Marisa Kakoulas is a lawyer and a writer. She has been writing about tattoos and US laws that impact the tattoo industry for more than a decade. Her blog NeedlesAndSins.com and her tattoo books are highly respected within the international tattoo community. Marisa is also half Greek and heavily tattooed. HeartbeatInk Tattoo Magazine had the chance of first meeting her in New York City and then interviewing her in London.
How did you get into tattoos?
Ed Hardy once told me in an interview that he believes that there could be a “tattoo gene.” It made a lot of sense to me because, when you ask somebody who has a visceral response to tattooing – who sees tattooing and has an actual physical reaction and is attracted to it – that is something that's ingrained; people can think back and say, ”Well, I've always felt that way”. I remember when I was very young, looking at my mother's National Geographic magazines and coming across tattooed tribal women, and I was instantly thinking that this is really beautiful, mysterious and bad-ass. Of course, this is an ideal way of looking at it really. If I would be honest with myself, it is because I liked tattooed boys when I was teenager (laughs).
Were you then tattooed when you were a teenager?
I was a nerdy teenager, did good in school, and my parents were very conservative. I didn't run around a lot. So when I found myself at tattoo shops at a young age, it held a kind of magic for me. Keep in mind that getting a tattoo in New York was illegal back then, until 1997, so it was more secretive. You had to know where to go and ring the right buzzer. It was like a clandestine operation. However, when you were “inside”, it wasn't what you'd expect, like a biker shop. At least in my experience, when I was first exposed to it, I was seeing really beautiful custom tattooing. There were art books rather than trendy flash for inspiration. I respected it so much that I felt I really wanted to wait until Ι had the right idea and do it at the right time. So, I didn't get tattooed until I was in my early twenties. Actually, I got my first tattoo during the early weeks of law school. I felt I didn't fit it, and was afraid that I'd become something that I wasn't. I love the study of law, but I've never been super competitive and I've never felt that I had to be above somebody else to be better. It was really at that time that I started thinking about art and tattooing a lot in terms of individuation.
That sounds very mature…
I was a very mature kid (laughs). Now, I'm regressing. I'm like a thirteen-year-old boy (laughs). Back then, I was like a forty year old woman (laughs).
What was your first tattoo?
It was the “Star of Vergina”. I drew it and I don't have any artistic abilities, so thank God the tattooist, Anil Gupta, fixed it (laughs)! When first getting tattooed, many want it to have some “meaning”. So I attributed to it this great meaning of culture and values that this symbol represented to me.
Is this the only “Greek” tattoo you've got?
No, I have more! This “gorgona” (mermaid) is a motif from the wall of a house from a village in Chios. The village is called Pyrgi, where the houses are literally tattooed; they're white-washed and they have special designs – patterns. They look like blackwork tattoos actually. I have more patterns from these houses and there is also a book called “Chiotika Motiva” (“Motifs from Chios”), where I derive a lot of inspiration. My tattooist, Dan DiMattia of Calypso Tattoo in Belgium, has been able to really do beautiful things with these design influences. Dan and I work very well together. We were married and we are still very good friends. We are currently working on a bodysuit, although, because I am still a lawyer in a conservative environment, everything has to be covered with a pants suit or a skirt and boots – at least until I retire. I love hand tattoos, but it will be a long time before I reward myself with that. I think they're beautiful, especially on women.
Do you think that tattoos “beatify” women?
Now that I am forty, I think about how women look as we age and how tattoos can enhance our beauty. A lot of my desire in terms of pursuing tattooing, at this stage in my life, is not only because it is an art form; I want to feel more beautiful in my skin as I get older. It's like the way some people pursue plastic surgery. I have no problem with plastic surgery. I think it's funny how a lot of people from the tattoo community are very much against it, which I understand because it seems like conforming to an unnatural societal dictate of beauty. But, in essence, I think there's commonality between those who chose tattoos and those who chose surgery: to feel better about themselves. So I am not getting a boob job, but I am getting tattooed.
Both tattoo and plastic surgery are types of body modification, so why this negative point of view?
Exactly! I absolutely agree. It's almost hypocritical in a way to shun it. It's the same way people generalize tattooing by saying that we do it to be "rebellious." I have nothing to rebel against at this age! Everybody has got their own reasons for getting tattooed and for all types of body modification. Who am I to judge?
What was the reaction of your family when you started getting tattooed?
