Otto D’Ambra: an Italian tattoo artist in London

We interviewed him a few years ago but it is a genuine pleasure to talk with Otto again and find out what he is up to in London. His many and varied projects are going in the direction of new artistic and not only artistic horizons: exhibitions, scultpture, and fatherhood. And there is still room for Pythagoras. Find out for yourself and read right to the end. Maybe some of you might even be able to solve the riddle he leaves us with.

Hi Otto, let me just ask you something straight away: when we got talking about your tattoos a few years back you told me you yourself wouldn’t know how to categorise your style. Would you still say the same?
It’s something I ponder a lot. I do think about it, but I still haven’t been able to come up with a definitive answer, maybe because I’m not really interested in labelling what I do. But if I had to choose a term today, I guess it would be “pop-surrealism”. Right now I feel that perfectly sums up what I’m doing. Through surreal images, sometimes complex and sometimes minimal, I express pop concepts. Like ‘pop art’ my pieces are a sort of critical, ironic take on the society we live in: I tend to zoom in on certain intrinsic aspects, from technology to media, consumerism and social networks, personal relationships and nature.

Otto D'Ambra, The White Elephant Studio, London
Otto D’Ambra, The White Elephant Studio, London

But has your style remained the same? Have your pieces changed in terms of technique, iconography or the way in which you plan the pieces?
The language I use is always the same. I continued to be heavily influenced by the world of collage and recently also by impressionist painting. I continue to use an increasing number of graphic elements which make the compositions more two-dimensional than in the past. Lately I have been creating more articulated collages and compositions thanks to the use of graphic elements which allow me to produce pieces which are apparently more complex while retaining a cleanness and simplicity which restores legibility to the end result. For some time now I’ve been working with symmetry, getting inspiration from a book I read recently on Pythagroras: the basic tenet is that every single element in the universe is constructed based on mathematical rules and equations. The cosmos can only be comprehended through an understanding of numbers and mathematical relations.

Who are your points of reference on the tattoo scene at the moment?
I have so many. Today the internet, along with social networks, offers such a wide range of artists, images, art and tattoos that it becomes difficult to have firm points of reference. I find that everything is in constant movement, so much so as to actually make it impossible to have any. Or maybe we are bombarded by information and images to such an extent that we do have some, but then we immediately forget them.

What potential directions do you see your career going in over the next number of years? What projects would you like to devote yourself to?
It’s always a bit of a question mark. I’ve been devoting a lot of time to my paintings, fairs and galleries I collaborate with. I’m taking part in a couple of really interesting art projects which have recently developed in Brussels and London. I’m really happy that demand is increasing for my paintings and this, as a result, leads me to produce more. I think that my career might possibly develop in the sense of exhibiting more in galleries and tattooing a bit less. And finally, I’m involved in a project that has just started up that I can’t talk too much about. I can only say that it is a really interesting project, socially useful and that it has to do with environmental sustainability.

So let’s talk about your work outside the world of tattoo: what technique do you use and how do you go about choosing subjects?
I always enjoy trying out new techniques, but engraving is what I mainly use. I prefer drypoint to lineography and etching. I mainly draw with ink on paper and I’m also starting to go for more tactile surfaces: I prepare a base on canvases made up of a collage of newspapers and cut-outs from various daily papers.

I don’t work exclusively on sheets of characterless, neutral, flat, white paper any more, but on canvases with a certain presence, character and solidity.

Especially ones which tell stories on their own. From the conceptual as well as the tactile point of view, the base of the drawing is no longer simply a support but it becomes an indivisible, integral part of the work itself. This new element was conceived to create a stronger connection between my subjects and current affairs: all the surfaces I prepare are created from newspapers and this is no chance decision. Newspapers which serve as the basis represent society on whose surface the works and messages develop. My intention is the underline a message among the messages. The news in the papers forms the background to what I am bringing to the surface. This, conceptually speaking, creates a mesh from which my works detach, suspended and trapped.

Very interesting. And what difference is there between your tattoos and your drawings / illustrations / engravings?
Apart from some subtle differences which are impossible to avoid simply because of the difference in supports, there are no real differences. From the planning and operational point of view, I treat my projects the same, whether they are on skin or on paper.

Have you had shows in any galleries lately?
I did a personal show in Brussels lately called “Short story of a vegan tiger”. It was a great experience, my first show on Belgium soil. I was delighted to have this chance, also because I think the Belgian art market is growing, like it is in France. I have also done some small collective shows here and there over the past few months. At the moment I’m on stand-by because I’m working on some sculptures and installations which are keeping me really busy.

Have you ever thought of going back to your first love: set design?
I left set design for good about six years ago and the rest all happened so fast that honestly, I didn’t even have time to notice the change. But if I stop to think about it, I have to admit that I do miss it a bit… I would still love to do something more in that line. But at the same time, I’d never go back because I’m really happy with the natural evolution of my career. I don’t regret anything I’ve done in the past, especially as far as set design is concerned, which has made an indispensable contribution to my professional and artistic development.

How are things at the White Elephant Studio? Tell me something: have things changed for an Italian living in London since Brexit?
Well, things have changed a bit recently as far as my shop is concerned because where I had been making plans to host different tattooists, events and artists, now I have suddenly switched to the idea of a private studio, more tranquil and comfortable. I believe this choice reflects my personality more but also at the same time creates a more intimate situation which facilitates the creative process. After five years I think I can say I’ve made the right choice. As regards Brexit, there haven’t been any changes from a political or legal point of view. It is under negotiation until 2018. I could feel the general mood had changed for the worse immediately after the election, I got the feeling of not being particularly welcome in the city I live in, but it didn’t last for long. A lot of people, even just a couple of weeks after, realised the mistake they had made with that vote. Even though they won’t admit it.

How has your professional life changed since you became a dad?
Well I certainly don’t stay out as late as I used to and let’s say my priorities have shifted slightly. Before I would stay in the shop working late several days a week, going on till all hours to finish a project, and I can’t do that any more. Fatherhood is a wonderful experience that takes up a lot of your time, but it also give you a lot of satisfaction, so I genuinely don’t mind closing shop earlier and going home to play with my son. I still do conventions and exhibitions and travel on business for tattoo and shows. Being a dad hasn’t stopped my projects: I still do what I used to do before, it’s just that I’ve slowed down a bit. Or at least I try to.

What plans do you have for the immediate future? Conventions, guest spots, trips?
I have plans for a new exhibition which will open in December in Turin and then be repeated in February in London. I’m working on it in this period, coming up with new projects, so it is all still a bit of a surprise. As far as conventions are concerned, I’m taking part in all the usual ones that I’ve always done. Unfortunately I can’t really do too many others, even though I’d like to, because I’m really busy in the studio. The same goes for guest spots. I go to the shops I’ve the closest connections with even though I’d love to go to visit the new friends who have invited me… but sadly I just can’t. I want to go to Sicily next summer because I’ve never been and I get the feeling that it has to be one of the most beautiful places on earth.

Is there anything you would like to add before we sign off?
Where can you find two doors that can’t be used to come in or go out? I’ll tell you in the next interview…

Otto D'Ambra, The White Elephant Studio, London

The White Elephant Studio
225 Well street, E9 6RG Hackney – London (UK)
Instagram: @otto_dambra