Deeper Than Skin Deep: The Photography of Elvia Iannaccone Gezlev

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Deeper Than Skin Deep: The Photography of Elvia Iannaccone Gezlev

In this interview with Elvia Iannaccone Gezlev, she talks about the importance of preserving tattoo culture and history.

The awe-inspiring beauty of the tattoo community rests in its diversity. Tattooists and collectors come from all walks of life; they are a global network sharing the commonality of loving art and expression with aesthetics, philosophies, and backgrounds that span all the vast varieties of humankind. Elvia Iannaccone Gezlev, an iconic piece of underground tattoo ethnology herself, is a tattooer and photographer who has been capturing portraits and visceral images of ink since the early 90's. With a portfolio that spans decades of artistic history, she is an integral part of preserving a culture that may quickly become lost within the fluidly fast moving modernity of society. 

Do you remember the first time you saw tattoos, or were drawn to the art form? How did you get into tattooing?

I never really had anybody with tattoos around me or in my family growing up.. I wish I did, but I loved punk rock and rockabilly music and I remember vividly this punk rock guy in my neighborhood.. he had a couple of anarchy tattoos on him, probably hand poked and I had a huge crush on him! So punk rock was to blame for my first exposure to tattooing! When during high school my best friend got herself a hand poked tattoo done, a butterfly, I was really impressed by it .. and then I saw the french movie Betty Blue, that really had a huge impact on me.. the main character, actress Beatrice Dalle, had a tattoo of a bat on her shoulder and that was it! That moment I knew I loved tattoos and I knew I wanted one! So when I was 18, during a solo trip to San Diego, California, I got my first tattoo done.. and I passed out! But that was it for me! I was hooked! When I came back to Milano I started looking around for tattoo artists and eventually started getting tattooed by friends. 

I only started tattooing way late, in my 30s, when a friend of mine pushed me into starting.. I never thought I could be good enough for something like that.. but eventually I gave it a try. Massimo and Gianmaurizio Fercioni were also very helpful, they gave me a huge opportunity to hang around the shop and let me try my first tattoos!  Eventually I moved to Brooklyn, NY and started tattooing in a street shop right away! That really threw me into the reality of what commercial tattooing really is.. lots of waiting around, long hours, difficult customers and feeling really lonely at times, but also working like crazy and making money at times! Thats how I learned the craft! Nowadays I'm still looking for my way to exist in the tattoo industry as a tattooer.. after working for a few shops in 16 yrs , and having 3 kids in between, I realize I'm not cut for commercial tattooing, and I'm now working in my private space.. looking for my artistic identity! I love tattooing and I have a deep respect for all the amazing artists out there, especially because I know how hard being a tattooer can be ...you have to sacrifice a lot and be really focused and driven.. and also a little lucky!

When did you go from tattooing to being a photographer? Why was photography something you wanted to do?

Actually photography came first! I was into photography since a young age.. I was already taking portraits of friends and strangers everywhere, but also aspiring models and bands.. and eventually tattoos... so around 1993, in my 20s, I landed a job as a photographer with the newborn Italian magazine Tattoo Revue! I was working alongside a great team, and with a young biker guy, very passionate about tattoos, by the name of Miki Vialetto.

Why is it so important to preserve tattoo culture and history?

I really feel like everything goes so fast today, with internet everything changed.. we can share tons of images and information at the speed of light.. but just as fast they are forgotten or replaced! There’s a need for preserving memory, editorial products are still relevant and we should support what is put out.  I love books and magazines!
The tattoo industry has become huge, and we shouldn't forget who was there before us and helped this industry flourish. Tattoo culture and history is something that needs to be preserved. My photo book “My Tattoo World” is a little contribution to contemporary tattoo culture and a reminder of the huge shift our society went through, in between the 2 centuries.. My photos, they go from 1994 to present days and capture some of the people I was struck by and their tattoos.

Why do you love the tattoo community, and can you describe some of the moments within the community that you felt were really unique?

My whole experience with Tattoo Revue shaped me... I had a few years of working really hard at tattoo conventions all over Europe, and I met so many amazing people and artists.. it was really awesome!  I feel times back then were so different, I was different...no kids yet...and a whole new exciting world was unveiling in front of my eyes and that was a unique experience for me! I got to work at the first Bologna conventions, got to meet icons of tattooing like Alex Binnie, Hanky Panky, Marco Leoni or Horiyoshi III, Tin Tin and Bernie Luther! I was part of the tattoo renaissance in Italy.. from nothing we put out the first Italian tattoo magazine.. that quickly became a hit everywhere in Europe and eventually in America by the name Tattoo Planet! Working at Tattoo Revue was a great unique experience in my life.. it made me discover the tattoo world and I will always cherish that!

Can you talk about why you decided to curate the Ladies Ladies Art Show? Why is supporting women in the tattoo world, specifically, important to you?

Together, with tattooer Emma Griffiths, we had this idea of doing something to showcase the talented women in the tattoo industry.. we thought about doing an art show because we didn’t see a relevant presence of women in any project involving tattoos.. we also wanted to pay our respect to the veterans of tattooing and bring together the new talents.. an art show seemed like a great idea! The aim was to create a space, a platform to celebrate women and their art in the tattoo industry! We did it because there seemed to be nothing like that at the time and we got super excited about it!! The presence of talented women nowadays in the tattoo industry is really astonishing … it needs to be addressed and celebrated! It certainly wasn't the case few years ago!

The first LLAS opened in 2010 and it was incredible! And the last one, Ladies Ladies Art Show 2018, displays a really amazing selection of art from international lady tattooers!

Many of your photographs seem extremely intimate, which is part of what makes them so powerful! Can you talk about the process of photographing people, and getting them to open up to the camera so you can catch those authentic moments?

Thank you! I like that intimate feeling! It happens when you get the trust from the person you are about to photograph. I guess I try to make them feel comfortable.. I want to make them look good and authentic. When I started photographing people at tattoo convention it was surprising for me as well to see how naturally they would take off their clothes and let me photograph them! I am very shy and reserved so for me it was kind of liberating working in such a free environment! I guess also because of the magazine I was working for, everybody was so open and cooperative, and I just kept shooting.. literally thousands of pictures! I definitely learnt a lot from that experience! 

About the book: many of the pics in my book were not necessarily the ones chosen to be published in the magazine, many images survived my many movings, and others just got lost in translation! Lol It took me almost a year to find those images that “survived”, mostly on slides or negatives, to select and scan them, edit and put them together. But I needed to do this.. I just never had the time before. This is really just a small selection of all the material I had, but this represents the true spirit of tattooing to me, those people, who express their identity through their tattooed body .. I just find this so beautiful!!

You are constantly creating and producing things. What projects are you working on now, or are there any future projects we can look forward to?

I realized that Im not getting any younger and that I had to put out there what I had..and work on what I am really passionate about! Plus I need to keep my mind running and busy.. when Im done taking care of my family! Also Im thinking of organizing an exhibit about tattoos and photography next.. working on it.. in the meantime I occasionally contribute to tattoo blogs and magazines like the Tattoo Life blog and the European TTTism. I am working also on my series of little booklets called Ladies of Tattooing, with my interviews and photos to some of the most relevant female tattooers in NYC... a project Im really passionate about. And that’s it for now. You can tell I’m a very passionate person .. Im a Scorpio and Im Italian! Lol Very thick headed! Thank you so much for your interest in what I do! ❤️

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