The gorgeous blog Women with Tattoos was started by digital producer and photographer Eleni Stefanou, 30, from London, a year ago. To celebrate we caught up with Eleni to find out more about her inspiration behind starting the blog and her own collection of tattoos…
Photographer Eleni started Women with Tattoos blog
to record the stories that may otherwise go unheard
Photograph by Eftihia Stefanidi
Women with Tattoos is celebrating its first birthday, but what inspired you to start it? I was spending hours on Tumblr researching my first tattoo when I realised how one-dimensional the representation of women with tattoos was. It’s the kind of imagery you’d find in a lad’s mag – women dressed and photographed to gratify the male gaze. Around the same time, a study came out revealing that, for the first time in recorded history, tattooed women outnumbered tattooed men. That’s pretty fascinating, yet mainstream culture wasn’t reflecting and exploring this shift. Women with Tattoos was an attempt to record some of the stories that may go unheard and to offer beautiful images that women could identify with.
Describe the blog in one sentence…
I think of it as a visual love letter to tattooed women.
How has it evolved over the first year? It’s hopefully become more diverse in its representation of women from different backgrounds. I’ve also focused a bit more on the artistry of tattooing, by interviewing female tattoo artists and linking to portfolios when crediting the artists behind the featured tattoos. On a more general level, I’ve slowed down quite a bit. I used to do photo shoots almost every weekend, and while I loved it, it was becoming exhausting alongside my full-time job. I had to remind myself that this was something I was doing in my own time for my own enjoyment and that any pressure I felt was self-inflicted.
Who has been your most stand-out portrait, why? There’s a photo I took of a woman called Gabriella, which is really hypnotic. We were in Camley Street Natural Park, this beautiful nature reserve hidden away in a busy part of London. Gabriella has a beautiful botanical tattoo by Saira Hunjan down the length of her arm. It includes a lemon, butterfly, bluebells and other flowers and there’s lots of negative space around these elements, so it’s not your typical sleeve. Ironically, her tattoos aren’t that visible in this photo, but I kind of love that they’re subtle and blend in with the nature around her. First you see Gabriella, the person, then you see her tattoos.
What have you learnt while shooting these portraits? I’ve learnt that most people feel quite vulnerable when they’re being photographed. As someone who spends a lot of energy avoiding the lens, I can completely relate to this. So I try and adapt my approach depending on the person. Some of the women like to talk a lot in between shooting, while others prefer to listen to music.
I’ve also found that photography can be an empowering experience for many women. One of the most common feelings they express when I reveal their portraits is a sense of surprise at how beautiful they look. But they *are* beautiful and I’m just capturing what I see. It’s like the photo becomes a form of validation. When I photograph someone, they’re the only person in the universe in that moment. My focus is entirely on them, in fact, often I catch myself gasping for air because I’ve forgotten to breathe! Hopefully, the women can sense that they have my full attention and admiration, which is something that comes through their disposition in the photos.
What do you hope others will take from them? I really hope that the project will help shift people’s perspectives and prejudices about tattooed women. A friend of mine who I went to school with told me that he never really liked or understood tattoos, especially on women, but now he finds them beautiful and reads all the interviews on the blog. I also hope that women will see the project and feel understood and valued – that’s probably the most important thing.
Tell us about your own tattoos…. I have a dotwork prism on my side rib and a wreath on my inner arm. My tattoos are a source of strength – they crystalise what’s important to me in life. I’m a big believer in the power of symbols and how they can hold meaning and memories. Every time I do a photo shoot I have a really strong urge to get tattooed. I try to avoid rushing into things though. Luckily, most of my favourite artists live in the US, South Korea and New Zealand, which kind of enforces a more patient approach.
Where do you hope to take the blog over the course of the next year? I’d really love to travel to new places and represent cultures that aren’t reflected in the blog. I want to find out what it’s like to be have tattoos as a woman in other parts of the world – what is the common ground and what are the differences in experience? I want to photograph and interview more women who are over the age of forty (a large portion of the women I photograph happen to be in their 20s and 30s) and I’m really keen to speak to someone who has a mastectomy tattoo – to find out more about the healing process of covering a scar with a tattoo. I’m naturally inquisitive and drawn to people and their stories, so this is the driving force behind what I do.
