Skin deep

In conversation with artist Stanislava Pinchuk, AKA Miso,

on art, intimacy and homemade tattoos

Stanislava Pinchuk AKA   Miso   by ©   James J. Robinson  , courtesy of the artist

Stanislava Pinchuk AKA Miso by © James J. Robinson, courtesy of the artist

The world is a dark and deep place, says Haruki Murakami in his book The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. And most of it is occupied by jellyfish and things. We just happen to forget all that. “Two thirds of the earth’s surface is ocean,” muses Murakami, “and all we can see with the naked eye is the surface: the skin”. When I read his words I often think about how people are much the same. So much of us is composed of the memories we’ve made on the journeys we have taken, the pleasures and pains of our past. But all you can see with the naked eye is the surface: our skin. And while there are all kinds of ways of telling the unheard stories that hide within us, there is one form of art that is most poignantly symbolic of self: the tattoo.

Stanislava Pinchuk, A.K.A Miso, is someone who appreciates the gentle intensity of putting ink to skin. Born and raised in Kharkov, Ukraine, the nomadic artist has become known for her minimalistic homemade tattoos, intimate works of art that are as delicate as they are distinct. Designed to map the physical journey the body makes back onto itself, each homemade tattoo is a highly collaborative creation, envisaged between the giver and the receiver, and bartered for anything and everything, so long as it’s not cash. 

Understanding of the implicit trust required between the tattooist and the individual laying (a part of) themselves bare—the compulsory closeness—Pinchuk never puts a financial value on her tattoo work, nor does she tattoo strangers, or anyone she does not intimately know. For this reason, this part of her practice remains a trade-only endeavor, an exchange between friends in the name of art and art alone. 

Homemade tattoos by ©   Miso  , courtesy of the artist

Homemade tattoos by © Miso, courtesy of the artist

KATHRYN CARTER: Tell me about your core artistic practice?

STANISLAVA PINCHUK: My art practice data maps war and conflict zones, and how ground is changed by political events. These are shown as drawings - but I also work with photography, installation and sculpture. I publish books pretty steadily and work a lot with fashion clients on really diverse things. And tattooing nights, I suppose!

KC: What first piqued your interest in tattooing?

SP: My art practice has always pivoted around ideas of decorative arts, textiles and the mediums historically considered ‘women’s work’, so tattooing always seemed like such a beautiful extension of all those things.

KC: How would you describe your tattooing style?

SP: Minimal, and hopefully considerate of muscle and movement. A lot of mapping, a lot of references to jewellery and textiles—things that decorate the body, too.

KC: You found the art world first through punk music, and then graffiti. Do either of these movements influence your tattooing work?

SP: Absolutely; I’m so glad to have come up through both. There’s such a heavy focus on D.I.Y, just learning and figuring out how to do things in your community. Having not gone to art school—and never studying data visualisation, or apprenticing as a tattooist—I feel like it’s never stopped me feeling like I could take those things on and figure it out.

KC: Tattooing has a rich history across many cultures; do any past tattooing traditions inspire your own practice?

SP: Completely. I think what I connect with the most, [especially] not being a shop tattooist, is just how tattooing, across so many times and cultures, was something that women did for each others in interior spaces.

KC: What would you say is the main intent of your tattoo work?

SP: To give my friends great shit that they love forever! And even if they don’t, regret is a pretty amazing way to live with images.

KC: Who determines what the tattoo will look like? Are you at the helm, do you leave it up to the individual, or is it more a collaboration between both of you?

SP: [It’s] very much a collaboration. I never have drawings prepared, or a list of ideas or things I’d like to do. They’re always in the back of my mind, but I never just draw ideas for tattoos without a specific wearer in mind.

Homemade tattoos by ©   Miso  , courtesy of the artist

Homemade tattoos by © Miso, courtesy of the artist

KC: Are your tattoos always, in some way, a reflection of your mapping work?

SP: Yes—most of the tattoos are a map of a physical journey the body makes, put back onto itself [again].

KC: How do you feel tattooing differs to other artistic forms?

SP: When you are doing something permanent, it’s a really different way and tension to living with an image.

