Enlightened Darkness: Interview with Tattoo Artist Franco Maldonado

By Justine Morrow - 
Enlightened Darkness: Interview with Tattoo Artist Franco Maldonado

In this interview with tattoo artist Franco Maldonado, he talks about punk rockers, surrealists, and anarchists.

Franco's inquisitive, highly philosophical nature is part of what makes his work so good. His creations are a mix of alchemical etchings and surrealist metaphors, tinged with Buddhist interests and literary leanings. The conceptual intensity is powerful; these tattoos are aesthetic incantations filled with significance and care.

I first met Franco Maldonado at Greenpoint Tattoo Co. about four years ago. As I remember it, he took a very lengthy quote from Walden, one of my most cherished, and transformed it into a visual representation that I am still in awe of. To this day he continues to be one of my favorite artists...not just due to his skill and dedication to the art form of tattooing but also the depth of thought behind his work.

So you tattoo but you also play in a band..how’s that going? How’d Los Perros come together and why do you like to play music?

It’s good! We’ve been on and off since I’ve been traveling lately but we’ll play more shows again and make it happen. Los Perros is playing on the 31st in New York...man, music is the best. I play with two guys from Colombia, Carlos and Lucho, and Alex from here. We were just united from the fact that we like the same music. We’d go see bands play, so we started playing with each other and making songs, and we wanted to have a band. It's just for fun!

Why do you think you got into punk?

When I was young? I don’t know...it was like my language. It was fast, clear, kind of aggressive, real smart.

What’re your favorite bands?

That’s hard to say...I like a lot of shit. Nowadays, I listen to salsa, jazz, classic music...punk whatever. Hard to name just a few. I like a lot of stuff. A lot of instrumental, just more for atmosphere, background noise…chill vibes.

Salsa is really punk if you think about it. Just look at the life, how it was invented, all the big salsa guys out there doing wild shit! I love salsa.

What is your artistic background and how did you get into tattooing?

I think I’ve been drawing since I can remember. Since I was young, just drawing cartoons or writing names in school...drawing on my own hands out of boredom all the time. So that’s always been there. My dad always liked art anyways, so he would sit me down and start teaching me how to draw and paint Saturday nights in the house. So, it was just something i enjoyed doing, kind of relaxing for me. You know when they tell you you’re gonna end up in high school, you have to study something because that’s just the way it is? I figured I should study art, like why not, you know? It was good and bad...overall I liked it. I learned a lot, but I think I learned more just learning how to tattoo...I did a lot of stuff before that, I wanted to do screen-printing, etching...I wanted to do a lot, and one day I thought I’d try tattooing. I never thought it was gonna be my thing...but then I fell in love with tattooing and that’s what I do now! It just happened.

You didn’t get an apprenticeship?

No, I looked for an apprenticeship. I knew you had to get one, or that it was the right way to get into tattooing...I also kind of liked the idea of word of mouth knowledge, you know, like information passed on? But people were like “nah”...nobody wanted to have an apprentice, and the people I knew who were tattooers already had apprentices, so I just couldn’t make it happen. So I started tattooing my friends at my house, punk friends, stuff like that. A year later, my friend knew a guy at a shop who was looking for somebody, after awhile he told me to go, and that’s how I started working at tattoo shops.

What makes a good shop good?

Good tattoos. It’s simple. Also the people that work there, and the tattoos they do ..the drawings, the flash.. anything else can add or take away from the experience. Also a good vibe. Like, how did you feel when you got that tattoo? It’s the effort that’s put into it, the care...if you really wanna do a nice tattoo, or if you’re just trying to be cool or get rich, you can tell. When the owner is there, and is a tattooer... like a captain of that boat. You have to have somebody in the shop to kind of look up to, somebody who’s like..

A mentor?

Yeah, totally. That’s pretty much the whole point of being in a place where you’re gonna learn from the people you work with. That shit is nice.

What art, films, books or philosophies inspire you? You have a lot of books!

