Questions with Paul Stillen | Tattoo Artist

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Words || Annie Tong

There are two things common to “hip-and-happening” city districts, street art and a hell-uv-a-lot of tattoos. Both are gaining more recognition as legitimate art forms, but they remain contentious. Our appreciation of graffiti is often limited only to commissioned murals, but what about the sprawling works on private property and public transit? Tattoos are more commonly accepted in the workplace, but are they still denoting stereotypes about the person wearing them?

One common strand running between these two practices is that they are open to public gaze. They’re on display for public critique, despite being art forms which express personal meaning for individuals or subcultural communities. As an outsider looking in, these meanings can be lost or miscommunicated. So – what better way to find out more than to talk to someone who has moved within both practical spheres? I had a chit-chat with Paul Stillen, Melbourne based tattooer, about his experiences as a former graffiti artist and his ideologies around tattoo culture.

Could you start by sharing how you initially become involved in graffiti culture?

It was pretty much when I started doing work experience in the City, I didn’t get to go there often since I lived in the ‘burbs. I started working in this converted warehouse space and there were tons of graffiti on the outside. I came across this internet forum where people talked about graffiti, and from there I started meeting people and going to shows and what not. I was only 15 at the time, but it was a good way to get out of my suburban upbringing. There were younger and older people all coming together and converging in the city… It was almost like a coming of age thing for me. I met other likeminded people, people who spent more time in class drawing than studying. I was that kid too [laughs]. There were accumulative elements about graffiti that I liked, particularly the anti-authoritarian and anti-law aspect of it. But I think I liked the culture and community around it the most, [laughs] I was never really that good at the actual act of graffiti.

I feel like there’s this tendency to discredit graffiti as ‘real’ art. What are your thoughts on how we construct ideas of ‘high brow’ and ‘low brow’ art?

I think it’s got a lot to do with capitalism. What is ‘high brow’ art? It’s commercially viable, it sells for lots of money, it can be collected and traded in an economic sense but anything that doesn’t fit into that is labeled ‘low brow’ art… Which I think is bullshit. Art is just pure forms of expression. Graffiti is looked down upon because it doesn’t fit into these neat institutions and it’s not profitable. It’s like, anti society – it’s not out to impress you.

You’re a practicing tattoo artist now, was there are kind of link between your interest in graffiti as a counterculture, and tattooing also as a form of counterculture?

The anonymity of [graffiti] meant that I didn’t push myself to be better because it just didn’t matter. I really like that one-on-one personal dynamic, and you can’t get more one-on-one than tattooing. You’re creating art for someone who’s going to wear it for the rest of their life, it’s all on the line… There’s no anonymity.

Why did you get started, and how has your tattoo philosophy developed?

I feel like as a kid, I had a vague interest in tattoos like most people do. They’re esoteric – so they’re visually striking, but unless you’re part of the community in which it’s made, it feels off limits. Tattoos invite people to look, but also turn people away because they’re private and people are scared to ask stupid questions.

People often come across traditional Japanese tattoos… or Russian criminal tattoos… or tribal tattoos and think, “yeah sick, I want that too!” What I learned early on is that, yeah the tattoos are cool but it’s because they whole heartedly represent specific people and their culture. You can appreciate their aesthetics, but it only looks awesome when the person wearing it truly is wearing it. My tattoo philosophy comes a lot from being raised in a post-migrant family in Australia. We don’t really have a sense of real national identity or any ongoing tattoo culture, because we are very multicultural. When someone’s like, “I want Russian criminal style tattoos” (something that’s very heavily loaded with historical and socio-political factors) they can cheapen the significance of the style because they’ve never lived that lifestyle. For anyone looking to get a tattoo, I start by searching through visual vocabularies within their own life to find something personally meaningful to communicate.

Would you draw the line if someone came to you asking for a specific cultural tattoo?

Yeah, but they can just go to someone else. Tattooing is interesting because it’s like a trade slash art form – it’s both things at once. There are people who would say, “Nah, that’s disrespectful,” but there’s also a trade element of it that’s like, “Yeah cool, that’s money, you’re the customer, I’ll do what you want to the best of my ability.”

Personally what gets me off about other tattoo cultures is that the person wearing it within that context gives it power, but taking it outside of that context devalues the style. I’m more about the empowerment of individual self-identities, and I want to facilitate that. I think that these questions have cropped up because tattoos have gone from being a secretive trade to being really mainstream. TV has definitely had a lot to do with the accessibility of tattoos, and Instagram makes it easier to find artists who specialise in certain styles – it’s an auspicious time for tattooing.