In a Darkened Room - Cris Cleen

Published: 26 February, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 222, March, 2013

Early 1900’s men and women, sometimes in sensual poses, are often on the menu when Cris Cleen at Saved Tattoo in Brooklyn gets to work: “It’s all about the chase,” he says. “Drawing a woman cooking for a man is not interesting…”

To call Cris Cleen’s work erotic black and red tattoos featuring turn-of-the-century-styled men chasing women is maybe narrowing it down a bit too much, but it’s not far from the truth. In this Brooklyn-based tattoo artist’s repertoire, you see the same scale of colours in each tattoo, while a lot of them feature guys with top hats and monocles, and women in silent movie haircuts grasping cigarette holders, sometimes in questionable positions.

“I’ve always liked that kind of flash, the way that these guys are dressed, and I wanted to do bold tattoos but with delicate features. It’s more elegant and it has a more serious approach than in many street shops,” he says.

The style was developed early in his career and really took form when he got his first, let’s say, stable, job in his career, at Spider Murphy’s Tattoo in San Rafael, north of San Francisco.

“I would say that this job put me on the map. I got my tattoos in magazines and people started noticing me. Theo Mindell, who owns the shop, didn’t do that style himself, but he helped me figure out how to make it look old, but not bad. Also I studied really hard.”

Although black and red are the dominant colours, alongside white, he does actually use a lot more colours. They just don’t come out very clear in photographs.

“Clients sometimes get surprised when I take out my colours. They think that I will do something strange on them, but I do use a lot of colours, like earth tones and so on, and I kind of like the idea that people see more contrast in the pictures.”

His art is identical to his tattoo style, and it has its explication.

“A lot of times artists don’t know how to show people what they want to do, but in my case it’s pretty obvious. It’s my way of showcasing my tattooing. I don’t care about getting into a gallery and I don’t know if I ever will. I want to do art to show people what they can get. It’s the best PR.”

Cris Cleen was dead set on getting tattoos when he turned 18, and it took him just three days after that magic birthday. However, before said birthday, he hadn’t really thought about it for very long.

“I don’t know why I suddenly wanted it so badly or why I went into a shop. I hadn’t grown up with tattoos, but as soon as I saw flash it was like a whole new world. I hadn’t seen that before. After a while I got an apprenticeship at a studio on the central coast in California, so I moved there from Sacramento.”

He had moved to California from the Midwest with his Mom when he was still a kid. When he turned 18 the family had moved back, and he was left on his own. Shortly thereafter tattooing became his career, but after a year’s apprenticeship he was soon, involuntarily, on his way again.

“I got fired after six months. Nowadays there are a lot more nice artists out there who teach people tattooing, but this was ten years ago and back then there were a lot of sketchy artists out there.”

So he moved back to Sacramento and worked in a couple of different studios before he made his way to Spider Murphy’s. “This was pre-internet when everything took a bit longer. I had to work in some unsavoury places before I started at Spider Murphy’s.”

Via Idle Hand Tattoo in San Francisco he made it out to the east coast and Saved Tattoo in Brooklyn about a year ago.

“I had done guest spots there and after having been there for a month one time, one of the owners, Chris O’Donnell, offered me a position at the shop and I saw an opportunity to work in a shop where I could do my own thing and pursue my vision. Tattooing in New York is like nowhere else. People really follow what’s going on and know what they want. It’s the best opportunity for a tattooist in the United States, to work in New York.”

Having arrived straight from a shop in the tattoo Mecca of the west coast, he’s able to compare the two leading tattoo cities in the country.

“Maybe it sounds mean to say this, but people in San Francisco need more safety. They’re very open to interesting ideas, but they want a friend to do the same. In New York the trends change so quickly that people are quick to do something cool. They kind of want you to be their secret tattoo guy. Also, the variety of artists is bigger in New York; in San Francisco they are a lot more alike. Here I tattoo a lot more people from different walks of life, while we had a running joke in San Francisco if we could guess who came in the shop to get tattooed by me. Because they all looked like me.”

His turn-of-the-century style has stuck with him and one of his favourite objects to tattoo is, like so many else, women. However, just a woman is rarely interesting enough for Cris Cleen. He’s all about the chase!

“Everyone can draw and tattoo a woman. I like to explain the interaction in between the two opposites. I really like old flash where women are drawn as men perceive them, as something exotic and unattainable, like geishas for instance. That’s why I often tattoo men or male-like creatures that chase women. Tattooing a woman cooking for a man is not very interesting. I like the fantasy part.”

Besides the woman he has two more favourite objects. The second one is the rose: “It’s a universal flower. Everyone knows what it means whatever language you speak and that’s what I like about it.”

The third one, and his top choice, is the snake: “I like the fact that there’s no female or male version of the snake. Very few designs with snakes make people say that it’s too scary or too nice. A snake is what it is. You can add a snake to any tattoo and nobody will ask you what it means. I like drawing stuff that both men and women can have, and if you draw in a certain way, that’s possible.”

Despite his love affair with drawn snakes, he’s never even touched one himself.

“I don’t have to be a part of the real world and that’s what I like about art. I would probably be afraid of one if I saw one, though. I’m a very urban person, so if I see one it will probably be in a scary situation.”

Saved Tattoo

426 Union Avenue (corner of Devoe Street)
Brooklyn NY, 11211
+1 718 486 0850


Text: Simon Lundh; Photography: Cris