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Interview: Machine-free Tattooist Boff Konkerz

1 January 15 interview: Andrew Graves
photos: Boff Konkerz

"I didn't get into it with the idea that it would be a good way to tattoo, I started tattooing like that and then I worked out why it was a good way"

I’m assuming you began as a machine tattooist, why did you go down the hand-poking route?
I didn’t start off using a machine. I was already designing tattoos for friends and stuff up here and I moved to London because I wanted to try that out for a bit. I ended up sharing a house with a well-known tattooist, who was also the most tattooed man in the world at the time. I got him to do some stars on my hands without a machine and this was a really unknown, underground way of working – I thought it was really cool. At that point, I was playing in a punk band and still thought the music was going to work out. I wanted to learn how to do it, as a skill not a career, but I’ve been doing it ten years now and it’s become my job. I’ve become more informed and learned what hand working actually is. I didn’t get into it with the idea that it would be a good way to tattoo, I started tattooing like that and then I worked out why it was a good way. It was a reductive approach.

Even though tattooing/inking has become much more acceptable, there still seems to be an almost backward resistance to what are deemed to be the more ‘extreme’ forms of body modification. What’s your take on this?
People who get cosmetic plastic surgery, apart from the extreme end of things, are doing it to fit in. It’s to conscribe and conform to an idiosyncratic ideal that society deems acceptable, whereas body art, unless it’s a small tattoo that makes you a bit racy, is generally the opposite. They’re getting those procedures done to look younger, which is fucked up anyway. Tattooing, piercing, branding, scarification, all these things are going against the grain, even though they’ve got more popular. With the hand working stuff, I just try and do the opposite to what everyone else is doing. It’s a niche, there are probably about six of us in the world.

I don’t like most tattoos: I don’t like portrait tattoos, I don’t like people getting their kids’ names tattooed on them, I don’t like football badges, I don’t like patriotic tattoos. The list of stuff I don’t like in tattooing is way bigger than the list of stuff I do like. People talk about the tattoo scene getting bigger but I don’t know if that’s necessarily a good thing. I don’t think it’s as developed as it was in the nineties. Now it’s become commoditised.

Your work is very distinctive – a strange mash-up of brain melting technicality and something much more ancient and organic, one might imagine bleeding from the notebooks of Lovecraft and Escher. How would you describe your work and what influences you?
The reason I do the sort of Escher, geometric thing, is because it looks great. But I like the mystery element too. A patriotic tattoo, sporting tattoo or portrait tattoo has no mystery and that kind of design is popular with people who don’t think in an abstract way, so they can go down the pub and say to their mates, “Oh, I got this Nottingham Forest badge.” No one is going to be confused by that, whereas more abstract work can confuse people who don’t think that way. I’ve had people come up to me looking at the work I’ve got and ask what it means, or what it is. They need a context and it’s just abstract decoration. Abstract work can add to the body, whereas portraits and the like are separate from the physical form. 

How do you ensure clients are receiving something more special than from a normal high street tattooist?
I tend to take one client per day, as the process is much slower. The first thing you’ll get when you turn up is probably a cup of tea or a chat for half an hour, then I’ll start drawing. I always make the tools in front of the client. I could just make a job lot at the weekend but if you make them in front of the client they know those tools are for them. I don’t start the clock, as regards payment, until I actually start tattooing, that way there’s no pressure to start. If we take a break I take that off as well, so you’re literally only paying for the time you’re being worked on. There are some tattooists who will work on you while listening to an iPod and they will barely say two words to you. At the end they will take a considerable sum of money from you, take a picture for their portfolio and forget you ever existed. I’ve gone the opposite way.

What kind of work would you draw the line at?
I don’t like lettering. I don’t like to see writing on the body but I’ll do it if I have to. I wouldn’t attempt anything I couldn’t do. I don’t do colour. I wouldn’t do a hyper-realistic portrait of anyone because that’s not the way I’m trying to work and I also don’t ink [people’s] faces when they aren’t really ready. I had a 21-year-old girl in Denmark wanting me to tattoo a line from ear to ear across her nose and I was like – “I’m not doing that!” She didn’t really understand why. But then again if it had been someone in their fifties who was completely covered from head to toe in tattoos, I would’ve done it, because I try to take each case on its own merits. The thing is, you’re dealing with a person, so I try and find some common ground and accommodate them, but the bottom line is, everything I do is going to look like it’s done by me.

They say tattoos and rock’n’roll have always gone together and this seems to be true of your role in London-based punk band Fed On Famine, but your beginnings in eighties/nineties Sutton-in-Ashfield were much less glamorous. How have those early experiments in rock’n’roll helped to shape your career?
I moved to London thinking I was going to get some music together. But I was already thirty and the music industry was in decline, so I don’t know what I thought was going to happen. But you have that kind of romantic idea of packing a bag of clothes, getting your acoustic guitar and doing a Dick Whittington. I’m a slow developer and I should have done it ten years earlier. But with the band situation back in Sutton and Mansfield, it was also based on my misguided idea that you could do what you wanted. It was a complete denial of actual circumstances. Maybe it was because I was an only child, I just always had this naive view that I could do whatever I wanted, and in a roundabout way it turned out I was right. The key is to do something, whatever that turns out to be. Doing something and not doing something is the difference between being depressed and not depressed.

I guess Fed On Famine won’t be appearing on X Factor anytime soon?
[Laughs] I don’t even know what that is.

If you’re thinking of getting an inking, Boff Konkerz regularly does guest spots at The Tattoo Emporium on Mansfield Road.

Boff Konkerz website

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