Williamsburg is a part of Brooklyn that is considered very trendy, filled with the coolest stores, galleries, expensive flea markets, restaurants and cafes, and is home to the newest artists, hip musicians, and young families.
A different lifestyle and vibe when compared to Manhattan, it is almost like a creative playground for the new hipsters…. A neighborhood that was once poor and desolated, it is today untouchable for its high prices, but that also gathers tourists and people from all over.
This is where Russian tattoo artist George Bardadim decided to call home and established his shop, Bardadim Studios, where he offers japanese style tattoo craft of the highest quality. The shop is a little hidden from all the buzz going on on mainstream Bedford avenue, but that can sometimes be good, due indeed to the crazy amount of tattoo shops popping up everywhere. With its intimate, low key and private atmosphere, the shop is like a little island in the middle of chaotic Brooklyn, where George and his wife Yana will welcome you with a cup of green tea, ready to discuss your next japanese custom tattoo.
I talk to George, who has been around long time in the tattoo scene, to get to know him better as a person and as an artist, and discover his individual story and approach to tattooing… and to see what is like to be a Russian man passionate for tattooing, in NYC.
Tell us where you grew up and what was your childhood like…
I was born in Crimea (south of USSR), but I grew up on Kamchatka, which is located at the other side of the Eurasia continent on the Pacific Ocean coast. Really far from the rest of the world, it felt like middle of nowhere, especially in such a closed country like the USSR.
What was your first encounter with tattoos? What did you find fascinating?
I became interested in tattoos during my childhood, I remember asking my father repeatedly about the origin of the tattoo on his wrist. I was especially impressed by the fact that the letters would not wash off with soap, and would stay on my dad’s wrist for life.
When, where and how you started tattooing? What’s your story..
I started tattooing from scratch in 1988, in a time when Russian tattoo scene didn’t exist at all. It was during the Perestroika, in the former USSR, and the social and economic climate was a difficult thing to comprehend unless you lived through it. Many of us, the youth of the time, felt socially excluded and I drifted into the punk rock scene. Within that scene, I found a group of friends some of which I still have today, that shared my views and interests.
As punk rockers, we felt the urge to rebel against our society and in those days tattoos were seen as rebellious and were definitely not as mainstream as they are now.
I started because a friend virtually forced me to tattoo him, he was like “I want a tattoo, you can draw best out of us all so you should do it.” Before this step, I had a bit of experience in tattooing but my knowledge was extremely limited, I had used a very primitive method of marking the skin, using a sewing needle and thread dipped into regular drawing ink _ nowadays it’s considered trendy “hand poked” tattooing, back then it was experimenting! At the time I was completely unaware that this was a traditional method of tattooing but I knew it worked.
I’ve done a small tattoo on myself with this method so my friends thought I was the best person to tattoo them. After this initial step into tattooing I started to think about making a tattoo machine, but I had no idea about the way it should work. A friend of mine who has spent some time in jail taught me how to build it. And I got it. A simple rotary machine made with a spring powered shaver called «Sputnik», empty ball pen cartridge and a sharpened guitar string instead of a needle. It was not reliable and absolutely uncomfortable to handle but I made dozens of small tattoos on my friends using that machine. It worked , so piece by piece I got better and refined the machine over time.
Tattooing was a kind of underground subculture back then so it was absolutely impossible to find any useful information of any kind. No tattoo magazines were sold and I was trying to find and collect any information from different sources. Sometimes I got ideas for tattoos from those rare music magazines I was able to find accidentally through friends. I remember in “Kerrang!” magazine once I saw a picture of an Australian hard rock band called “Rose Tattoo”, I guess. One of the members had a colored tattoo on his arm! Wow! Before that I wasn’t even able to imagine that colored tattoos could exist! It was a mind blowing experience for me!
Yeah, late 80s and 90s in Russia were very strange times. The country was changing and we slowly started to get more and more information from abroad, where the tattoo industry was already established. That time I started to think how to improve my equipment and realized that building my own proper tattoo machine, instead of trying to buy one, was the best way for me. And in 1993 I started to build tattoo machines together with a friend of mine. We didn’t have a chance to handle or play with real magnetic coil tattoo machine, which we have only seen on a small photo, I guess on Scorpions – Love At First Sting album cover but somehow ‘invented’ basic mechanic principals from scratch.
We endlessly did technical drawings, ordered details, wrapped coils ourselves, polished frames… And in couple years of constant experiments we worked out how to build our perfect tattoo machines. Actually I’ve been using only that machines for many years and I still have a couple of them in my collection.
In the same time I’ve being constantly practicing in tattooing, doing a lot of experiments with different techniques and inks. I knew that I had to concentrate not only on learning many important things like techniques, pigment technology and hygienic aspects but also improving my artistic skills. Then I started to learn how to draw and create proper tattoo designs to be able to create custom tattoos, not just copy someone’s art to my clients skin. In late 90’s I started to travel around Europe, working at Tattoo Conventions and taking guest spots at different tattoo shops. And I still do now! I believe traveling and working at Tattoo Conventions is incredibly important, it’s the way we learn and get inspired. London and Paris Tattoo Conventions are definitely my favorite.
You are a russian man in NYC… How you maintain your identity while living here? What living in NYC gives you that you can’t find anywhere else?
