Andrew Kosmin about tattooing in times of war
Andrew Kosmin, a 30 year old tattooist from Cherkasy in Ukraine, is a very special person. At the time when the russian attack on his home country started, he was working in Germany at the prestigious Smilin’ Demons tattoo studio in Mannheim.
But instead of enjoying the safety of a country far away from the war on his country, he felt the urge to return to his hometown, Irpin, a city in the urban fringe of Kyiv, that was heavily destroyed right after the beginning of the war.
So while his mother and sisters fled to Germany, Andrew decided to go back to Irpin together with his wife and to take up work at his studio in Kyiv. When Smilin’ Demons shop owner Mariam told him he might get killed in Ukraine, his answer was: »If I stay here, I will die of shame!«
Andrew, when and where did you learn tattooing?
I got my first tattoo twelve years ago. It was a koi carp in the Japanese style, and I became very interested in japanese irezumi. After two years, I decided to give it a try and bought a cheap kit from a young tattoo artist – it was more of a hobby and I focused more on the drawing. Although it was still like a dream to be a tattoo artist, I taught myself a lot to draw, looked for information in tattoo magazines, YouTube channels and tattoo conventions and bored my tattoo artist with questions about what to do and why.
Every meeting with a tattoo artist was a kind of master class and an opportunity to learn something, and six years ago I accumulated enough practice, learned to draw better and opened my first tattoo studio. It is from this moment that I consider the beginning of my professional path, when tattooing became for me not only a hobby, but also the main job for which I was responsible.
Did you have any other jobs before tattooing?
During my student years I worked as a construction worker and in a call center. After graduation I worked as a credit inspector in a bank, all this time I was interested in tattooing and painting at the same time.
Why did you choose the Japanese style?
At first, I was captivated by the Japanese style of tattooing with its scale, colors and the fact that the tattoo looked like one whole picture in which each element harmoniously coexisted with the other, then I was imbued with the symbolism of the tattoo. I think when I was a young man it made a strong impression on me and constantly reminded me about why I got my tattoo: it was a koi carp that always swam against the current and never gave up.
Today I like irezumi not only as a work of art but also for its symbolic meanings. In my opinion, these are two related things that I like in this style.
When did you come to Mannheim to work at Smilin’ Demons Tattoo?
Last year I worked in two cities, in Kyiv and in Mannheim at Smilin’ Demons. At first I couldn’t get there for a whole year because of covid, and now there is the war.
So when the war in Ukraine started, you lived and worked in Germany, but then you decided to move back to Irpin near Kyiv. You could have just stayed in Germany, why did you go back to Ukraine?
Yes, at the time when the war in Ukraine started, I was already working in Germany. I had to take care of the safety of my wife, my sisters and my mother. Our friends in Mannheim helped us a lot, for which I am very grateful.
My city of Irpin was occupied, so I did what I could to help, but even though my body was in Germany, my soul was at home in Ukraine.
As soon as I was able to leave my family safely and close work issues, my wife and I returned to Irpin. At that time it was the only city that was freed from the Russian occupiers and I was more useful at home. I had to rush to clear the city from the rubble, rebuild the house, support the economy, donate and just be together with my people in these difficult times.
Your mother and sisters are living in Germany and have refugee status; can they understand that you went back to Ukraine?
Of course, my family understands my choice, and they also want to return, but it is still too dangerous because the Russians bomb Ukrainian cities every single day. And in the occupied territories of Ukraine, the Russians torture and shoot women and children, so I worry that this can happen to them too.
Do you feel you can contribute more to your country being at home rather than from Germany?
Absolutely. Being in Germany, I can only send funds to support the army and educate the situation abroad, but this is not enough. Being in Ukraine, I run a business and support the country’s economy, I pay taxes that go to support Ukraine to pay pensions and salaries to the military who defend our country. Being in my city, I can take the rubble off my neighbors’ houses and rake up debris, repair the house – no one will do it for me. This is my home, my city, my country – so who but me should rebuild it.
