I had not been in Berlin, Germany for more than 24 hours before completely falling in love. Brutalist architecture, eclectic galleries, graffiti tags and wheatpaste stickers plastered to almost every single wall, wide open spaces dotted with public parks...what’s not to love? The atmosphere of the entire city seems fueled by the passion of artists and creators. Here you also have a very specific tattoo culture, one that I couldn’t wait to explore. Getting tattooed in Berlin is actually only made difficult by the fact that there are so many talented people in one place.
A definite destination for travel, the city is host to a plethora of fascinating historical landmarks that can easily wrench your heart out, or leave you awe inspired by the resiliency of the human spirit. But it’s also a place that has been known for the wild glitterati rave culture, poignant philosophers like Kant and Nietzche, as well as one of the first places where LGBT lifestyles were really embraced and celebrated.
The tattoo artists in Berlin have a wealth of intellectual and cultural epics to draw from. It is, after all, known for its bohemian environments, which mainly stem from the influx of diverse people after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Space was cheap, squatting was in, and artists made the most out of large locations with low rent. Although globalization is slowly changing metropolises the world over, this particular city continues to be an inspiration for many...and getting a tattoo in Berlin is by far one of the best ways to enjoy the depth of historical and artistic culture here.
Probably one of the most respected studios in Germany, AKA Berlin is noted as a pioneer of the progressive Berlin scene. Not only a tattoo studio and piercing atelier, they are also a fine art gallery that hosts multiple exhibitions a year, including the highly anticipated annual Submissions event. The space was founded in 2009 by performance and body artist Jon John and musician Valentin Plessy. When Jon John passed away from cancer two years ago it was tattooist Philippe Fernandez who was asked to continue Jon’s vision for AKA Berlin in tandem with Valentin. During my short visit, they were both kind enough to sit down and speak to me about the special history of this highly collaborative space.
Perhaps what I first noticed about AKA was that it is a super queer friendly place that made me feel welcome immediately. The environment feels inclusive, and it’s not an accident. Valentin described how varied artists, from diverse backgrounds, came together organically, “We wanted to make this multidisciplinary space. We kept that as a driving force...keep the art space, and the art gallery. Most of the residents we had at the beginning weren’t tattoo artists in the first place; they came from a different background...we had an architect, lots of people from the street art scene, a graphic designer, or video artists. We wanted to have a bigger spectrum. We wanted to give a fresh idea on the tattoo...we felt we needed to provide a fresh vision. I had the idea of making it more queer, as well, and have more female artists.”
And Philippe agrees saying, “I think Berlin is the queer capital. It’s this open space...the freedom you have in Berlin stops where the freedom of the other starts. There's a big social consciousness about respect, so everything develops in harmony.” He also mentions that Jon John was, indeed, revolutionary in the way that he wanted to evolve tattooing. “What contemporary tattooing is today, didn’t exist ten years ago...we’re talked about as a ‘vanguard’ studio, but this was because Jon John was a visionary. He started to understand what tattooing was becoming. And we were one of the first studios putting out all these new styles...collaborating with people all over the world...constantly new energy, new artists, new links. It started as a friendship thing. And then, little by little, it started growing. We’ve never been a traditional tattoo studio.”
AKA is also a tattoo shop in Berlin that makes sure to promote the experience of body modification just as important as the actual end product, whether it be a piercing or a tattoo. Philippe says, “People come here and they know it’s a safe space, they can be comfortable here. They can feel safe here. That’s something we’re really proud of...from the moment you come in, to the moment you leave, we really work on this whole process, from the beginning to the end, to make the experience a good thing. Because, in the end, a tattoo is a memory, it’s an experience. And that’s what you’ll remember the rest of your life.” And you can feel this devotion to kindness and compassion permeating through their studio walls, through all the artwork taped up, through the artists themselves, and even the clients quietly waiting for their turn to get tattooed. It’s a unique and important aspect of the Berlin tattoo, and fine art, community.
My next stop on the list was the tattoo studio Future Berlin, which is known for their radical outlook and hope to progress tattooing in a positive way. Their artistic philosophy is also all about inclusivity, and they consider themselves a collective of creators who are devoted to new perspectives within the community. As soon as you step into the space you’re enveloped by bold aesthetics: writings on the wall, murals, zines and t-shirts, tattoo stencils taped into the corners of each tattoo artists working area. But although art foams from every nook of the place, it feels clean, inviting, and comfy, all at the same time. It also feels truly fun; you can immediately see why this environment is so good for creative exploration. And, even as a visitor, you are, at once, transported into an area that makes it clear that the experience you’re about to have will be memorable.