Well, I travel a lot and when you are on the road most part of your life, you learn so much more than just a new language or cultural aspects, you get a life experience. This experience slowly mixes with your native mentality and cultural aspects so sooner or later you become a multicultural person, if it can be said so. Yes, it’s really hard to find a good place to stay, but little by little, trying new places, meeting new friends, you can find a place that you can truly call home. Now I feel like NYC has become my kind of place. Even though I still feel like Russian, in the same time I don’t feel myself like a foreigner here. I feel like at home and that’s what I need now. NYC has a unique energy and that’s exactly what I’ve never been able to get anywhere else.
Your style is very clean with the softest and deepest shades of black. Where does your fascination with japanese art comes from? You have been around tattooing a long time and you used to be known mostly for realistic style back in Europe… what happened and why you abruptly decided to concentrate uniquely on Japanese style?
I’ve been tattooing more than 30 years. Even though tattooing is a kind of visual art, big part of a tattoo artist’s job is pure craftsmanship, that’s the reality. In most cases, the customer’s ideas or individual skin condition seriously limits our artistic ambitions as well as other art aspects. That’s why a tattoo artist is able to choose his style extremely rarely, in most cases the artist is chosen by the style itself. I hope you know what I mean.
I love all aspects of tattooing, but I’m quite selective with my customers, I always do my best to improve their ideas and I think these facts lead my skills to the style. Yes, I spent big time doing black and grey realistic works and many times I’ve had a chance to see my own works after 10-15 years… I’ve done that tattoos myself, so I’m pretty sure they were done perfectly but in spite of that, I noticed their quality really drops over time. I don’t want to say that all realistic tattoos look bad thru time, but in most cases their lasting quality depends on many subjective reasons which are absolutely not predictable. For sure not many tattoo artists care about that aspects but I definitely do and some years ago I’ve found out that tattoos like ‘traditional’ or ‘Japanese’ style, hold their value much better and look almost brand new and attractive through the years.
That’s why nowadays I find myself moving deeper into learning Japanese art and away from the realistic works.
Traditional Japanese Tattoo Style meant not only to decorate and highlight the unique human body shapes and natural muscle flow but also having deep meaning of subject matter in the same time, which gives it a kind of mystery and protective energy for their holders.
How you approach a big scale japanese tattoo?
Human body is a kind of organic work of art. When you get to this point of understanding you definitely find out that there are actually no such things like ‘Big’ or ‘Small’, there is only organic way to work with it.
What people should know about you and the way you work?
I’m definitely interested in working with people who trust me as an artist, because a successful tattoo is always a collaboration result of like minded individuals. I’m quite selective and I’d never work with clients who’s ideas are not clear to me or that dont reflect my style. After detailed discussion we both have to decide if we are ready to collaborate.
Russia is nowadays full of talented and groundbreaking tattooers… is tattooing well seen there or not? Which are the russian tattooers you mostly respect or like?
Well, actually I’ve been traveling a lot during the past 10-20 years and have spent not too much time in my home country, so probably I wouldn’t be able to describe the situation nowadays,but, even from a distance I can feel a lot of positive tendencies for thr tattoo scene in Russia. Nowadays there is a much wider range of people being tattooed and I think that many of the youngsters are getting much heavier tattoo coverage on their bodies. At the same time there’s a number of really great tattoo artists increasing year by year. And some of them not just great, they are amazingly perfect! They start traveling you g and quickly become famous worldwide. Some years ago I was the only Russian artist present on the scene at the European tattoo conventions and nowadays Russian artists can be met at most events around the world. And this could be absolutely seen as progress.
Your wife Yana is an amazing photographer… you are a very talented artistic couple living really quietly, keeping a very low profile… and with a passion for green tea! Where you see yourselves in 10 years? What’s your plans for the future?
Thank you, we truly appreciate your kind words! Actually we are that kind of people who prefer to flow together with the natural stream of life. And green tea ceremony is our everyday ritual we use to charge us positively, giving us possibilities to stay on top of our creative energy wave. Today we are running our studio in Brooklyn but only a few years ago, even in our craziest dreams, we couldn’t even imagine ourselves where we are now, so we’ll see where this goes.
You recently published an ebook of your japanese designs.. and you have a huge collection of your tattoo sketches. Tell us about it!
I started drawing tattoo flash in 1998 while working for a street tattoo shop in St. Petersburg. There were just few registered tattoo shops for a whole 5 million-city back then. We had a lot of customers but no tattoo flash catalogs or something to show them. Few old ragged tattoo magazines and my own tattoo work photos didn’t compensate this shortage of information. I was the only artist there and this situation pushed me to start collecting my drawings making a kind of tattoo designs catalog which became my first set of flash later. After that I’ve been keeping myself busy producing one tattoo flash set yearly and most of them I successfully sold during different tattoo conventions. I still meet some people who come to me at conventions telling their stories on how perfectly that flash sets have been working in their studios during the years. But life changed things and slowly tattoo flash art have been replaced by sketch books and nowadays we don’t see a lot of printed editions at all, everything is digitalized.
And that’s totally fine since modern technologies give tattoo artists new creative possibilities. My eBooks (available exclusively through the Tattoo Life store) are digital versions of my printed books which I’ve created few years ago. They contain Japanese Style inspired tattoo design thematic collections. The designs are completely ready to be used as tattoo flash, so the books are recommended for both, tattoo artists to get inspirational ideas as well as for tattoo collectors, who can bring the designs to their tattoo artist to get them tattooed ‘as is’. Nowadays I mostly create tattoo designs for my client projects and they all are individually and custom made, done in original sizes according to personal proportions and subject matter requests. They definitely can not be copied or used as tattoo flash, but possibly could work as a source of inspiration, so someday I’ll probably publish them also.