To view more portraits of women with tattoos, visit womenwithtattoos.co.uk
When did the Skin project come about and what is the idea behind these shots? Skin was created for a competition that I didn’t win, but that doesn’t matter now. I met so many wonderful people through the project which is more important that any prize. The title of the competition was simply ‘Skin’. I began to think of the various interpretations of skin, what you can do with it, the way we can see and feel it. The skin is the largest organ of our body and we can not live without it. One thing all human beings have in common is their skin and how it can cause a variety of relationships and reactions among people. Love, hate, contempt, worship and much more. ‘Skin’ is more than just aesthetics it explores how we live in it and how people really are inside their own body.
How did you select the personal stories of each one of the subjects? To select the people I searched the internet and I spread the word among my acquaintances. I only chose people who had interesting experiences or felt connected to their skin in some way. I listened to the story of each of them and the ones I chose were those that struck me the most. In each photo there is a summarising sentence, that encapsulates them as a person.
What did you like the most about this experience, both personally and professionally? What I liked the most was meeting extraordinary people that I would like to keep in my life. From a more professional side, this is the most methodical project I’ve done so far. From the start I already had an idea of how the aesthetics would be. However when photographing people I didn’t ask for them to pose, I took every picture naturally during our long talks. But I knew that I wanted clean, balanced and strong images. I usually get dragged a little more by improvisation and variety, but here I had to work within certain limits, and it was a great experience.
What are your thoughts about tattoo art? I have two tattoos, but I’ve never studied the history of tattooing. I don’t like how stereotyped people with tattoo are, and I don’t like them as a fashion trend. Saying that, not every tattoo should have a deep moral significance. My tattoos act as reminders for me. The words ‘here now’ remind me not to be anxious about the future, or decay in the past. ‘Write’, instead, reminds me to finish my novel. I chose Evelyn Hays, the tattooed girl in the Skin project, because she totally believes in this form of artistic expression. And I would have chosen her even if she hadn’t had tattoos, because she believes deeply in this art form.
Can you see a relationship between tattoos and photography? In a photographic portrait a tattoo can be a point of interest or it can be seen as a disturbance. I really like to photograph the naked body, and for some shots I look for women without tattoos, because the tattoo is somehow distracting. Tattoos attract the eye, and can disturb the lines of the body that I want to create. Other times, they accentuate the body.
A snapshot of people who attended the infamous London Tattoo Convention 2016 including artists, the general public, organisers, performers and more. As they posed, they were interviewed by Alice Snape and Keely Reichardt.
Sonja Punktum, 38, tattoo artist, Hamburg
“I’m not an angry person, but people who aren’t tattooed see rebellion, so are sometimes scared. People often comment on my tattoos, even if I don’t ask for it. Tattoos make people react, but I think that is because they are intense, they are created through pain and last forever, there is nothing else like it.”
Arrienette Ashman, 26, tattoo artist, Bournemouth
“I was 19 when I got my first tattoo, I went big straight away, as I always knew wanted to be heavily tattooed. My mum picked me up after the appointment and was shocked, but she has learnt to love them over the years. I love the thought of having art on me always. It is not just physical – it is a spiritual process.”
Ashley Green, 27, sports coach, Harrow
“I was drunk when I got my first tattoo at 16, it was a Chinese symbol. All my other tattoos are now family related, including a portrait of my mum.”
George Crew, 21, tattoo artist, Leicester
“I was 16 when I got my first tattoos, it was a rose on my stomach. I got it because everyone around me was getting tattooed. If I could go back, I would think about it more and get something of better quality. I am saving my back, though, as a backpiece is the most important tattoo you will ever get, as it is the biggest canvas.”
Monami Frost, 21, model/blogger/social media, Liverpool
“I cannot imagine my life without tattoos. Getting tattooed, for me, is a never-ending process. They are part of who I am. I think they are beautiful and they make me feel more full.”
Ermine Hunte, 37, buyer for an airline, Luton
“Tattoos and piercings are so empowering and can change who you are as a person. I have gained more confidence as they have covered scars from a kidney transplant. I am constantly evolving and gaining control over my body.”
Laura Makabresku is a Polish visual artist and photographer who creates beautiful fairytale-esque images. Her photographs overflow with a dream-like quality inspired by the delicacy of nature and the fragility of the human condition…
‘Shaded’ is an on-going interview series created by 21-year-old Bournemouth-hailing music journalism student, writer and editor James Musker, which focuses on tattooists, the interesting people that wear their work and both the artist and canvas’s relationship to the craft.
