Immersed is a series of profiles on millennials and their vocations. No profile is quite the same.
Ep. 3: Strawberries and stress pills, with Marta Knas.
Marta Knaś (26) is a Polish tattoo artist living and working in Poznań (Poland) and The Hague (The Netherlands).
She works almost exclusively in black and specializes in dot- and linework.
Inspired by a mother who embellished ceramics with her own artwork, Marta was raised with a pencil in her hand. “As a kid I was always drawing...” although the idea of becoming a tattooist never crossed her mind growing up.
“When I was in high school my mom told me that if I wanted to have a tattoo she would go with me to a shop and she’d pay for something small. And I was like, “No, me?! A tattoo? No way!” I couldn’t see myself with tattoos. I didn’t think it was a good idea.”
Clearly, this conviction didn't carry over into adulthood.
“I got my first tattoo when I was 18 years old. It was a strawberry. It was an impulse. I was walking on the street and I saw a tattoo shop and I thought I’d get a tattoo. And I thought about what I wanted to have on my body and I thought, “Oh, maybe a strawberry, I really like strawberries!’
So I got an appointment and two weeks later I had a strawberry on my hip. So it wasn’t necessarily a good idea haha, but yeah..”
It took Marta two years of preparation before she thought she was ready to work with clients.
“I drew the design for my second tattoo myself. Then I went to the tattoo shop and showed my work. They really liked it and asked me to become an apprentice at their shop. So I started going there to learn what it’s like being a tattooist and I started practicing tattooing on the fake skin. We use a silicone skin to practice on. I also tried pig skin once, but it was awful, too thick!”
“I practiced on the fake skin for a full year. Normally I get stressed easily and I wanted to be sure I could do it really well. Then during the second year I also started practicing on my friends and on myself. And only then I started to work for myself. So it took me two years to get my first paid client.”
Being a student at the time, still living at her parents, allowed her to start immersing herself in the world of tattoos without some of the classic adult-life crutches - such as the need to earn a living - instead only doing the odd hostess job whenever she wanted to buy some new equipment.
It was a hobby first and foremost, but as she was gradually drawn deeper into the tattoo scene opportunities naturally started presenting itself.
“It slowly developed over time. It started off as more of a hobby, and it still feels as more of a hobby to me than work. It’s really nice that I can do something that I really like and earn a living doing so.”
Under the gun
Marta did my first tattoo this spring. What had initially struck me when I met her was her calm demeanor. A laid-back and comforting presence, superficially obscured by a pleasantly chaotic mosaic of tattoos covering both her arms: birds, flowers, a cute little alien head, the works. Whatever trepidation I had felt fast disappeared.
Calmness is an under-appreciated skill. Discipline and creative thinking may be the darlings of today’s scholars and business leaders, but give me calmness any day. As Josh Waitzkin puts it, “in every discipline, the ability to be clear headed, present, cool under fire, is much of what separates the best from the mediocre.”
That same calmness carried over when she got to work on my arm. Like many of the artisans I’ve interviewed, a look of joyous focus characterized her facial expression when she started putting needle to skin.
As if she slipped into her own little creative bubble, the tattoo gun becoming a natural extension of her arm, she worked with a relaxed poise, diligently leaving her mark on my skin.
I figured I’d best leave her to it so I closed my eyes and spaced out, draped over the chair, focusing on becoming familiar with these hitherto foreign, nerve-numbing, needle-induced skin irritations.
I asked her about her calmness. This wasn’t always the case, she told me. Recalling her first professional tattoo job:
“I was so stressed I had to take a pill. It were only a few dots I had to do and my friends were there to correct it afterwards. It didn't turn out so bad actually, I’m still in contact with the girl who got it, so I couldn’t have been that bad!”
These stressful ‘firsts’, the artisanal rites of passage, have the potential to seem like insurmountable obstacles. Especially if you haven’t dealt with them before and you don’t have the self-belief that you can scale them. But these necessary experiences, when turned into demonstrable competence, breeds self-confidence; a virtuous cycle towards mastery.
Done often enough, the stressful can become normal as fear will make way for calmness.
“Now it’s just like a normal thing. Now I know what I can do and what I’m capable of it. The relaxation comes with the confidence.”
I asked Marta about the not-so-happy accidents, the making of actual mistakes on clients. Unlike a photograph or a drawing, which are easy to erase or rectify, I was under the impression that a tattoo artist is constantly on the needle’s edge (pun totally intended) between making art and irrevocably messing up someone’s skin ad infinitum. How does a tattoo artist deal with this?
“You have to be focused and confident in your abilities. You can always correct a tattoo. You have to just be focused and know what to do. I think it will be really difficult for me to do a bad line or something like that.”
“With a pen you can easily draw a big line by accident, but that’s different with a tattoo gun. You have to put your hand in place and pull the skin tight and you have to apply quite a bit of pressure to go as deep as you need to go. And because you’re going so slow and you’re so focused and the gun is quite heavy it’s actually quite hard to make a big mistake. It’s easy to make a small mistake, but not so much to make a big mistake like you can do with a pencil for instance.”
Taking me through her thought process when tattooing, Marta has seemingly adapted her process in a way that allows her to minimize the chances of making any unrectifiable mistakes.
“All the time I’m thinking what I should do next, what’s the next step, how to do the shadows, everything, so that it looks really good and clean. I like clean tattoos with really straight lines and delicate details. You have to be focused and know what to do and what effect you want to create. I also try to do it light at first and then gradually add more ink, that way I prevent adding on too much.”
In stark contrast to her first tattoos, nowadays Marta’s so experienced and confident that she doesn’t even need to practice new techniques on silicone skin.
“Maybe two years ago I’d do something like that, but now I know what I can do and how to apply it to the skin so I don’t need to practice it and I just do it.”
Barring some customers who can be either ‘really particular in what they want’ (Marta) or ‘a pain in the ass’ (Tobiasz, her boyfriend), Marta told me she’s very satisfied with her current lifestyle. How pleasant each particular day is mostly depends on the designs she gets to tattoo and her clients of the day. When a lot of customers request the same concept of tattoo the work tends to shift more towards production work, and the works becomes more monotonous, but never boring.
“Sometimes a lot of people want the same sort of tattoo. And when I have to do the same concept over and over again it can become a little bit boring, even though with every tattoo I always try to improve my technique and I notice things that in the future I can improve upon. Ideally, I always try to create something different, something more personal to the person I’m tattooing.”
“But sometimes when I go to work and I know I’m going to tattoo something really nice which I’ve always wanted to tattoo, I can’t wait and I just want to get started.”
“I hope I don’t ever have to [take on a normal job]. I really love my job.”
P.S. Special thanks for the kind and friendly people at Fearless Tattoo for allowing me to shoot in their shop! I felt instantly welcomed and quickly grasped how fun it would be to be part of a team of fellow artists occupying such a cool space as theirs.