Yeah...I have a lot of different reference material. It makes it hard sometimes in the way I work because I like so many things that I have trouble putting it all together. But I always had an interest in etching and engraving... just the line, the stroke...I always liked old engravings, I thought they had some secret meaning to them that I always wanted to figure out. There are things you see in an image and it speaks to you somehow….so I’ve always liked stuff like that and weird stuff like Dadaism, the circus, magic, anomalies, deformities, sickness, pain, love. Anything that makes you question existence and that thin line between what’s real and what's not.

Like Hieronymus Bosch?

Yeah! Like nightmare stuff, things that people are afraid of. Like demons..I like all that. Now I’m getting more into that. Before, I was more into the physical weirdness of the body, but now I’m looking at other stuff like the metaphysical, if you want to put it that way. I see a lot of eastern art, like Tibetan art speaks to me a lot. How it’s related to Tibetan medicine, and its relation to your self and it got me into Buddhist stuff.

Speaking of philosophy, you gave me an anarchist tattoo, and it’s something that you’re interested in...does that interest stem from punk? I always have difficulty describing anarchism and how I use it in daily life. There are too many preconceived notions people have about it. How do you explain it?

To me, its just a personal philosophy. It is the way I wake up everyday and act as a person in relation to everybody, you know? I guess it could’ve started with the punk thing...cuz that’s maybe how I heard of it and I started reading about it for the first time. So it became a political thing, like a cultural understanding of the world around us. I guess I’ve always had a lot of questions about life and the way we live… and somehow they always remained unanswered. So the search turned inward and I started looking at other places... I discovered Dharma Punx, for example...this guy who put Buddhism and punk together... as philosophies they’re very similar, so that spoke to me a lot. It is a way to create your own knowledge, and live by your own boundaries and rules. Not to believe everything people tell you all the time, and to have judgement...shit like that. Some people say Christianity is anarchist...I was reading about that the other day. You could take it anywhere, I guess, but its better when its personal. What do you think about it?

I don’t know. I usually describe it in simplistic terms so it's easier for people to wrap their mind around it. I guess what I usually say is that I try to treat people as equals, I think inclusivity is important, and freedom of choice is important. But freedom comes with responsibility. I don’t think the way we should be in relationships it to trap something or control something. I think everyone should…

Grow? Expand?

Yeah, totally...it’s not always going to be easy but it’s better that way.

I guess that’s part of it, seeing yourself as part of something bigger whether you call it a group of people that surrounds you or the rest of humanity…

Are you still practicing Buddhism? When we first met you were just getting into it…

I don’t know about practicing...I research it all the time, but I wouldn’t consider myself Buddhist.

Do you meditate?

Yes. I try to mediate often. Its really hard for me because sometimes my head just seems to be speeding much miles per second. So slowing down, and quitting the mind can be pleasant. I started doing yoga too. Which is cool because I am on that point where I’m not really bad at it anymore. I’m not just trying to do it. I am actually starting to understand a little bit of it.  It’s kind of awesome how different thoughts and ideas I’ve come across through life are starting to converge and interact with each other. Yoga philosophy is very anarchist, to me...it’s like everybody in society is in this race to compete and consume, but it’s nice to take a step back and figure out other shit...or I’d rather stay up all night and draw. That’s the way I see it sometimes.

Especially in New York, everything moves so fast, and everyone is so wrapped up in their work...it's best to be removed from it sometimes and get grounded, balanced...de-stressed. It’s important.

Yeah you gotta learn how to do it. In New York and everywhere, but it’s a bigger challenge when you live in a big city.

Did you see that new app Vero?

Yeah, I didn’t really check it out. I don’t have any interest in expanding my social media skills. *laughs*

How do you feel about social media and tattooing?

