff for clients, I try to take the time for painting. It relaxes me.”

Taking a moment to look through Stef’s portfolio. One thing is for sure, aside from having his own style when let off the leash, he is no slouch when it comes to being an all-rounder! Is freedom of expression an important thing to allow him?

“I have been going through different styles over the years. I started with photorealism, then new school, now more of a traditional approach. As I said before, I’m really curious and challenge myself, so I like to try a bit of everything. Obviously, over the years you go toward the expression that better fits your personality. I like to work different styles to avoid getting bored – though as you can see, I love to do roses – but my favourite I would say, would be traditional American and Japanese and some fine-line black and grey. Main rule: simple, clean, solid, vibrant.

“I would like to clarify my belief that this is more of a craft than pure art. You have to know your tools, the rules of the body such as aging and flowing, the traditions that originated particular styles. And within these limits, you can express yourself.

“These days, I find there is a bit too much of the ‘rock star’ attitude around tattooists, mostly due I think to mainstreaming on TV and the wrong image of this as an ‘industry’ for fashion victims. People that would never think about this as a profession are getting into the trade just to exploit it as a business. There’s a Theo Jak and Phyl Kyle interview that says it all. I much prefer the old idea of an underground world, with some mystery around it. Today that is a bit lost.

“But going back to the question, often, especially with friends, it happens that you have complete freedom and that’s when you can do what you really like and enjoy. It’s obviously nice when people leave you some freedom, giving a basic idea and then it’s up to you to develop it and put your skills and experience at their service. If you trust an artist – and regardless of where you find yourself, you should always check the portfolio first, there is too much shit around to waste your money and time – you should let him translate visually what’s in your mind. He knows best what works and what doesn’t on the skin.”

So where does an Italian Gentleman go next?

“If I have to be honest, I take it day by day. It doesn’t make sense for me to plan to far ahead. The only thing I know is that I want to stop soon and work as a resident after so much traveling. I think when I’m not traveling doing guest spots, I’ll be based in Scandinavia.

“Artistically, I want to explore more mediums, but I guess that will have to wait until I have my own place – hopefully rent a place to use as a workshop to get dirty. Oil, acrylics, wood, glass… whatever, no limits. It’s good to get out of the tattoo scheme of things and set yourself free to express whatever you feel like. One thing I would like to do is to collaborate with friends and in a year or so, put together an exhibition for fun. Who knows!”

Is there anywhere on your travels that has been nothing like how you expected it to be? A place that has maybe shocked you by how much talent there is that nobody ever talks about – or even somewhere that is supposed to be great, but didn’t meet your expectations?

“So far so good, you know. I’ve always been pleasantly surprised by the places I have been to, for many reasons. A place that has surprised me for quality of artists has actually been Australia. When it comes to customers, I would say Oslo – people ask for cool stuff out there, more old school oriented.”

Stef’s art is something that particularly drew me into his web. I love his flash and his watercolour work really appeals to my sensibilities. Where does all this work call home when it’s finished?

“So far, I mainly use this for practical reasons of traveling. Usually, what I paint ends up as a present for friends – like me, none of it really has a home. But I’m slowly getting a bit more organised and with hopefully more time available in the future, I may develop other mediums and use of the artworks. I would love to collaborate more with other artists as well.”

Travel Safe!

If you’re interested in hitting the road yourself, you may like to know that bus is the safest way to travel with only 4.3 deaths per billion journeys, though if you want slice the statistics a different way, a plane is far safer with only 0.05 deaths per billion kilometres. Surprisingly, you’re also better off in your car than you are on water. Maybe not so surprisingly, the worst offender whichever way you slice it, is the motorcycle.

What We Learned!

The “you are here” arrow on maps is called an ideo locator.
Chances that an American lives within 50 miles of where they grew up: 1 in 2.
People began surfing in Hawaii before Columbus sailed to America.
In London the tube route from Leicester Square to Covent Garden is the most popular tube route for tourists despite the fact that it is actually quicker to cover this distance on foot!
Tourists visiting Iceland should know that tipping at a restaurant is considered an insult.
A quarter of Russia is covered by forest.