Amina - Bright Side Tattoo: The Snail Palace

Published: 29 April, 2013 - Featured in Skin Deep 224, April, 2013

The focus has always been on animals when Amina Charai at Bright Side Tattoo in Copenhagen has drawn and tattooed. She herself has a tattoo of a snail that looks like a “yellow turd with an Evil Knievel helmet”, but, at least it’s a snail with a background story…

A tattooists interest in body art is often born growing up through drawing. But in the case of Amina Charai at Bright Side Tattoo in Copenhagen the interest went almost straight from paper to skin. At six years old she was already ‘tattooing’ all her classmates and pissing off parents.  

“When I was five, I always carried around a small portfolio with drawings and when I was six or seven, I used to tattoo my classmates with a pen. They were tattooed all over and I got so much shit from their parents because I was using a marker,” she says, laughing out loud.

Where her early fascination came from is uncertain, but she has a vague idea.

“I remember visiting my grandmother in Morocco when I was a kid. She belonged to a small Berber tribe and she was tattooed, even in the face. I remember being fascinated since the paintings didn’t come off. I was still fairly young when my Mom and I walked passed a tattoo studio on our block and I asked her what it was. ‘That’s where you get what grandma has,’ she said. Later in life, when I started going around looking for an apprenticeship, I think I went back to the same place.”

She never got an apprenticeship in the beginning, however. The reason could have been that she was 15 years old at the time…

“They were nice though, and told me to keep drawing and come back, which I did every year. But I still didn’t get anything so instead I went into computer graphics. After a while I got bored and started hitting studios outside of Copenhagen. Finally I got a spot with a full-blooded alcoholic. I was there for a year-and-a-half and it was actually pretty funny, looking back on it. He knew the names of all the whores and they had that little family feeling going. I wouldn’t trade that experience for nothing."

It started out well, though, but then it turned out, well… weird!

"I started right before my 21st birthday. I was ecstatic! I had spent six years trying to find a place to take me in and teach me, and finally I had found it. I was going to hold on to this for dear life. The owner seemed nice. He took me to conventions and bought me dinner from time to time, but he later just turned out to be an alcoholic sadist.

“In his free time he would find it funny to shoot me with his hardball gun, and he came up with this degrading name for me that he thought was so funny – and when I wasn’t picking up his laundry, smelling his farts, running to get cigarettes or coffee, hearing and seeing pictures regarding his sex life, waking him up, cleaning the shop, making needles, cleaning tubes, setting up his machines, talking to customers, answering the phone, getting screamed at, trying to draw without any help from him (because he was too busy watching porn), or serving his friends beers, I was changing the sheets in the back room where he would sleep instead of going home, because he was so depressed about life that he would go and get drunk every night. (And breathe! Ed.)

“I went with him a bunch of times, and I really thought that I could get through to him, but no, he was very unstable.

"We became good friends later on at one point, and that made the line between teacher and student very thin. I started to see him as a human being, and all I saw at the end, was an insecure idiot, who did not know how to treat people around him with respect.”

Needless to say, the experience didn’t reward Amina with a lot besides some unusual life stories.

“I didn’t learn anything! He was impossible. Every time I would ask, he would wave me off and say, “You know that!” I wasn’t allowed to have boyfriends, or see my friends very much, because he told me that it would take my attention off getting better. I really, really sucked at tattooing. And he would tell me to tattoo customers without telling them that I was a green bean, so he could make money off me. It was terrible.

“Luckily that only happened three times. I finally had the tits to tell the customers, that I was not ready to tattoo them. I had him tattoo me a bunch as well since he was always complaining about getting shit work through the door. So I gave him free hands to make something that he would enjoy on my body. He instantly started planning a bodysuit, and I said ok… something I regret until this day. He would constantly come up with some bullshit excuse, regarding me, having to take pretty much all my clothes off, maybe twice a day for a week, so he could draw on me to plan the suit. Back then I was young and naive, and he never finished it.”  The next studio, she left voluntarily.

