Marked for life: Changing attitudes towards Malta's tattoo culture

With the Malta Tattoo Expo coming up, TEODOR RELJIC asks whether this beleaguered form of artistic self-expression has finally gone mainstream. He chats to the organizers and a couple of tattoo artists to get a lowdown on the situation, as well as a richly tattooed specimen…

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
9 October 2015, 12:38pm
Christian Stellini:
Christian Stellini: "If you're gonna get a tattoo, go big!" • Photo: Ray Attard
“It’s more than just skin deep,” is the gist of my wide-ranging and enthusiastic conversation with Christian Stellini – soon-to-be restaurateur, avid comic book fan and the most heavily tattooed person that I know. Taking even a cursory look at his conspicuously marked skin, you’d be tempted to reply: I should hope so. 

Even in this day and age, tattoos evoke a strong reaction. Whether it’s the enthusiastic commitment of confirmed tattoo addicts like Christian, or the consistent hum of opprobrium from a still-sizeable chunk of the general public, a tattoo – no matter how small or strategically tucked away – will remain, at the end of the day, a statement of some kind. 

But there’s no denying that attitudes are changing, and one sure sign that tattoos are no longer the provenance of sub-cultures – like bikers, metal heads and sailors – is the setting up of the Malta Tattoo Expo, whose second edition will take place at the Intercontinental Conference Centre, St Julian’s from 9 to 11 October. 

According to organizer Damian Allison, hopes are high for yet another successful edition, after its first iteration attracted a crowd from “all walks of life”. 

“Nowadays you’ll find everyone from doctors and lawyers to bankers sporting body art,” Allison observes triumphantly. 

But having started his career as an eager tattoo canvas at the tender age of 18, at some point in the early noughties, Christian is in fact well placed to comment on this culture shift, and his personal history with tattoos offers a telling glimpse into how one’s relationship with tattoos can evolve.

Acknowledging this change in attitudes, Christian recounts how his first contact with tattoos was through his father. 

“Back then it was still frowned upon, but people just processed my father’s tattoos in a different way: they’d say, ‘okay those are sailor’s tattoos’ – and yes, my father happened to be a sailor for a few years…” 

But as his teenage years rolled along, Christian became more and more exposed to tattoos, thanks to both family members and peers from his social circle. 

“What I found interesting was how my peers clearly got tattoos because they wanted them to be visible, and more than that, they wanted them to be liked. But things really started shifting in my mind when I would see even my mother getting tattooed, then my brother too… so it was always on the sidelines for me, so to speak.”

Christian eventually got his first tattoo at the age of 18 – a small and simple illustration of an explosion accompanied to the words ‘I AM THE ATOMIC AGE’ – but he’s since disowned it… at least partially. 

“It’s covered up now,” he confesses sheepishly, “I got it because I believed that’s where we’re heading – humanity has the power to destroy itself and I’m pretty sure we’ll activate that power somehow. I still believe that, mind you, but perhaps nowadays I wouldn’t etch it permanently on my skin so explicitly – I guess I’ve taken on a more elaborate sensibility.” 

These ‘elaborate’ designs continue to attract a wide array of reactions, some of which Christian is frankly sick of hearing. 

“The worst one is when people ask me ‘are they real’? It’s not the question that bugs me as such – though I still can’t fathom how you can ask something like that in this day and age – but it’s the sheer stupidity behind it. Another one is, ‘did it hurt’? Of course it hurts. It always hurts…”

But he does acknowledge that generally, tattoo acceptance is getting better across the board. Damian Allison contributes by observing that the “media has also played its part”.

Indeed, reality television shows like the hugely popular Miami/LA/London Ink series cemented the image of tattoo artists as glamorous bohemian professionals who, apart from decorating the skin of their clients with gorgeous artwork, also serve as a sounding board for their woes, hopes and dreams. 

It doesn’t sound too dissimilar from a session with the therapist or the parish priest, but Christian actually makes no bones about it – the bond with his long-standing tattoo artist is nothing short of “spiritual”, and he describes his relationship with his long-standing artist of choice in those terms.

“Having a strong bond with your tattoo artist is essential. It’s not just about getting the tattoo done, but also about the atmosphere – chatting, putting on the music you both like… just creating an atmosphere of fun. This isn’t just going to the hairdresser or chatting to the grocer – it’s about creating a real bond.”

What advice does Christian have for prospective tattoo clients? 

“Don’t follow fashion. Fashion comes and goes, but your tattoo is permanent. Your blood will flow past this thing until you’re dead in the ground, for God’s sake, so make sure you pick a tattoo that really means something to you. Also – forget about small pieces, they’ll always end up bothering you. Go big!” 

The Malta Tattoo Expo takes place at the Intercontinental Hotel conference area, St Julian’s from 9 to 11 October - http://maltatattooexpo.com.mt

Behind Christian Stellini’s favourite tattoos

HELLBOY

Born in Hell, summoned by Rasputin during WWII but rescued by well-meaning Allies and raised to do good, Mike Mignola’s comic book anti-hero Hellboy has a very special place in Christian’s heart.

“This guy is a demon from hell – his origins are the vilest thing you can imagine – but he was taken away from all that and consciously chose to be good. And the more I think about this, the more interesting and poignant I find it.”

BERSERK

“I came across this Japanese anime when I was really young, and it just grabbed me by the balls. I found the characters to be so rich – I just got lost in their stories and I felt as though I had to pay tribute to them.”

RED HULK

Christian’s full back piece is a show-stopper with a simple message.

“It’s all about raw power! That moment when you lose yourself in something, anything: going to a metal gig and moshing, singing your lungs out… even cooking! Sure, the Hulk is all about rage, but you could apply that energy to anything: this big, red face with flaming eyes.”

JOKER

Christian’s tribute to the Clown Prince of Crime – and Batman’s arch-nemesis – is an example of how his tattoo choices are constantly evolving, and how comic book heroes and villains – effectively, representatives of a modern day mythology – offer handy ways of collating universal human concerns.

“Obviously, the Joker is a total psycho, but to me he also represents an ever-shifting personality. So that got me thinking about the accompanying tattoos from the Batman canon that I eventually got: so Two-Face represents duality, Batman represents determination.” 

A word of advice • Pros’ suggestion to virgins eager on getting themselves ‘inked’

Stephan Abela 

Modern Tribe Studio

Balzan

Stephen abela
Stephen abela
“I love the first timers! It’s always a pleasure to give them their first tattoo. My advice would be to choose wisely. Design and artist is what can make or break your tattoo.”

Guy Lee 

Guy Lee Tattoo Familee Studios

Xaghra (Gozo) and Ghadira, Mellieha

Guy Lee
Guy Lee
“Like any shoddy workmanship, bad tattoos are grim. Research your artists and spend time researching the right one, check their line work, notice whether their lines are strong or consistent, even and clean, check their shading and look at the colour gradation. Zoom in close to their work. Look at healed tattoos as well as portfolio images, which are usually taken straight after the tattoo is finished – once healed the mistakes and shaky lines will show more. Study the artist portfolio, understand their styles. Familiarise yourself what good work looks like. Once chosen, book a consultation with the artist to meet and discuss your ideas. As soon as you’re happy with the design, just do it – embrace your tattoo, do not hold regrets, or fear judgement. And yes, of course they hurt, it’s part of the journey.“

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...