Martyna Wisniewska is a 21 year-old photojournalism graduate based in Southampton who is as much a talented live music photographer as she is an ethereal visual artist. Contributing to ‘Shaded’, the South-Western surrealist enlightens us as to what it is that influences her creatively, the importance of tone in her photography and her fascination with crows that’s soon to inspire her next tattoo…
When did you start taking photographs? I moved to Southampton to study at university and started shooting at the beginning of 2014. I was reviewing gigs for three months prior, but I realised I hated writing more than anything so I picked up a camera instead. It hit me following a 65daysofstatic show that I was going to pursue this weird little path I found myself on. I remember running home from the venue with tears in my eyes – it felt like I finally found something I loved doing!
What influences your work? My work is very heavily influenced by people. I would be lying if I said the people I work with don’t influence the look or feel of certain frames. Other than that, I’m influence by the same things as to any other content creator: the internet, books, advertising – It’s all part of it! I look at images all the time. I was that weird kid in my art class, so I always had a wonky sense of what the things I make should look like. Dali was obviously a huge influence along with Eric Lacombe. It’s super tough to pin-point what exactly influences me, but I feel like it’s fair to say the way my work looks is environmental. I adapt my concepts to situations.
Can you speak about the artists who inspire you? To be honest, it would be easier to speak of people who don’t inspire me. There’s naturally a bunch of artists who’s work I love. One of them being a German photographer based in Berlin, Gundula Blumi. She makes these dreamy, surrealistic images that I can’t get enough of. The tone of her work makes my brain tingle. It bugs me how one can be so creative. I also closely follow the work of other content creators like Joshua Halling, Sam Haines, Daniel Patlan, Liam Warton, Nona Limmen and Tamara Lichtenstein.
What do you use to create your images? In terms of cameras, anything from compact cameras to my ultimate baby, the Canon 6D. In terms of the look of my shots, I own a bag full of glass that I use to reflect my images and manipulate them. That’s it really. A bag full of glass is the key.
What do you admire in other people’s work? I struggle with tone a lot – my colour palette is so odd! Sometimes it just doesn’t work and it’s the most infuriating thing in the world. Months ago, I went through a phase of making everything look dirty and over saturated. I now strive to get the dreamiest frames I possibly can, so tones and the use of natural light are things I admire the most in other people’s work.
Can you tell us about your tattoos? I don’t really have that many. I’m pretty much covered in animals, bones and plants. When I was a kid, I owned a bunch of lovable creatures, so a lot of my tattoos are either of animal skulls or my pets. I got a stick and poke last October when on tour with Milk Teeth and Title Fight. My pal Daniel Liljedahl did it. Most of my tattoos have been done by a Southampton-based tattoo artist and illustrator called Gemma Piper who works at Ginger Toms Tattoo Studio. I love her style, hence why I essentially let her cover my right leg in her work.
She was an apprentice at Ginger Toms when I started getting tattooed by her. I’ve been pretty lucky to have been able to watch her progress so closely. Sucha Igla produced a pretty big piece of mine. He’s this insanely talented artist who’s based in Gdansk, Poland. The design is a rat skull contained within a wooden hexagram. It sounds pretty gnarly, but it’s actually kind of girly. The only tattoo on my body that can really be considered to have any existential meaning is this funny looking lizard I’ve got tattooed on my calf. He has the word ‘relaxo’ written above him, simply because I forget to slow down and be mindful of my surroundings a lot of the time.
What attracted you to tattoos in the first place? I always liked the look of tattooed skin; my family never really approved. I got in trouble for getting my nose pierced when I was 16, so you can imagine my Mum’s reaction when I first started getting tattooed. She made me promise not to get any more after my first, but 22 tattoos later and I think she might finally be over it all.
Do you have any plans for future work? The only tattoo I have planned right now is a big black crow that’s gonna go on my arm. I recently developed this weird attraction to crows; they’re not only the most handsome of birds but also super interesting to watch. They’re like a bunch of bad boys hanging out, pissing each other off and protecting their turf. There are a lot of artists I’d love to get tattooed by, Hugo Tattooer being one of them. He tattoos the cutest little animals – it makes my heart hurt! I’d also love to get tattooed by this surrealist artist from Holland, Levi Jake. His portraiture is something that inspires my work and I would love one day to be able to get him to design me a dreamy piece to compliment my bag of glass.