KC: What tools and materials do you use to create your homemade tattoos?

I have pretty much the same set-up as a shop tattooist—the same needles, [the] same inks, [the] same hygiene [methods]—but instead of using a machine, I hand-poke with the needle.

KC: How does your process differ to the experience one would have visiting a tattoo parlor? 

SP: It’s hard to say; I still don’t have any shop tattoos at all myself. From shop tattooists [yes], but never paid for and not in shop environments. That’s not a big stance, it’s just never something that’s drawn me in too much.

So, I suppose the difference is mainly in that I don’t tattoo strangers at all. For 8 years now, it’s been a project for friends only. There are no appointments, no money exchanged, no flash to choose from. We just take an evening, drink wine, whisky, eat cheese and bread… draw and talk for hours, play records, re-draw, re-fit, keep refining…. not talk about it for a while, and then tattoo at the very end. Friends can [sometimes] walk away and keep thinking about it. Some tattoos we talk about casually for years, before the time feels right. It’s very relaxed and intimate.

KC: What kind of ink do you use?

SP: India ink, always. It’s better than any specialty tattoo inks I’ve used before. It’s such a pleasure to work with, and ages much more beautifully. 

KC: Do you make the ink yourself?

SP: No, but I did learn how to do that from a friend in Tokyo, who is a traditional Irezumi tattooist. It’s a really beautiful, careful process.

Homemade tattoos by ©   Miso  , courtesy of the artist

Homemade tattoos by © Miso, courtesy of the artist

KC: In a talk you gave at TEDxYouth@Sydney, you describe your tattoos as artworks that you carry forever, everywhere you go, on your body. Given the intimate nature of this art form, do you approach a tattoo differently to how you would, say, a drawing?

SP: Absolutely. My art practice is really selfish, in a way. [It’s] very driven by me, by my own curiosity and research; it’s not developed with anyone else, not even with my galleries. So, it’s very solitary, which is also how I like it and how it needs to be in order to exist. Tattooing has always been a really beautiful way to draw with people, and respond to them, and be challenged. And sometimes those ideas make their way back into my work, which I love. You have to be so considerate of the fact that someone wears this drawing for the rest of their life, and [ensure] that it’s the perfect thing for the wearer. At the end of the day, they’re the one who walks out the door with it, which you have to remember.

KC: So, there’s an added sense of responsibility, knowing that the canvas for a tattoo is a person’s skin?

SP: Without a doubt. It’s such a different way to think about art and drawing. There’s so much tension to it, and there’s so much implicit trust in that relationship, that I really don’t take it lightly. It’s a huge honour to be given that from anyone.

KC: On the note of that implicit trust required between the tattoo artist and the individual, and the incredible level of intimacy involved, can you liken this exchange to any other form of human interaction?

SP: I’ve always found the closest thing to it is probably sex, to be honest; [such an exchange of people’s bodies and emotions requires] a lot of implicit trust and care. There’s a lot of intimacy in taking someone through the adrenaline, through the pleasure and pain. Which is why it’s great to tattoo with your friends, and friends of friends… people who get what you’re on about.

KC: Is there something creatively nourishing about trading your homemade tattoos?

SP: There really is. I’m a huge believer in alternative economies. I think it’s very easy to forget how many things you couldn’t access without love, generosity and community - even if you had all the money in the world. A trading system is such a great way to invent experiences and gestures for the people in our lives when this really easy shorthand of money is taken away.

Of course, I’m also a really big believer in artists being paid properly, and how great being able to pay your rent is. It’s a strong conviction, especially from the circumstances that I was raised in - that poverty truly is violence. That’s an important thing to say. But there’s also an acknowledgement of the other ways we have of being generous and supportive to the people around us, from our talents and gifts that enrich a sense of community that’s not purely transactional.

Homemade tattoos by ©   Miso  , courtesy of the artist

Homemade tattoos by © Miso, courtesy of the artist

KC: Do you consider this work an artistic service, or more of a personal, intimate exchange?

SP: A deeply intimate exchange, for sure. I don’t consider it as a service at all.