What is the situation in Irpin at the moment? You posted some pictures of destroyed houses and I know that lately there have been Russian missile attacks on Kyiv?
Now in Irpin, in the 4th month of the war, the city is free from the occupation of Russian soldiers. The city is 71% destroyed, I would call it the city of broken windows. Everything reminds of the war every day, more than 900 people were raped and killed in the city, so many fresh graves, broken and completely destroyed houses, many people were left without housing, so they have nowhere to return.
But little by little, water and electricity came back in the city. 50% of the town people have already returned. People are getting used to the difficulties of life and new realities, but last week two men blew themselves up with a grenade launcher that they found in the city, yesterday a shell detonated due to lightning during the rain and another person died. It is dangerous to walk in the forest around the city – everything is mined there, every day I wake up at 4 o’clock in the morning because at this time there is constant shelling from Belarus, it’s just two hours away from my city.
During the four months of the war, 700 rockets were fired from Belarus alone, 65 rockets in the last days alone. We have put together a suitcase with important documents and things in case of a repeated attack on Kyiv. So life in Irpin is already different and similar to life near an active volcano that covers the clouds with its ash and can explode at any moment and destroy all living things in its path.
You are working in your studio in Kyiv now; do people in Kyiv actually want to get tattoos now? I would think that in these times, people have other priorities?
Or is getting tattooed a possibility for people to have a bit of distraction?
Of course, now the demand for tattoos has dropped a lot, for example, if I used to have appointments for six months in advance before the war, now it is just for one week, because most people have other problems now. But there are some clients, and most of them are military personnel, who say when they come to me for a tattoo, that life is very short and there is no time to postpone it for later, because it may not come.
These are the new realities of life. For example, during the war there were significantly more marriages than before the war, because there is no time to postpone one’s wishes and dreams for later. Life is like a sakura, a cherry blossom; it blooms very quickly and this moment will not happen again. Therefore, tattoos today are not a distraction – rather, it is the realization of long-postponed wishes for later.
You are also tattooing soldiers; what kind of tattoos do they get?
In general, soldiers choose patriotic tattoos with ornaments traditional in our region, symbols of Ukraine, a flag, a trident (the coat of arms of Ukraine), ears of corn and military paraphernalia, the borders of the country, yellow and blue colors, and wheat, embroidered ornaments, the words of Ukrainian poets about freedom and dignity of the people.
So many people want to imprint these events not only in their memory but also on their bodies as a reminder of what we are all fighting for.
Specifically, my clients take into account the symbolism of irezumi, which is why right now it is made in the form in which it existed hundreds of years ago. it is not just a body decoration – it is also symbolism, a kind of initiation rite that emphasizes the qualities of a warrior.
Did the war change your tattooing? In Japanese tattooing you have long-term projects where people have to come regularly to the studio over a long period of time – but in war times everything can change from one day to another, so how does this influence your tattooing?
That’s why I don’t keep a record for more than a week and I don’t schedule all the sessions for a year as it was before, since no one knows what will happen tomorrow, and even more so a month ahead. Now there is a war on many fronts, the situation is different, and some soldiers have been sitting in the trenches for four months without rotation. So, in fact, we start a session and we don’t know what the next one will be – when exactly it will be and whether it will be at all, no one knows.
And what about material for tattooing, colors, needles, all that – is it still possible to get all the necessary equipment?
Last time I made a purchase of materials, some items were missing, but it was always possible to find a replacement for them. What will happen next is unknown. I think it will be possible to deliver it across the border from Poland, but of course it will affect the price.
Is it possible that you have to join the Ukrainian army too? Do you think you could be a soldier?
Now in the country there is a »third wave« of conscription into the army (there are four of them in total): people who graduated from the military department at higher educational institutions are being drafted. That is, reserve officers. I do not belong to this category of persons, but this does not change the fact that I will have to join the army if »Fourth wave« when everyone who does not have physical or age restrictions is conscripted into the army.
Today, everyone should be in their place and do their work for the common victory. I think that the day will come when we will all have to take weapons in our hands.