When it comes to looking back on life events, no art form expresses the importance of memories quite like tattooing. But with trends in body art shifting over the decades, how can you be sure your tattoo design will stand the test of time? We met up with tattoo artist Romain Pareja to discuss the art of remembering.
When we arrive at Hand in Glove to talk to Romain, we’re greeted by a pleasant, softly spoken man in his early forties. He offers us a coffee as he welcomes us inside his tattoo parlour which, with its soft lighting and wooden beams, feels more like a cosy chalet in the foothills of the Alps than a studio for permanent body modification. Before we sit down to learn about Romain’s forays into the worlds of skateboarding, punk, and the art of eyelid tattooing, we spend a considerable amount of time chatting about nannying abroad and the benefits of a bilingual education (Romain has two young children).
It’s not long though before Romain gets into less familiar territory. ‘I did my first tattoo when I was really young – 14 or something. My older brother wanted to buy me a tattoo machine, but my parents said no way, you’ll end up covered in a load of crap tattoos’, he laughs. ‘I started skateboarding in 1988 and most of the skateboarding videos had hardcore music and all the guys were tattooed so it was kind of natural. A lot of my friends were older than me and had tattoos – some went to jail and got bad tattoos. So it’s something I grew up with.’
Romain embarked on his tattooing career in earnest at the age of 17, shadowing tattoo artists such as Yann Black and other friends throughout his twenties while skating and designing T-shirts for various skate brands. ‘At some point I had to stop skating because I broke everything’ he grins. ‘Then I had to find another job to pay my rent because Paris is fucking expensive. I started in a friend’s tattoo shop in 2003 where I would work seven days a week, from 9 in the morning until ten at night.’ Finally, in 2011, Romain decided to open his own tattoo studio and Hand in Glove was born.
Despite having roots firmly planted in the hardcore and punk movements, Romain explains that his tattoos aren’t influenced by any one style in particular. ‘I don’t want to tattoo one style only, because I would get bored. The only [consistent] style in my work is my own drawing style.’ As well as offering a range of tattoo styles, one of the principles of Hand in Glove is to accommodate customers’ requests of all shapes and sizes, whether they’re looking for a blackout sleeve or a delicate heart on the wrist.
‘Some people say: “I don’t want to tattoo this, it’s too small and it’s not interesting”. But everyone has the right to choose their own tattoo – and you don’t have to start with a back piece. This shop has a good reputation and I don’t see why someone who only wants a small tattoo shouldn’t have the right to go to a tattoo artist with a good reputation rather than some crappy artist who is going to put some bullshit on your skin. I think your first experience getting a tattoo has to be good.’
The process of getting a tattoo presents a certain paradox: the ink is permanent, but the nature of design is ephemeral. One only has to consider the sharp decline in the popularity of tribal tattoos since the 2000s to see this gradual ebb and flow of trends in action. Romain suggests that these trends have less to do with fashion and more to do with misconceptions regarding the meaning behind the tattoos.
‘Before people used to want tribal tattoos because they thought that tattooing came from Polynesia. But the tattoos people were getting were very far from the [authentic] Polynesian style. If you live in a city in France and you want a tribal tattoo, I think you have to think first about why.’ It’s not just mainstream trends like tribal tattoos that Romain has noticed during his time as a tattoo artist, either: ‘I also see some artists who make really shit tattoos, like yeah, I’m gonna make tattoos like they do in prison and I’m like, why? You’ve never been to jail and you’re giving these tattoos to people who’ve never been to jail… If someone in jail gets a really crappy tattoo, they do it because they don’t have a choice, not because it’s a style. And I think if that person had the choice, they would get a good tattoo. So that kind of pisses me off.’
In general, Romain rejects the notion of following any particular trend when choosing a tattoo design. Hearing him talk about his first tattoo (‘a shitty dragon I drew myself when I was 13 or 14’), there’s a sense that it is the memories that matter when it comes to permanent ink rather than specific styles or techniques. ‘Tattoos are not about fashion. It’s about you and what you like. Tattoos are one of the few things that you can do for yourself without following anyone else. You can get the same shirt as your neighbour or copy the style of Rihanna or Jean Paul Gaultier but getting a tattoo is something you have to do for yourself and not for fashion.’
Romain stays well off the bandwagon when it comes to trends in tattooing techniques, such as stick and poke tattooing, which has recently made a resurgence. ‘Some artists make amazing designs using traditional methods. But personally, I think tattoo machines are better. You can do everything with a machine and stick and poke isn’t easy to do. You have to really work on the technique. For example, tebori (a traditional Japanese tattooing method) is great for colouring and shading but it takes a lot of time. Stick and poke is good for certain styles, for example for small tattoos, but it’s technical too. I’m not going to change just because it’s in fashion now.’
Though there might not be any hard and fast formula for getting a timeless tattoo, there’s one point that Romain keeps coming back to throughout our conversation that could serve as some very sound advice for those looking to get permanently inked: ‘I think that tattoos are a good way to be yourself and do what you want to do and not ask someone, what do you think about this? I don’t give a shit about what you think. I do it for me, not for other people.’ Even the name of the shop, Hand in Glove, was chosen based on this principle. ‘It’s a song by the Smiths about the relationship between the singer and another guy, because he’s gay, and the way that other people look at them. And he doesn’t give a shit about what people think. Because he’s like this, he’s gay, he loves his man and he wants to live with him.’
‘And that’s a good way of thinking about tattoos. You know, people are going to look at you, but at the end of the day, you don’t care. You get your tattoo and people can think a lot of things about it, but they will never know the truth about this tattoo and why you did it. You don’t have to explain. If you’re a good person and you do good stuff – do what you want.’ Romain also liked the idea of using the name of a song about homosexuality for the tattoo studio as a way of making what he describes as a historically ‘macho’ world more inclusive. ‘Tattoos are for everybody. You can be who you are, and whatever you are, and love tattoos. That’s the most important thing.’
Listening to Romain talk about tattoos and the memories they evoke for him is enough to convince anyone to book themselves in for a sleeve immediately. With over 40% of millennials now sporting a tattoo of some kind, what is it that makes tattoos such a universally popular channel for commemorating the important events and people in our lives? He shrugs. ‘A tattoo is a memory you can keep for life. It’s not like a picture where, if your computer or phone dies, you lose everything’. In a society where people take dozens of selfies, snapchats and Instagram stories each day (nobody uses analogue anymore, Romain laments), the careful consideration of meaning, design and execution involved in getting a tattoo can provide the perfect antidote to our fast, disposable approach to ‘remembering’ moments. Perhaps the permanence of a tattoo even goes some way toward countering the anxieties we feel about the impermanence of the moments we live throughout our lives: You will never be able to go back in time. You might not be able to remember things exactly as they were ten years from now. You might never even get around to looking through the thousands of photos you take on your iPhone each year. But, as Romain concludes, ‘you always remember getting tattoos and the meanings behind them. And unless I have my leg cut off, I can never lose those memories.’
A BRIEF HISTORY OF TATTOOS
3200 BC The oldest intact human body ever discovered (in 1991) was found to have 61 tattoos. The tattoos are mainly in places associated with acupuncture, which suggests they may have originally had a medicinal function.
1891 The first tattooing machine is made.
1910s Tattoos started to become popular among sailors and circus performers. Sailors would have a swallow tattooed to signify 5,000 miles travelled or a turtle to show they had crossed the equator.
1930s A trend emerged for having one’s social security number tattooed (perhaps a handy tip for dealing with French administration?)
1970s Janis Joplin’s photograph on the cover of Rolling Stone with her delicate tattoos marks the beginning of mainstream acceptance for permanent body art.