KC: You’ve said that it never felt right to put a financial value on intimacy with your friends, or to tattoo people who you did not know. In this sense, do you feel it’s your responsibility to know a person properly before putting ink to skin?

SP: For me, that’s just my instinct, and I feel that’s what allows me to do good tattoos—when I really understand how that friend wears it, how they move their body, how it will fall or be hidden by the clothes they wear, how it will look when they move their arms to reach for something, or how they might sit with their hands on their face, or if it warps when they smoke a cigarette in the exact way they hold their wrists.

Sometimes I can articulate what’s going on in their life, or why they’re getting something, before they do. That’s a really beautiful thing, and I just couldn’t give a stranger the same tattoo, even if I wanted to.

But I don’t think everyone should be tattooing like that. Do I think there’s something awesome about going into a bikie shop, pointing at some bonkers flamingo drawing and getting it at the spur of the moment? Absolutely. Considerate tattoos are great. Inconsiderate tattoos are even better.

KC: What do you think you gain when you remove money from the interchange of art in particular?

SP: For me, it cuts out being a service for someone. It becomes a two way street, where you have to meet in the middle. I think it increases the dialogue and openness to being challenged on both sides.

KC: You say that you always, as an artist, want to have a parallel practice that exists for community and nothing else. Why do you feel this is so important to you?

SP: I suppose it’s about generosity and support. My works are quite expensive - and unfortunately, just have to be. That’s just the given when you’re mapping war as field work, coupled with the labour intensive nature of the drawings. I make relatively very little originals a year, and they aren’t always accessible for friends to own them. So this parallel practice has become a beautiful way to make mapping works for me that are valued and carried with their owners, and that can’t be resold. So if it’s not tattooing in the future, I really would love to continue making something that I can leave with the people around me, who give me the support networks and love to make the main bodies of work that I create.

Homemade tattoos by ©   Miso  , courtesy of the artist

Homemade tattoos by © Miso, courtesy of the artist

KC: When you create a work of art, and you have invested your time, energy and emotion into it, it can feel very much like it belongs to you. When you finish a tattoo for trade, who does it feel like it belongs to?

SP: It’s always with the wearer. I am really conscious to never repeat the same tattoo twice, so every single one I’m really excited to do, and proud of - and this means they really do belong to their owner.

KC: Do strangers often ask you for tattoos?

SP: Of course. It’s really nice that people would ever consider giving me any bit of their body; it’s such an honour. But unfortunately I can barely manage to even reply to the requests in my inbox, let alone ever be able to even consider taking on new subjects on top of my studio and travel workload.

KC: Is there ever a negotiation period between yourself and the individual when you’re trading your tattoos? Or are you generally happy with where they meet you halfway?

SP: As far as the trade goes, it’s never specified. It’s really not about the thing - it’s the gesture of the thing. And it’s mostly about everyone walking away at the end of the night feeling good about their talents, more than anything.

KC: What do you love most about what you do?

SP: I love having a practice that allows me to pursue every curiosity I have, and only rewards me for it. I love having something I can channel all of myself into; it’s a huge sense of catharsis to be able to express yourself in making. My favourite thing about being an artist in the world [is that] I really think we get to see the most diverse strata of living. The highs and the lows are so stark, and I could never give that up—going from a war zone, or staying in a squat, having no hot water, to some ridiculous museum opening, a fashion editorial shoot, a collector’s home. People are really generous with artists in emotional sharing, in inviting us into their spaces, in connecting on a bigger level. It’s really incredible.

KC: What really inspires you?

SP: So much. I suppose at the core of my practice is politics, geography, mapping, data and textiles. Less seen, but very much felt, are architecture and music. Inspiration is funny, and so elusive when you’re just always sifting it in the back of your mind somehow, without knowing. My last body of work was really resolved by being a bee-keeper and by an Egyptian mummy’s boobs at The Met. The next body of work I’m making was resolved by two dresses on a Givenchy runway. It’s funny where you find it.

KC: Do you have any muses?

SP: Vali Myers, always and forever. As a wild woman, as a tattooist, and as an artist.

This story first appeared in 10011mag print issue 04.