Draw the Line - Chaim Machlev

Published: 26 March, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 223, April, 2013

“I got my first tattoo done by Avi Vanunu in Tel Aviv when I was 29, and during the procedure something happened inside me that changed me forever!” So began this remarkable interview with Chaim Machlev, known in the tattoo world as Dots to Lines…

He goes on to describe his first encounter with tattooing. “I cannot put my finger on it now, but something meaningful happened and I realised how strong the effect of putting your trust into someone you just met, to let them change your body, when all you have as a reference is some work of theirs you’ve seen before, or some recommendation. I see it as leaving your ego behind and going through something very deep; a process of self-healing using art.”

To Chaim, everything changed after that. To put it simply, he decided to dedicate his life to understanding what exactly happened in that little room in Tel Aviv, and how it had come to have such a profound effect on his life. He puts it beautifully when he says, “there was something deep in my subconscious that had been there for many years and suddenly it had been woken up and had called me into action. Every time I thought about tattooing I felt that there is something in it that waits out there for me…”

In order to pursue this passion, Chaim left Israel where he felt he’d been struggling for the first 30 years of his life, and began his new life as a tattoo artist. He had realised that there would be no way that he could learn to tattoo in Israel, and so travelled to the capital city of Germany, Berlin. “I had left my job as a service manager at a famous IT company where I was working 14-hour days. From a materialistic point of view, I was leaving a lot behind. I was leaving a highly paid job, and no-one I knew understood why I was suddenly taking such a risk.” But it was clear to Chaim that it was what he wanted and was destined to do. “It just became a part of my truth that led me to sell everything I ever owned to fund that chance.”

Picture Chaim, having left a life of luxury, arriving in Berlin with nothing but a small bag on his back and a big dream. “I was aware how hard the journey might be, but I was prepared for it. I marked all the tattoo studios on the map and started to visit each one of them.”

He recalls meeting a lot of kind people along the way. “One particular occasion, which turned out to have real significance for me, was when I met a couple who really opened their hearts for me. They provided me a place in their studio to be an apprentice and to learn through observing. They opened the door of opportunities for me and I am thankful for that every second of my life. I continue to tattoo in that same place now. I think they figured out how badly I wanted it, but also appreciated what I’d had to let go of in Israel. From then on, the movie turned into a fast-motion film…

“I love tattooing in Berlin, and even though I am tattooing regularly in LTW-Barcelona and GIAHI-Zurich, I tattoo here in Berlin most of the time. People here are very open minded and have a lot of trust in me and my designs. Without my amazing clients here in Berlin, I wouldn’t be able to make it as a tattooer.”

I asked Chaim to tell me a bit about his style and practice of tattooing. “My designs are based a lot on the shape of the body of the particular client that I’m tattooing at the time. The process starts with meeting the clients and trying to understand what it is that they want to express. Then I observe their body and the location they had in mind for the tattoo, and I try to create something that will look organic and be in harmony with the body. I draw up a rough design before I start, and the final result is something that the client cannot predict. So it takes a lot of trust to get tattooed by me.”

Currently, Chaim is a resident artist at Toe Loop Tattoo gallery, and doesn’t tattoo more than one customer a day. He likes to go through the experience with his client “without borders of time or tension”. This, for Chaim, makes the procedure a good experience for his customers and as traumatic-free as possible. I was moved by what he said next… “My session starts with a hug and ends with a hug. Always.”

He goes on, “I try to experiment as much as I can from the art perspective. I guess that as someone that never had any contact with the art world as a creator of art, it is harder than it would be for someone that has created art their whole life. I don’t have the ability to draw quickly and as naturally as other artists. I have only been doing it for a few years now, but fortunately for me I don’t have any borders when it comes to the creative process, unlike people who have studied art and have become conditioned to create art in a certain way.

“My tattoos are based on dots and lines, and I really try to keep it on that level. Those kinds of tattoos will look good in 30 years. I find the dot-work style of tattooing to be extremely meditative and it really takes me to places inside myself that even the best psychoanalyst couldn’t take me to. It is truly amazing. And as someone that sees Buddhism as a way of life, it is really closing a circle inside my soul. I love doing mandalas and using all kinds of patterns for my designs. I have always enjoyed the usage of black and I believe that black is the nicest colour for tattoos; it is closer to our source than any other colour. Sometimes I will use a bit of red, but just to harmonise the black.

“I am aware of the fact that it is sometimes hard to express yourself as an individual through your art, and I believe that the act of creating is a process that has no time or place and cannot be done under pressure. This is the reason that I don’t do conventions and would rather work as personally and as intimately as possible.

“Many people in the western world see tattooers as they see rock stars. They think that there is a lot of fame and glory in it. And so it drives a lot of people to try their luck in the industry. I get a lot a lot of requests to teach people and it is totally crazy. Some of them are too young to even get a tattoo! Those are definitely the wrong reasons to try. There are certain aspects in your character you need to have in order to be a tattooer. You have to be sensitive enough to feel and to create. So it is certainly not for everyone, and even years of hard apprenticeship isn’t necessarily going to make you a tattoo artist. It’s about dedicating your whole life to it, and that is the most important thing for a young aspiring artist to understand. It is really not about ‘copy and paste’.”

At this point in the interview I suddenly found myself immersed, yet also keen to find out what it is that actually inspires him on a day-to-day basis. What inspires his art and what inspires him as a person. “I get inspired by a lot of things, but mostly, honesty is what inspires me. When an honest person wants to see their inner truth through art, it creates a kind of magic. It is within those magical moments that I feel that I want to create the strongest. I find that kind of harmony when looking at nature, or music, for instance, listening to Pearl Jam or Pink Floyd. Those are the kinds of musicians that bring something more than just playing their instruments well. They create magic, a feeling around their art, and this is exactly what I search for with my designs.”

Tattooing is clearly a spiritual practice for Chaim, so I allowed him to continue to expand on that theme. “As a tattoo artist, now I understand better the process that people are going through while getting tattooed. People are getting tattooed for so many reasons, but one thing is always the same, and it is that they are going through a very unusual experience whilst getting tattooed. Even though I have been tattooing now for just one year, I have had so many different types of customers, from all kinds of socio-economic levels, different occupations, different countries and cultures, individuals with different backgrounds, and all of them are standing in my studio, stripped of their ego, whilst getting tattooed. Suddenly, they don’t have the masks and shelters that they wear outside. They are free to express themselves and talk about things without any worries. Those are the special magical moments that I fall in love with every day, again and again. The honest moments.”

Unfortunately, it was time to bring our interview to a close, and so I asked Chaim if there was anything that he’d like to add. “I put a lot of energy into making a way into the tattoo industry on my own. I constantly search for perfection with my artistic development and technical ability, always searching for the perfect lines and the perfect dots. I am very far away from where I want to be as an artist, and that hunger of finding the most unusual and harmonic designs is unsatisfied inside me, burning and driving me every day.

“I barely have contact with other tattooers. I find that the best way for me to create interesting designs is just to be by myself and to look inside. I find everything inside me. All the dots and all the lines are in there. And all the answers are in nature. For example, if you cut an orange in half you have a perfect mandala. Snowflakes, fractals, it is all there… you just have to learn how to look, and unfortunately observing those things is something that you don’t learn in school.

“You just have to open your eyes…”

Toe Loop Tattoo

Weserstr. 38
12045, Berlin


Text: Tom Abbott; Photography: DTL