It all began at the Israel Tattoo Convention in October. Anyone in attendance doubtless noted the droves of people who had choice parts of their body covered in plastic wrap to protect a fresh tattoo. They could be seen wandering around the pavilion at the Tel Aviv Convention Center, which was hosting the third such annual event. Booths for the use of leading local and international tattoo artists were spread out around the hall, and dozens of tattoo machines created an industrial din. For those into body art, the event was a communal high. As for me – an untattooed woman accompanying a friend – the small number of women holding tattoo machines was clearly noticeable. And of these, the high percentage who were speaking Russian was even harder to ignore.
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Soon after the convention ended, an exhibition called “Tattoos: The Human Body as a Work of Art” opened at the Eretz Israel Museum, curated by veteran tattoo artist Yasmine Bergner. The two events reflect the fact that in Israel, as elsewhere, tattoo art has undergone a perceptual shift – in some cases even acquiring the status of art. In any event, it’s no longer identified mainly with rebellious youth. It’s become part of leisure culture, even attracting members of the middle class – or at least, those who possess a developed aesthetic sense.
With a growing curiosity to understand the experience of being a female tattoo artist in Israel – and, especially, looking for an explanation for the high number of Soviet-born women in that sphere, I met with a few of them in their studios or homes. I interviewed leading artists Sonia, 32, and Yuta, 29; I skyped with Nastia, 25, who has been based in Berlin in recent months but is about to move to Warsaw. I also met Lena, 31, who is new to the profession but had some interesting sociological insights from her formative yet promising days as a tattoo artist. I also talked to Masha, 28, who works in a “stick and poke” manner (a machine-free technique), and thereby inhabits an underground status in ink culture. (These women are known professionally by their first names, and not all wanted to have their full name published.)
Despite their stylistic differences – or perhaps because of them – the work of more than one of them is often juxtaposed on a single body. All five immigrated from the former Soviet Union as children, and all speak of having had a powerful passion for tattoos from a young age, as well as the difficulty of making their way in a profession that’s considered a male domain. They credit their upbringing with making it possible for them to realize their dream.
“Since I was a girl, I wanted to have a profession that would allow me to travel and to leave an imprint in the form of my art,” says Sonia, who became a tattoo artist five years ago. “Tattoos seemed to me the most inspiring thing there is. At the end of the 1990s, tattoos were part of the fringe culture. People who got tattooed were not completely part of the society and they had bad jobs. I was a rebellious girl. I knew I didn’t want to be like everyone else and that I was ready to pay the price – defiantly, not peacefully. Tattoos became a way to remind myself that I had no interest in submitting to the terms of the system,” she adds.
At age 13, in the northern city of Zichron Yaakov where she grew up, Sonia saw “someone who looked very big and cool. She had green hair and body piercing. I struck up a conversation with her. She was 17, from Austria. We became friends. During the month of her visit to Israel, we went to counterculture hangouts,” and I met people of the kind I wanted to be. From a young age I hooked up with the punks in [Tel Aviv’s] Dizengoff Square.”
When she was 17, Sonia spent a year in Genoa, Italy, where she encountered “all kinds of tattoos that were common in the world of punk, hard core and psychobilly [the punk-Gothic version of rockabilly music]. The people I mixed with there had colorful tattoos that you could see from a distance. That’s how I fell in love with the old school style.”
Yuta relates that before she knew she wanted to be a tattoo artist, she knew she wanted to be tattooed. “I saw the first tattoo that excited me when I was 16,” she says. “That was the start of the journey that led to my job. It fired my imagination. I realized how much power lay in inscribing something on the body that would be with me for all time. People say tattoos are addictive. I think I became hooked on them even before I did my first one.”
However, she admits to feeling insecure at the time. “It wasn’t a trivial matter to go and tell my parents. That’s why I wanted [to get] artistic accreditation.” This immigrants’ daughter who grew up in Ashkelon tried several times to be accepted to visual art courses – at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem, and Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, Ramat Gan – but was rejected.
Sonia, too, tried initially to enter related fields. “For years I didn’t dare even approach the profession. I studied photography, also fingernail design, makeup and illustration. I felt frustrated. Until recently, there were very few tattoo studios, and the artists who worked in them were tough characters. I didn’t even dream of learning from them.”
Finally, she learned the trade secrets from her former boyfriend partner and from friends who were involved in the profession.
“The first time I tattooed someone, it was as though the universe was telling me, ‘This is what you were looking for, this is your gift.’ With that feeling, I barely slept for a year, painting almost every minute, digging in all kinds of places to find inspiration and develop a style, observing tattoo artists at work. Friends gave me their bodies and their skin. From the moment I took myself seriously, a great many other people believed in me.”
For Yuta, failure to be admitted to art studies was the signal to realize the dream on her own. Six years ago, after a series of false starts – including a stay in Russia (“I realized that, after so many years in Israel, my mentality wasn’t Russian enough”) – she found her niche in Bizzart, a Jerusalem tattooing studio. A few years later, she opened her own studio, Meow – La Galerie du Tatouage – in Haifa.
Nastia was accepted as an apprentice as a teenager, but it didn’t work out. “I was drawn to the tattooing scene from a young age,” she recalls. “When I was 16, a tattooing studio finally opened in the city where I grew up, Petah Tikva, and one of the artists took me on to learn. It didn’t go well at all. The atmosphere between us was sour, my hands shook. My life partner was an apprentice in a local studio. With all the pressure and disappointments, I started to think about just studying fashion design. That’s how it is for women: it’s harder for us than for men. Fortunately for me, my partner went on teaching me tattoo art. But that wasn’t always easy, either, because the person who was supposed to be supportive suddenly had the status of a critic. In retrospect, the first tattoos I did weren’t a hit, but I took them in my portfolio from one studio to the next.”