I spoke with Gael Cleinow, also known as Hand Job Tattoo, who founded Future because he really wanted a private studio that supported artistic freedom, poignant connections with clients, and more. His personal style is like 90’s hip hop meets pop art: yelping Doberman’s, cars on fire, sex scenes, and existential quotes are all part of his absurdist take on serious fine art. His designs are both humorous and, at times, slightly unsettling thanks to his specific talent to merge romantic iconography with flames and barbed wire. After being a guest artist for a few years, he started keeping a journal of his experiences...what worked and what didn’t. “When this adventure started, I didn’t have a plan. The only thing I wanted was to surround myself with people that I can feel, and trust, and respect their work. So, at first, it was a safe space for myself, and then for the people, too...people who were struggling with the old scene, being judged, being uncomfortable, you know?...It was important for me to create a real connection with people.”
This is another tattoo studio in Berlin, full of incredible artists, that is all about merging art forms. It’s not just about tattoos...it’s about fashion design, photography, painting, street art, music, and more. Gael considers the space “a gift”...not only for clients who resonate with his work or philosophies, but also for kids who are seeking out ways to express themselves naturally. His outlook is all about creating authentic experiences for himself, for artists involved, and for anyone who feels drawn to living a truly honest life.
Just as the name indicates, Unikat is unique. Their artists are totally avant garde; a faction of modern creators who are taking past artistic movements and merging it with their own personal voice, perspective and the artform of contemporary tattooing. Many of the tattooists in this Berlin tattoo studio are poetic and thoughtful, pulling from expressionism or abstraction, and developing pieces that people emotionally connect with on a whole new level.
Unikat Berlin is actually two studios, a few blocks from each other, but both are built on the same ethos: dedication to creation. One of the studios is devoted to machine made tattoos, while the other is all non-electric, hand poked pieces. The environment of both is imbued with absolutely positive and innovative vibes. It could easily be a home away from home. I sat down with Madame Unikat, as well as Adrià Deyza, to talk more about what they had in mind for their space, and what the future of Berlin tattooing looks like to them.
“We focus on what we call ‘contemporary tattooing’. It’s a difficult term to define, to be honest. But we are very interested in people who have a drawing practice,” says Madame Unikat, “...that’s the kind of people we like to invite, and the people we like to work with: people who have another artistic practice beyond tattooing.” Adrià Deyza agrees saying, “The way I see it: tattooing is still one of the few art disciplines, one could argue, that is really a legit art discipline...and based on that fact, it’s one of the few ones where creative people that practice it are judged by the merits of their technical skills.” Speaking on the attributes of what most old school artists may consider to be qualitative of what a good tattoo should be, or look like, those socially accepted artistic restrictions aren’t what they’re about. Although technique is certainly a cornerstone of tattoos that last a lifetime, he mentions, “We try to work with artists that challenge those dogmas, and those ideas, and to give space to those who don’t get a voice in other, maybe more traditional, shops.”
As for the focus of their stylistic approaches, Madame Unikat spoke about her fascination with “the body as the new art gallery” and how people are collecting tattoos, almost as one would with famous paintings or prints. “I’m also super interested that so far, as of now, it has not become a commodity. I mean, you cannot resell your tattoo, and make a profit...I love this of tattooing. I hope it stays like this...and, also, it’s dying with you. Which, I think, is a really strong statement especially in the world we’re living in today.”
Social media is certainly changing the landscape of tattooing but Adrià has hopes that Unikat is preserving tattooing as a serious concentration of creative expression while still providing an ever evolving idea of what tattooing can be as an art form. “I think this idea of having different approaches within the same creative safe is being lost...I miss, a little bit, that exchange of having people that work in different disciplines or different stylistic approaches...and I think this is inherent to studios instead of collectives.” And with the diverse set of tattooers that call this Berlin tattoo studio home, it’s true that the space feels more like an experimental art atelier, than a regular tattoo shop. It’s absolutely special.