Its weird. It’s like everything, it has its good things and bad things. Nowadays people in countries like Colombia who don’t have the opportunity to travel outside of the country can sit on their phones and through social media get to see tattoo shops in New York, or London or Tokyo.  They can see all these tattoos being made and shops around the world. And they can have their work out there being seen. And that’s sick, because it’s like leveling the ground in a way. New York was so far ahead in tattooing than South America but now they’re catching up cuz people get to see stuff and do stuff. It’s just like a vehicle of communication you know? But then when it gets manipulative, and excessive, and weird….that’s when it gets shitty. People are just controlled by that shit.

But you seem to be really good about keeping your private life from your instagram.

Yeah, I feel like the only reason why I have an Instagram is to put my tattoos out there. The best thing about tattooing is that word of mouth, or just having a good tattoo out there in the world, is still the best kind of publicity you need. That still happens. But now, people kind of want to see “who the fuck are you?” before just getting tattooed...so that’s when people start selling that lifestyle shit, ya know? People start trying to be trendy and cool, and basing who they get tattooed by off that. Its weird. They’re like instagram nerds. They want to get tattooed by names, like brands...its like wearing a Nike shoe.

Yeah it can get bad. When I was getting tattooed by Zac he told me about this app, Moment, that tells you how often you’re using your phone. I downloaded it and it told me I spent 2 hours on my phone...at first i thought that wasn’t so bad, but that’s two whole hours!

I mean...that’s time. That’s a lot of time. *laughs*

Right? I‘ve been trying to be better about it.

Yeah! Me too... It’s really hard not to get distracted. Sometimes I try not to look at my phone until I get to the shop for example. I try to just use it as a work tool, you know? Then I’ll be at the shop all day and try to not look at my phone at all until the day ends. But I also realize that there is some good stuff I have found through the internet. Sometimes I’ll go on there and look at cool tattoos, comment on pictures. Maybe share what I’m doing...I realized that if I put line drawings that I want to tattoo, people actually see them and they wanna come and get them tattooed. It works if you use it smartly...you know, don’t change your username all the time.

I know! I hate that you do that! *laughs* You know, you’ve given me some tattoos that are really big, so people see it all the time and I’ll be somewhere and they’re like “That’s sick, where’d you get that?” and I’ll be like, oh yeah check him out on IG, his username is silencio or whatever....

And then they’re like “I didn’t find him!”

Yeah! *laughs* So, why do you get tattooed?

That’s a good question….I feel like the reasons always change. When I was young, I think I didn’t really know why I was getting tattooed. I just felt attracted to it. I got one, and I was like “woah” and never stopped getting tattooed...then I was interested in tattooing, so I got tattooed to watch and learn, to feel how it should feel to get a tattoo... and it’s just pretty cool to get a tattoo. You come up with an idea, and then you make it happen. It’s the best. Do you know why you get tattooed?

I think you’re right...the reasons always change. It's transformative. It lets me own my body. Sometimes it’s because I want to remember something,  they’re like memories…

Yeah, you remember the stories behind tattoos. That brings meaning to them and that brings meaning where there was nothing else. So that’s definitely empowering. A tattoo is a mark. So you are marking something in time, in space, in your own body. It’s about transformation and movement. Sometimes people are aware of that and sometimes they are not. So tattooing can be taken very lightly. It can be done just for fun, as a trend or as a fashion statement. But then tattooing can touch you a little deeper, and then its when you can start talking about those tattoo subject matters that have been there for hundreds of years, for a reason. Things that maybe touch the whole of humanity like love, passion, sex, desire, pain, hate. Religion. Death. Who hasn’t feel any of that? And then you can also see tattooing in its ritualistic aspect. More medicinal, more tribal, more purposeful, or esoteric. You can start tapping into other realms if you think about death, the after life, your ethereal body, electromagnetism. Then tattooing just seems kind of infinite but at the same time so simple and common. How could anybody not fall in love with it?

Awesome. So, just to wrap up…What makes you happy?

That’s a hard question. Especially if you’re in the moment...I mean, my breakfast made me happy today. A good song. That’s the best, when you hear a song and you’re like “Yeah. This is good.”...I don’t know what else to say about that. My dog. She makes me happy.

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