Tattoo artist Till Pulpanek stands with arms crossed in front of his oil paintings from his time as a freelance artist.

In the name of the rose – tattooist Till Pulpanek on classic tattoos, aesthetic concepts and the river Rhine

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An interview with Düsseldorf-based tattooist Till Pulpanek

Till Pulpanek studied under Dutch artist Jan Dibbets at Düsseldorf’s Academy of Arts and was a freelance artist for six years before he dedicated himself to tattooing. Unlike other tattooists, you won’t find him in a shop, but rather in a private studio tucked away in a courtyard in Düsseldorf-Bilk. The tattoos he creates are based on his reinterpretation of traditional styles. Here he tells us how he ended up as a tattooist and what he enjoys most about life in Düsseldorf.

Tattooist Till Pulpanek on a light grey sofa in front of an old factory window.

Tattoos have been around since time immemorial. For a long time they were viewed as rather niche and even disreputable, but have since found their way into the mainstream. What do tattoos mean to you?
My interest in tattoos comes from my background, that is to say my origins in punk and skater culture. I wanted to set myself apart from the masses, and getting a tattoo was one way of doing that. I was 18 when I got my first tattoo. When you immerse yourself in a subculture, you consciously go against the mainstream and the prevailing opinions in society. This is what I associated with tattoos, and later applied to my art.

You studied under Jan Dibbets at Düsseldorf’s Academy of Arts and went on to become a freelance artist. Some of your work is even on show here in your studio. Can you tell us more about your time at the academy and how it influenced you?
I embarked on my studies with a rather naive and idealistic concept of fine arts. That changed over time when I realised how closely linked the art world is to the art market, and how there was more on show than just my work. Professor Dibbets was an influence during my studies, of course. I spent a long time exploring architecture, especially the sociological structures that underpin it. My focus was on modern urbanism and how we live in our cities. That was the overarching concept I attempted to capture in my paintings. This kind of work is a dynamic process that somehow keeps on going – you’re never really finished. When I left the academy, I worked as a freelance artist and continued exploring this theme. At that time, I started to build things that I combined with painting.
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Tattooist Till Pulpanek, wearing blue disposable gloves, disinfects his tools ready for the next tattoo.

Can you tell us more about your path from visual artist to tattooist?
Well, it was a gradual process. As I got more and more tattoos, my interest in the art of tattooing grew, and Olaf Lobe, a friend with whom I still collaborate, introduced me to it. At that point, he had already spent some time researching the art of tattooing and the traditions associated with it. We travelled, for example to San Francisco, to get to know the local tattooing scene, and I soon realised that there’s more to it than simply having a design inked on your skin. I also regularly met with Olaf and another tattooist for drawing sessions while I was still a freelance artist and noticed many similarities in our approaches, which eventually led me to become a tattooist.

A wall full of framed tattoo designs.

There are classic tattoo designs, such as the anchor and similar symbols, which indicate that tattoos were common in certain circles, for example among sailors, and have their own imagery. There are some designs here in your studio that reflect this. Can you tell us more about them?
Of course. But I would point out that the designs hanging here are ones that I like and that are related to my work. I have a few traditional flash sheets like those that would have been displayed in tattoo parlours in the 1930s. The sheets would sometimes cover the walls from top to bottom and customers would simply chose the design they wanted. The designs employ a special aesthetic geared towards functionality. At first glance, the images appear naive, but that’s because they’ve been pared back to improve legibility. In contrast to other art forms, a tattoo undergoes constant transformation as the medium on which it is created – the skin – changes over time. What excites me about it is the parallel to my paintings, in which I explore architecture in my own aesthetic language aimed at making my work more legible.

What exactly do you mean by legibility?
I literally mean readability, as in the ability to be recognised. From a certain distance, it’s easier to recognise a square or triangle than an intricate, organic shape. In terms of tattoo designs, this means paring an image back to its essential parts. That in turn provides space for associations.

Sounds like less is more. Can you give an example?
The rose motif is a good one, particularly as it’s so common. I spent a lot of time exploring the iconography of tattoos, particularly in the context of the last century. Tattooists in the 1920s reduced the rose down to the essentials, leaving only what truly makes a rose. As I said earlier, it’s all about ensuring the design is legible and stands the test of time on your skin.

A picture of Till’s hands holding a design featuring a drawing of a weightlifter.

The range of tattoo styles has grown considerably, and it seems like there’s a tattoo parlour on every corner. How do you work and where do you see your own place in all of this?
I believe that as a tattooist you’re also selling emotional values, so to some extent you should be able to see things from the customer’s perspective. That’s exactly why communicating with customers across a shop counter doesn’t work for me. A shop with passing trade is out of the question for me, which is why I went the route of a private studio. My customer base is made up of friends of friends, so most of my trade is through word-of-mouth. They’re familiar with my work and know exactly what to expect. I don’t supply any drawings in advance, for example. I’ll speak to the customer beforehand, of course, but the design will be ready on the day and then I get started. Minor changes are possible, but everyone knows that they’ll be getting a one-off.

What do you enjoy most about being a tattooist?
The best thing is that it feels a bit like teamwork. Being a painter can be very lonely. You’re just sitting there alone in the studio, and it can take a while before you see a reaction to your work. Tattooing is more like making music, there’s a form of instant applause.

Close-up of a row of old Düsseldorf mustard jars full of pencils and pens on a desk.

You’re originally from Münster, but have been living in Düsseldorf since 1997. What do you like most about living here?
Münster is a very beautiful place, but the Rhine gives Düsseldorf that little something extra. For many years, I had a studio right by the river in Reisholz, and realised that looking at the Rhine almost felt like looking out over the sea. You can gaze into the distance and see ships pass by. It doesn’t matter which side of the river you’re on, in the nature conservation area or the old quarter. The Rhine has a huge influence on the way the city looks and feels.

Is there a local food or drink you particularly enjoy?
Yes, Düsseldorfer Senf mustard is amazingly good.

For more information and samples, click here.

Interview: Cynthia Blasberg
Photos: Markus Luigs

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