CALLIGRAPHY ON THE MOVE - SHANTEL LIAO
With a private studio located in her home, Shantel Liao focuses on a very pure and particular part of tattooing. Her calligraphy tattoos bloomed as an exploration from an ongoing photography project. People began asking for permanent markings after seeing pieces from her portfolio: skin painted with ancient Chinese or Japanese characters. In an interview with me she says, “...from the beginning I knew, all I wanted to do was calligraphy. This is all I wanted to do. I don’t want to do anything else, because I know what I could be good at…” She started learning from a spot in Bangkok, and then slowly began building a clientele through friends.
And although she may soon be leaving Berlin, if you’re in the area make sure to catch her before she goes. Her tattoos not only merge photography, fashion, language...she also uses Japanese Butoh dancing and shibari as inspiration. Her approach to tattooing is part of the Berlin thread: making tattoos is not an art form that lives in a box, alone. It is a living, breathing thing that naturally merges with all other aspects of life.
Another aspect of what makes Shantel so wonderfully special is not only her particular proclivities for language, but also her philosophy behind her artistic work. “I think you just have to be honest about who you are and what you care about. You can’t pretend you’re something else, or that you’re interested in something that you’re not interested in. Even if everyone else likes it...because even if they like it...you’ll never do it as well as the others who are actually into it. Just be honest.” Like many of the other creatives living in Berlin, Shantel believes that tattooing, and all other modes of expression, are meant to be authentic, to be real. It’s part of what makes an art piece resonate with so many others.
Ela Pour, who founded Pechschwarz, studied art but was drawn to tattooing inexplicably. When she began, Hell’s Angel still controlled the Berlin tattoo scene, but it wasn’t what she wanted…it wasn’t only the people who ran the shops, it was also the traditional idea of reproducing an endless book of flash. “You don’t have freedom, you know? It was very hard.” So, she opened her first studio and for five years worked alone. But her first apprentice, Laura Yahna, struck something within Ela Pour that made her love teaching tattooers who were just beginning to blossom. “Over the years, I always say I don’t want anymore apprentices...And now I have two more! When I see someone who has so much talent, I can’t say no. Because it’s like a diamond that you want to shine. I am on fire to do that! I love it...to see what’s coming out.”
In the beginning, after five or six more apprentices at her personal studio, she decided to move to a larger shop which is the home of Pechschwarz now. The studio actually makes up a large portion of a building, and is an ever growing environment. It is clear she is very devoted to high quality tattooing...walking into each room of the shop is like walking into a gallery or museum. It’s full of art...there's a creative buzz that flows through the doors, into the hallways, into every corner of each suite.
Each artist she invites to become a part of Pechschwarz is chosen with intention. As a female tattoo artist herself, she also makes it a point to support many women she’d like to empower. And Berlin is a perfect place to do that. “I’m more in the art scene than the tattoo scene, but it’s really cool to be here and to have so much input from so many people, so many artists from other places.” She’s also yet another tattooist that mentions that this is a city to visit: most of her clients are from other places. The bohemian atmosphere, the creative collectives, the incredible artists, the night life, the history, the culture...these are all aspects of Berlin that make places like Pechschwarz flourish.
This city is dotted with museums, galleries, memorials, historical landmarks...and Berlin Ink happens to share its street with many of them. Almost directly across the road is the Naturkundermuseum, which holds a huge collection of fossils, taxidermy, and the like, and a bit further down the road is the Medical History Museum, as well as Hamburger Bahnhof which houses an extensive assortment of contemporary art. It is no wonder then, like so many of these tattoo studios, that Berlin Ink is a haven for creativity. The shop is nicely situated with two stories, and multiple rooms...each one containing an artist or two concentrating on their craft.
When Niki founded Berlin Ink she wanted to provide a place where clients could feel at ease. “I had the desire to work in a different atmosphere and provide a quiet environment for my customers. I've found this perfect place, not in the hyped areas of Berlin but very central, and I felt the energy to expand my ideas.” Her tattooists are able to work without distractions, while patrons who visit are met with a welcoming and private atmosphere to get tattooed.
Niki has chosen artists who have a diverse set of talents: Blackwork, Tribal, Realism...there isn’t anything missing for a serious collector or even a first timer. If you’re looking for stunning Neo Traditional, you can count on Leonardo Branco and Mathilde. If you prefer clean, bold Traditional, hit up Nikko Barber. The tattooists here thrive on producing custom work that clients adore. Stepping through the doors of this Berlin tattoo studio, you’ll find yourself well taken care of.