It’s funny how everyone tells you ‘no’ and then, when you take advantage of an opportunity they themselves didn’t give you and you thrive, they want you to work for them.– Nastia
After many rejections, she was accepted to Club Ink, a tattooing and piercing studio that opened two years ago in Tel Aviv’s trendy Florentin neighborhood. “The owner found me via Facebook and Instagram, and spotted the flicker of a style I’d started to develop. When I got my own corner, I started to professionalize and pretty much patented a style of my own. After a while, I became an in-demand tattoo artist. It’s funny how everyone tells you ‘no’ and then, when you take advantage of an opportunity they themselves didn’t give you and you thrive, they want you to work for them.”
Lena’s career was delayed by the Second Lebanon War, a decade ago. She dreamed of becoming a tattoo since she was about 14, she says. “At 18, I was supposed to start learning in a friend’s studio in Haifa,” she relates. “What stifled the dream at the time was the war. My friend moved his studio to Tel Aviv. I started living in Rishpon [a moshav north of Herzliya] with a man who worked in high-tech, so naturally I disconnected from the alternative scene for a few years.”
Afterward, she studied painting for four years at the Jerusalem Studio School in Jerusalem. “It was only when I moved to Tel Aviv, actually in order to progress as a painter, that I returned to the punk scene. The Do-It-Yourself ethos was always an essential part of my life as the daughter of immigrants who lived on the periphery, both economically and geographically. I grew up in modest surroundings and had to do creative work on my own. But at the time tattooing was considered something you had to learn in a studio.”
My grandmother was a crane engineer and my great-grandmother was a metalworker – and now just let someone try to stop me.– Lena
A decade later, though, the situation was different and in many ways Lena – who grew up in Kibbutz Kfar Masaryk, Western Galilee – is a salient product of the flourishing tattoo-art era. She decided to be tattooed and then to buy a machine. “When tattoos became less expensive and more accessible in all respects, I also went back to being tattooed, and friends who knew my art wanted me to become a tattoo artist. A year ago, I asked on Facebook where I could buy a secondhand tattooing machine, and received a whole slew of posts: ‘Wow, when are you starting to tattoo? I’m signing up.’
“A few other friends of mine bought machines, and we started to hold tattoo parties at my place. We practiced on oranges, and then on friends who had complete confidence in us – even more than I had in myself. That led me from the outset to make large and complex designs with lots of artistic ambition behind them,” she adds.
In contrast to Lena, who is currently looking for a studio to take her on as an intern, Masha remains committed to a noninstitutional approach. “When I was 15, my dream was to be a studio tattoo artist. Still, I couldn’t imagine myself doing an apprenticeship. I spent a lot of time in places like that while waiting for piercing, and the atmosphere was always macho and condescending. I wanted to learn how to tattoo properly, but the only realistic option was to learn through humiliation. That seemed to be a bad psychological experience, so the dream was abandoned for a few years.
“I arrived at life in the punk scene at the start of my twenties, after my parents had left Israel for Canada and I’d moved to Tel Aviv,” Masha adds. “Naturally, tattoos are very much part of that scene. What made me want to start tattooing myself was an article I came across four years ago about a New York-based tattoo artist called Slowerblack, whose work resembles that of a machine. She inspired me to be one of those who are revising the stigma of tattoos: from something done by drunk punks or prisoners, to beautiful, clean, sterile art. The following evening, I met with a few girlfriends and each tattooed herself. A group of women experimenting together was formed.”
I was inspired to be one of those who are revising the stigma of tattoos: from something done by drunk punks or prisoners, to beautiful, clean, sterile art.– Masha
There are no formal body-art studies in Israel. Learning the profession still proceeds along rather medieval lines. Access to the knowledge is made possible mainly through people close to the aspiring tattoo artist, such as a romantic partner or other women in the same field who create an atmosphere of shared knowledge, experience and support.
The high proportion of Russian-speaking women in the realm of body art is possibly related to the unusually high representation of Russian speakers, both men and women, in fringe cultures that were the breeding ground for tattoo art in the West. Still, each of the women I spoke to attributes her personal success to her home upbringing.
“It’s possible that the reason I didn’t give up is that I’d been an Olympic athlete,” Nastia says, referring to her time spent as part of Israel’s Tae Kwon Do team for over a decade.
Says Yuta: “Not only was my family set on preserving the language so that Russian culture is deeply implanted within me, but the education I received emphasized self-discipline. My father is an army man. When other children harassed me in preschool, he told me not only to hit back, but to hit back hard. Besides which, I was forbidden not to finish something I’d started.”
According to Lena, her ethnic origin “guaranteed me a place of honor in every fringe scene I came to. There’s a huge percentage of Russians in the alternative scenes. People who don’t feel in the heart of the mainstream at home find themselves in cultures that are based on a feeling of alienation.”
Moreover, she adds, “At home, the emphasis was on a work ethic and persistence. There’s no ‘I can’t,’ only ‘laziness.’ I came from a tradition that expects women to do everything that men do in terms of career, and also to manage the home. That’s not feminism in any way, shape or form. On the contrary, it’s an inhuman standard. But that background goes a long way toward explaining the success of post-Soviet women in Israel. You can’t pamper yourself, and you can’t say it’s hard for you. As a child, you internalize the invaluable principle of the need to achieve. And here you can apply all that in a society where there is more room for personal expression than in the society where those expectations were formed. I know that my grandmother was a crane engineer and my great-grandmother was a metalworker – and now just let someone try to stop me. It’s clear to me that I could find a place either in the math department or in any physical work. The ability to integrate is very much present in our generation, which received both the good and the bad from the two cultures in which we grew up in parallel.”