My family is conservative. My father is very strict and by the book Greek. It took him a very long time to get used to… this. I always had my tattoos “hidden." My dad knew that I had one tattoo, which he didn't like, but he understood it was a small tattoo. He was a captain and he would tell me, “Captains don't get tattoos, the sailors get them!”, like it was very déclassé. When it came to tattooed women, they were most likely prostitutes. He didn't see it as an art form. Then, one day, in order to understand why I was getting tattooed, he goes to a newsstand in New York and picks up a tattoo magazine. And like the world was conspiring against me, out of all the magazines, he picks up the one that, for that month, had a spread on me with my full name in big letters across two pages! He nearly had a heart-attack. He goes, “Xriste kai Panagia (Jesus Christ and Holly Marry)! The name Kakoulas in a tattoo magazine!" And he didn't say it in a good way! But my family has come around to see tattoos as an art form and not a rebellion. Now they're very popular at my book parties.
How is it to be a heavily tattooed woman nowadays?
I believe that a heavily tattooed woman still gets a lot of attention wherever she is. She is rarely looked at with a “neutral” look. There is either a hyper-sexualisation of tattooed women, where tattoos are very fetishized, or there's the reaction like, "that's disgusting". Things are changing, naturally, with more and more tattooed women, but there is still a little creepiness. Oh, and then there's the touching! Some people think that tattoo is a tactile art and that it is ok to come and touch your tattoos. I hear a lot of tattooed women complaining about being “touched,” as if their bodies become public space.
In your opinion, are there still stereotypes when it comes to tattooing?
Definitely, yes. In some parts of the legal profession, there is this idea that you're not a team player, that you can't advocate for a conservative client when you are such a wildcard, that you are not willing to conform into what a “proper” lawyer should look like, and, therefore you are not a “proper” lawyer. Because of my blog, writing about tattoos, and writing about the law in tattoos I have to be very careful because my credibility as an attorney has been called into question in the past.
When did you start writing about tattoos online?
I always loved to write. Around 2002, I started contributing articles for BMEzine about what it was like to be a tattooed lawyer: a rather schizophrenic existence (laughs). I was also writing about the intersection of law and tattooing, which no one was really talking about back then. As the former wife of a tattooist and tattoo shop owner, I got to see all those issues and problems that tattooists and clients were facing first hand. So I started exploring and writing about them. Then, around 2005, Dan was tattooing Josh Rubin from CoolHunting.com, and I tagged along because I was a big fan of Josh and his site. He mentioned that he wanted to do something on tattoos, and soon after meeting, we did a blog together called Needled.com, which became really popular. We later sold it to River Media and I stayed as an editor until that company folded. In 2008, I created NeedlesAndSins.com. All this sounds very boring and technical (laughs). I guess the point is that I've been writing about tattoos online, and offline, for a while.
Has writing about tattoos all these years been proven profitable after all?
The blogs for me have always been like, “Look at this cool sh*t I found.” That is my motivation for them. I don't get rich on them. They have brought me great friendships, great opportunities, my books and my speaking gigs. My blogging was and still is a labour of love.
When did you get your first book published? How many tattoo books of yours are out there?
I have done four books with Edition Reuss. The first one is the “Black Tattoo Art” and it was published in 2009. It did really well because there wasn't really any massive exploration of blackwork tattooing at the time. Then, we did other genres like “Black & Grey Tattoo”, which is a three book box-set, and “Color Tattoo Art”, which focuses on New School, cartoons and comics tattoos. People kept asking about another “Black Tattoo Art” book, so my latest book is the 2nd volume to that. I have also edited a book for Abrams Books called “Tattoo World."
These books require a lot of work; I begin by researching artists and then, once I find them, I have to convince them to be in the book. Because we don't pay artists – although they do get copies of the book – I have to explain why this would be good thing for the artists and the tattoo community, particularly because their work will inspire others and vice versa. And these books are also presented in a way that tattoos should be presented: as a fine art form.
Are there any Greek tattoo artists featured on you latest “Black Tattoo Art 2” book?
Yes, there is Mike the Athens, Hellenic Stixis and Christ (Endangered Species Tattoo) who is based in Cyprus.
What do you think about the Greek tattoo scene?
I think it is amazing! I'm not saying this just because you're a Greek tattoo magazine. I love the avant-garde work that is coming out of the country. I think there are a lot of abstractions – a lot of Greek tattooists are pushing further what makes a good and solid tattoo by adding their own flavor. There's a really interesting kind of power and energy to it, like taking portraiture and mixing it with a graffiti style, a modernist approach, and then of course you have the sacred geometry and the mandalas. For example, I love what Hellenic Stixis is doing by taking very ancient motifs and bringing new life to them. What is also amazing in Greece is that the tattoo scene is not limited to one genre; a lot of different genres of tattooing are being explored by different tattoo shops across the country. I think that some of the best new artists are coming from Greece.
Going back to the legal issues… who owns the copyright of a tattoo?