Do you find that there’s a relationship between tattoo culture and the world your photography gravitates toward? There is definitely a link between tattoos and music. It’s all art in the end, isn’t it? I think the factor of self-expression is what makes band culture gravitate towards the world of tattoos. Both music and tattoos allow you to express yourself and your values.
French photographer Maia Flore creates beautiful surreal art that exists in a realm between reality and her imagination, her works are complete fabrications that focus on the sense of touch. In the collection Sleep Elevations (2010-2013) Flore presents girls who are entering into a new boundless surrounding, their contorted bodies portray their limitless imagination contrasted against their physical limitations…
Oleg Dou a Russian artist who uses photography as a medium for his work, creates sad yet beautiful pieces of art. Oleg concentrates on old classical facial shapes mixing them with real world objects to create multi-textured works which often shock and produce fearful responses in his audiences.
Sketch for the “Sometimes it is sad”
Sketch for the Butterfly
Sketch for The Bird
In Issue 11 (The Fruity Issue), writer and philosopher Kimberly Baltzer-Jaray wrote a piece titled Stay Real. Keep Simple. Live in the now. Ignorant Style where she discussed the importance of the “shits and giggles” tattoo and interviewed French graffiti artist turned tattooist, FUZI. Along with that article we included some beautiful photographs, some of these were taken by FUZI and some were created by a talented friend of Kimberly’s, Sebastian Klimek, on the day FUZI tattooed JOnas in NYC… Kimberly explores more below…
Sebastian and FUZI share some similarities in that both are self-taught artists; both find inspiration in the streets and with the everyday people walking them; both like to break rules and do not identify with any set style, but rather create their own. In this way, they are more avant-garde or ‘anti-art’ like the 20th century Dadaists were. Sebastian’s photographs are rather eclectic and even at times a bit chaotic in subject matter, technique or distortion, and thus he describes them as ‘Brute style’. In fact, he doesn’t think of himself as an artist at all: “I don’t consider myself an artist. I don’t want to take nice photographs, but rather I want to capture interesting content. I dislike mainstream or commercial photography. You could say photography itself guides and rules my ass. I experiment a lot with different mediums, digital tools. I draw with my camera; I prefer to say that I created the images or made the photograph rather than shot or took.” As to influences on his photography, he only mentions loving the work of Daido Moriyama and Japanese aesthetics in general.
As a photographer Sebastian is very spontaneous, he tries not to think too much when he shoots since “thinking too much causes conflicts.” He’s also quite ethical in that he refuses to photograph homeless people or beggars because “it’s being a vulture for a cheap shot.”
For Sebastian, photography and creating images is a self-therapy for pain, specifically social anxiety disorder (SAD). Photography is a form of interacting with people that is without verbal content, it is a way to be part of the social situation without the pressures of conversation and proximity, and thus it his a way to cope with and overcome SAD. Capturing people on the street through his lens and images is a way of communicating at a comfortable distance, silently, and in many ways without judgment. Sebastian says, “Basically, I’m waging a war against social anxiety disorder, which has been torturing me since my teenage years. People think I’m quiet or even shy, but that’s not true. I’m pretty fuck’n loud, but I get choked when I need my communication and photography skills the most. I fear embarrassing myself, which is the biggest issue with SAD. But if you keep yourself in the shadow of a disorder, it’ll eat you and ruin your life, and you’ll end up institutionalized. Capturing people on the streets is a way for me to overcome and heal. So, there is a very deeply personal and meaningful subject for my photographs.”
It is here we see that his photography very much fits with his life philosophy when he adds, “They [his photographs] are the beginning of something greater.” For Sebastian, any misfortune in life leads to something greater and positive. In other words, setbacks and difficulties are opportunities for bigger, better and greater things.
Sebastian was born in Poland and moved to New Jersey when he was 17. With no formal education, he worked as a construction worker until a serious injury forced him to stop. He currently volunteers at a wonderful art organization known as the Franklin Furnace Archive Inc. in Brooklyn, NY, a place that encourages the creation and preservation of avant-garde art of all forms and is committed to promoting that which is under-represented by mainstream arts institutions due to things like ephemeral nature or politically unpopular content. His volunteer work at the Franklin Furnace is a source of pride, meaningful purpose and joy.
All images © 2015 Sebastian Klimek