“I ended up in a biker studio. They taught me considerably more, but I left since I wanted to travel. I went to the States where I started out in Delaware and then New York. I had met Matthew Amey and Jay Cooper, from Independent Tattoo in Delaware, at the tattoo convention in Berlin two years before and Matthew was so nice to invite me over to hang out. I did not even tattoo the first time I was there. I just watched, and went up to the New York convention with the whole shop. Back then, about seven years ago, New York was way ahead of Denmark in tattooing. There were studios everywhere and I got to work with really good artists.”

In other words, an experience that did a lot for her personally and professionally.

“Yes, the USA was mind-blowing. The time I spent there made me realise that there are really, really nice, loving people in this business, something I had not experienced that much of in Denmark at the time. People were friendly and keen on sharing knowledge. I was like… wow! I got so much help from a lot of people I had never met before and it boosted my creativity and gave me positive energy towards pushing myself. I felt I had hit a wall back home, and that’s why I wanted to travel in the first place. There was too much drama and bullshit getting me down. I mean, the last thing you expect to hear from someone you respect in the business in your own hometown, is that they think you don’t have the brain capacity to become a tattooist.”

She was especially fond of her stay at Independent Tattoo in Delaware.

“That’s where I felt at home for the first time in a long time, so Delaware is a very sacred and dear place to me. All those guys really helped me out. They are the reason I am where I am today, and I still visit every year. New York was a different story. I met my ex-husband there the year after. I was 24, and it was amazing moving there and trying to work in all these different shops. Since there are so many good tattoo artists in New York it also made me very eager to get better. I lived there on and off for two years, but I never really found my place.”

With this newfound knowledge, she involuntarily went back to Copenhagen five years ago to open up her own studio, Bright Side Tattoo, with her then husband.
A collaboration that didn’t last long…

“I met him in New York, but we broke up right after we opened up the shop. He gave me an ultimatum. Either I opened a studio in Copenhagen, or he would split. So I opened a studio, and then he split anyway, because suddenly he had to pay out some money.”

All drama aside, she does actually run a successful tattoo studio, a place where she loves to work and hang out.

“I was so lucky to meet a bunch of great guys and tattooists who are now working with me in the shop. We have the best shop vibe and team spirit, and I’m actually happy everyday I come to work.

"I love my co-workers, Zooki, Tony, all the guests and friends coming through, and my apprentice Anders.”

If she has to label, she says her style is leaning toward neo-traditional, but what really identifies her work are the ubiquitous animals.

“I’ve always been fascinated by animals and as a kid I loved drawing them. It has stuck. When I try to draw people it always turns out bad and I end up giving them claws or something. Drawing people is doing the same thing over and over again, but animals have a different composure, both in appearance and movement. They are beautiful tattoo objects. I do people as well, but clients rarely ask for that.”

One animal has been tattooed above all others in the studio. The Bright Side mascot, Sneglin the Snail. Friends, family and faithful clients have the chance to be adorned with this animal as long as you can figure out a new hat for it to wear.

“The snail has two background stories. When I was little I loved going down to some shrubs in our courtyard to pick snails. One day I picked like 30 or 40 of them when my mom called me up for dinner. I forgot I had them in my pocket, and the day after the apartment was filled with snails. Mom was furious. The other story is that I used to work with a British guy who wanted to learn how to pronounce Danish words. We used to hang out in my house where the internet connection was so slow we called it Snigelpalatset (The Snail Palace). He pronounced it ‘sneglin’ and we started using that word as slang.”

And Amina is the proud owner of the prototype.

“In the beginning we made it with different coloured houses, so mine looks like a yellow turd with an Evil Knievel helmet. Nowadays the idea is to give it different hats.”

To follow in grandma’s footsteps and tattoo Moroccan tribal patterns has on the other hand never occurred to her.

“I think it’s beautiful, but I don’t feel the need to do stuff like that. In Copenhagen alone there are two, three tattoo artists who do beautiful tribals. I can do ’90s tribals if you like, but that’s it.”

Bright Side Tattoo

Overgaden Neden Vandet 15 kld.
1414 Copenhagen K
Tel: +45 35136424


Text: Sion Smith; Photography: Anima