Reality can be seen and interpreted according to so many different aspects; art history has taught us this as it has evolved over time. And Portuguese tattooist Emanuel Oliveira has decided to do the same thing: he’s created his own style by taking what is real, manipulating it into different sections, and then putting it back together according to what works for a tattoo: the position on the body and a contrast of colors.
The full interview was originally published on Tattoo Life magazine (September/October 2019 issue).
Hi Emanuel, would you like to introduce yourself to our readers?
Hi everyone, my name is Emanuel Oliveira, I’m 30 years old, and I’m from a small village called Murtosa in Aveiro, Portugal.
How long have you been in the tattoo sector, and how did you get started there?
I’ve been working as a professional tattoo artist for about 6 years, but my first contact with the world of tattoo was two years earlier. Everything started because of my curiosity to try to do something different besides just regular painting on a traditional canvas. Tattooing is different in every way, and that is what captured my attention at some point, it felt like a new challenge.
So I bought a tattoo kit and started using it on some friends. Having some crazy friends has helped me a lot!
Did you do an apprenticeship or attend a course or fine arts school, or are you self-taught?
I’ve taught myself since the beginning; ever since I can remember, I’ve always been drawing and painting. My father is a professional painter, so art is something that has always been present in my life. This background of traditional painting and drawing was crucial in my transition to tattooing. I think that’s the real base for any technique regarding tattooing.
Your creative research definitely stems from realistic and color, but then it finds its own shape and personal interpretation that comes from the compositions of different images. Could you tell us about your evolution and its most important steps, and what your research is focused on?
When I started tattooing, I was doing everything and pushing myself to do any style or kind of work. It was an important period for developing myself artistically, but eventually I just focused on realism, maybe because it was the style that I liked the most also in drawing and painting, and from a technical standpoint it was also harder to master. This aspect really fascinated me. The same thing happened with tattooing. However, after tattooing realism for some years I got to a point where I didn’t feel free anymore. It was always the same thing: I’d look for a picture on the internet, stencil it, and do it in the most realistic way possible.
As much as I love realism, I started to feel empty, as if I were just a printing machine!
And at that point I knew I had to create something different, something more unique and mine. So after trying different things – cutting, splitting, vectoring – I started looking for compositions where I could capture different moments at the same time, create contrasts between colors and grays, mix in graphic elements, and put it all together, but in split parts. Then I started to realize that this kind of “no flow” style that I created from these splittings and cuts could create a “flow” if they ended up balanced and with a high contrast. The first work that I did that changed everything was a simple portrait of a mother and a father. I split both of them in half and then combined them together. When I looked at the piece at the end of my work, it all made sense to me.
How do you create your compositions? For example, can you tell us about your piece with Dali’s portrait?
Sometimes when I’m creating a project with no limits given to me by the client, when I’m given all the freedom to create a project, I try to mix random stuff and see whether something comes of it or not. But not all clients are into this, so usually I start with a theme that the client chooses and then I try to look for different aspects, different perspectives of their idea, and try to match it all together and balance it with a specific placement. The Dali project was like that, and it’s easy to recognize, so I tried to do my interpretation of it. It’s on the upper arm, so it was possible to use more information with that placement because it’s a big area. I used two different portraits of Dali as references, a small one and a bigger one. I split the bigger one and only used half of it, and then I matched them with two close-ups of his painting “The Melting Watch”. I also decided to do the faces in gray and the paintings in color to create more contrast and consequently more impact.
At the time, I thought that if I made everything in color it would look good, but there isn’t as much impact as when I mix colors with grays.
The choice of how to position each element and the selection of images is all about the placement of the tattoo, so that’s why I split the two small images and placed them on the shoulder area, and then placed the bigger images above the shoulder.
What cultural background do you draw inspiration from? What are your passions?
My inspiration at the moment comes from many things: different styles, different artists, and also normal things from daily life. I like to follow and collect contemporary art, from paintings to street art, sculptures, and installations. And all of this ends up influencing and inspiring me. Seeing people make amazing art makes me feel motivated and look for new ideas, it makes me want to try new things and push myself every day. I am always into new challenges.
Are there certain subjects that you really love doing?
At the moment I really love doing this new style I’ve created, and I want to keep making it and improving on it. It’s not really a subject, but instead I’d call it a way that any subject can be interpreted. It doesn´t matter if the subject is a movie, a person, or many ideas together…the way to interpret all that is what motivates me the most.
Is there something from Portuguese culture that you’re able to bring to your work?
That’s one more “step” that I’m trying to do now. Portugal has amazing traditional graphics that can be matched with a lot of ideas. Also, the colors of some cities are so strong. Sometimes we place a lot of value on things outside our country, and we forget that we have amazing things and inspiration in our own homeland. Presently I’m trying to mix some of these cultural aspects of my country into some new projects. I think they will end up being very cool and interesting projects.