Quick Fire Questions: Niki Norberg

Published: 23 July, 2012 - Featured in Skin Deep 214, July, 2012

At first Niki Norberg didn’t even want to be a tattooist as he was convinced that his clientele would only consist of “metalheads, whores and criminals”. But he’s now worked at Heidi Hay’s studio for four years, during which time he’s been involved in a lengthy litigation process against the IRS in order to be able to sell his paintings.

It took a long time before Niki was convinced tattooing would be a suitable future profession. Despite his friends’ efforts during the ’90s, he didn’t get started until 2001.

I didn’t even consider tattooing. I didn’t want to work where there would be blood, and what type of clientele would I get? Would it be only metalheads, whores and criminals? And was I to work from home? This was in the early ’90s, so there was like, two studios in Gothenburg – I had no intention of being an apprentice. My friends wanted me to tattoo them. They offered to buy the equipment and act as guinea pigs, but I continued my painting and attended a school for comic art. I had other jobs, so my painting was only a side gig, but I put much time into it.

The turning point came when he got to know a guy with decent insight in the business. Much to the joy of his friends.

The thing was that I painted a lot of realism and that’s what I wanted to tattoo as well, but I had never seen a tattoo that reached the level at which I was painting. At the same time, I wanted to make money as an artist and in order to do that you need to tattoo. Then I came across Paul Booth’s work, and suddenly I saw something I too wanted to create. Not that I necessarily like his style, but his shading and how he uses the grey scale opened up a whole new world for me. I became more curious and more ready. The first five years, however, I did mostly stars, text and tribal, but I don’t mind it taking five or six years if I want to reach a certain level and I know where I’m going. I have to come up with the idea myself and be comfortable with it. Otherwise it’s not a good idea, especially when you’ll be marking people for life.

This human quality of his unveiled itself when he was offered a job at Heidi Hay’s.

I sent her some pictures, mostly to get some feedback from someone skilful in the business. She asked me instantly when I could start. Three months after I submitted the pictures we had a meeting, and three months after that I tried out working in her studio for a month. After that I took two weeks vacation to evaluate the situation, but it actually felt right from day one.

Niki has worked in the studio since 2007. Almost as long as he’s been involved in a litigation process with the local IRS in Sweden, who are of the opinion that he shouldn’t be able to sell his paintings, him being a tattooist and all.

They say the paintings I do are merely a tool used in my profession as a tattoo artist and that the actual tattoo is the finished product. It doesn’t matter if the customer only wants the painting and not a tattoo. The purpose, according to them, is tattooing and not art. They won’t consider the fact that I purposely focus on a group of people with purchasing power, like tattooed people. And they decide what’s art without following our government’s official study on art; it’s a matter of interpretation of course, but tattooing fulfils every requirement. The IRS even go above the Swedish Academy of Literature, who in their encyclopaedia explain what a tattoo means. The IRS is acting as if they are their own dictatorship. The customer can hang up the painting, burn it in the street or whatever; as long as I sit at Heidi Hay’s, according to them I’m a tattoo artist. I know colleagues who are allowed to sell art or illustrations for a certain percentage of their income, but all the employees at my local IRS are of a different opinion. I’m on my eighth officer now.

What he’s doing might not be art in the eyes of the IRS, but it is the eyes of his customers and colleagues, especially within realism. On his website, all his pictures are in this genre.

With the pictures I put up there, I want to show what I want and prefer to tattoo, but I’ve tried all styles. If someone’s been waiting for a year to get an Asian tattoo, I will give them that. I also have a couple of customers who only want old school.

Considering Niki’s background though, he’s never tattooed in a comic book style.

That was never my goal, going to that school. Instead, I learned how to build up and visualize a story, to construct emotions in images, and that has been very useful in my tattooing.

Heidi Hay Tattoo

Östra Hamngatan 8B
411 09 Göteborg

Tel: +31 132033


Text: Simon Lundh; Photography: Niki Norberg