COOL STUFF TO DO
If you’re traveling to Berlin, of course, you can’t miss a visit to the East Side Gallery. This is, perhaps, one of the most important landmarks within the city. Brightly colored bubble letters dotted with cartoon characters, sharp wildstyle tags, clever wheatpaste posters and large format stencils are only some of the graffiti aesthetics found here. Many of the large swaths of concrete are taken up by intricate murals...styles range from abstract expressionism to haunting realism. It’s not only a fine example of the creative talent here, it’s a testament to peace. The wall stands as a monument for over three million visitors a year who are reminded of the damage, heartbreak, and violence of world wars. Division isn’t only physical, it’s emotional...philosophical.
Severing East from West, the Berlin Wall was touted by communist factions as protection from capitalism. But, in reality, for almost three decades, families and friends were disconnected, skilled professionals remained without employment, education and food were highly restricted...and those who tried to escape were captured, or killed. Now, one can easily walk around the entire circumference of this part of the wall...kids play on the lawn, friends share a drink down by the water. Border crossing points like the Palace of Tears and Checkpoint Charlie have been turned into tourist attractions. And although admiring these monuments can be good fun for all, it’s important to know the past events of places like these so that history doesn't repeat itself.
If you do make a trip to the East Wall Gallery, quite close by is Holzmrkt. It’s basically a farmers market meets sculpture park meets cultural events venue. You can find beer here, coffee, quirky gifts to bring home, artisanal cheeses, handmade clothing, and a giant blue wooden cat overlooking the Spree River. Perfect for a lazy afternoon if you’ve been dragging yourself all over Berlin looking at art, and collecting tattoos.
As I’ve mentioned above, Berlin is literally bursting with artistic fervor. There are tons of galleries, collectives, and museums to check out...I could give you an exhaustive list but my two favorite were Hamburger Bahnhof and the Boros Collection.
Hamburger Bahnhof is huge. Serpentine in nature, the rooms seem never ending, and the large amount of space makes for some intense experiential exhibits. The museum used to be one of the first rail stations in Germany, and is now the last remaining from that era. With over 100,000 square feet devoted to exhibiting modern art, it’s one of the most expansive collections in the world. In one room you’ll find video art by Marina Abramovic played on loop next to a sculpture made of human feces by Marc Quinn. In another room, a Joseph Bueys installation including a grand piano, fifty chalkboards and an axe….in yet another chamber there is a Jason Rhoades creation: a large car made of board, plastic buckets, and rods which is decorated with sheepskin and a laptop running a non-stop gallery of softcore porn. Hamburger Bahnhof isn’t just a museum...it’s a portal into a prodigal galaxy of mind bending, reality altering art.
The Boros Collection is similar but, perhaps, slightly more bizarre. The building was used as a World War II bunker, a prisoner-of-war camp, a warehouse for textiles, then exotic fruit for the upper echelons of government, and, before it housed an expensive private collection of art, it was one of the most notorious 90’s rave venues with a penchant for kinky fetish parties fueled by enough drugs to send Pablo Escobar into a comatose state. It was Berghain before Berghain even existed. When Karen and Christian Boros acquired the building in 2003, they did a massive overhaul...but they did make sure to keep remnants of the bunkers past. Fragments of raver writings on walls, vestiges of 1940’s nuts and bolts...including an ancient telephone that greets you at the front door. The artwork is all strange and unusual...one room is dedicated to small egg cartons recreated in gold. Another holds a massive cut-out of a rather regal albino horse standing next to a trampoline. If you’d like to check this place out, just be aware that you have to make an appointment ahead of time on their website. I ended up having to go on a German tour because all of the English language ones were sold out...but even without the personally tailored art history info, the collection was incredible.
Again, maybe I’m biased, but Berlin is one of the last remaining sanctuaries for authentic underground artists and experiences. My advice? After crisscrossing the city streets to get your fill of tattoos, oddball exhibits, legendary techno clubs, and tragic visits to heartrending historical sites, grab yourself some Thai food, a bottle of wine, and find yourself a field full of flowers to let all that stimuli settle. Berlin is a city where you will be confronted by an insane amount of perspectives...if you leave yourself open to it, you’ll leave the city a better person deeply inspired by what humans can achieve.