That is actually the question! It hasn't been litigated in the United States. Cases have been filed about it, but all these cases have settled. I would say that, for custom tattoo work, unless there is a contract that says the rights have been singed over to the client or the artist, it could be the tattoo artist who owns the rights to the design, or the tattoo artist and client jointly own it. But this is all hypothetical at the moment. We're seeing a lot of problems with celebrities now, especially when celebrity tattoos are put into other mediums, like Mike Tyson's facial tattoo in the “Hangover 2” movie. Tattoo copyright wasn't an issue in the first movie where Tyson appeared with his tattoo, but when they took Mike's tattoo and placed it on Ed Helms's face in the second film and also put it on the advertising / promotion, they took that artwork and separated it from the celebrity and used it without permission. That's when it became an issue. The court took the tattoo copyright issue seriously and suggested to Warner Brothers, in a preliminary injunction hearing, that the parties really should talk settlement because tattoos do have copyright protection.
I think people understand that tattoos can be copyrighted, but the issue is who owns it and whether you can assert those rights. In my opinion, the “Hangover 2” case is a great example of all the issues that play out in tattoo copyright.
What kind of work is copyrightable?
Copyright protects an original work of art; however, it doesn't have to be super original. It could be even a common theme. You could have a copyright to an image of the “Panagia” (Virgin Mary) if it's your rendition of the “Panagia”. All this is fascinating to me. I've lectured at law schools about it. I was also on a panel during NYC's fashion week talking about trademarks, fashion and tattoos at the Fordham Law Fashion Institute.
What about fashion and tattoos?
There's the intersection of trademarks and logos, copyright and tattooing. A lot of people are getting couture logos tattooed on them. At the same time, fashion houses are appropriating the tattoo aesthetic, sometimes even taking the designs without permission. There are all these tattoo law issues to explore. That's what I do on my spare time.
Are you the first person to start raising these legal issues concerning tattoo?
Tattoos and copyright were definitely discussed before I started writing about it; however, I think that I am one of the first who actually was within the tattoo community and talked about those issues – someone who spent her nights in a tattoo studio and seeing how things played out in a legal as well as artistic context. Like artists stealing each other's custom work. Now, I personally don't think that tattooers should be suing each other for copyright infringement of tattoo designs. It sucks when it happens, but I believe in public shaming (laughs). I believe in going on the internet and saying, “hey, you stole somebody's work.” And while I don't generally support artists suing each other in the tattoo community, I do think that artists should be protecting their rights from companies that appropriate their designs. That's kind of what I fight for. That's my thing.
In our era with tattoos being more out in the open, how do you see the American tattoo scene, especially with all those reality tattoo shows?
I think that the good part of these reality shows is that people are seeing the possibilities of what they can put on their bodies. That it doesn't have to be something they pick from a wall or you print out from the internet. That they can go to an artist who can actually visualize their ideas, their dreams and their thoughts. It is also good for the artists because people are starting off with bigger and more interesting work. When you have the willing canvas, the art form is allowed to progress. Therefore, you see incredibly detailed and perfectly executed large scale works and it's because artists are doing them more often. You rarely used to see a bodysuit and now you come across bodysuits all the time. There is also less of a stigma. People can undertake bigger projects; they are willing to trust their artist because we' re seeing what the outcomes are. There has to be that leap of faith.
A lot of people are complaining about the reality shows and I understand why. It is kind of ridiculous that now everybody thinks that they're a tattoo expert, and they can walk into a shop and get a back-piece in five minutes. There are a lot of mistruths and non – reality in those shows, however, the outcome, the product in the end, is good work in general and I think that this is furthering the art.
So they actually show “quality” tattoos on those programs?
A lot of the shows feature strong artists. What is very interesting is the critique in the competition show; if a tattoo is not good, there's an explanation by judges explaining why it is not good and how it can be better. So there' s a more “educated” clientele because of this.
How come then we still see so many crappy tattoos around?
There are people who are cheap and they want things fast. They think that “my boy is going to do it for me for free." Or they don't want to wait the year that it takes to get, say, an expert Mike Rubendall tattoo. I get tattooed once a year because I have to wait – and I was even married to my tattooist (laughs). That's why so many celebrities have such crappy tattoos, because they want it when they want it and will take whoever is available at that time, even if it's not the best tattooer to do the work.
Another sad thing is that I am seeing a lot of young women who are letting their boyfriends, who are wanna-be tattooers, using their bodies as scratchpads. Then there's the “tattoo models” phenomenon.
What about that phenomenon?
Nowadays there is this rise of “tattoo models” as a career choice, where some young women think “when I grow up, I wanna be a tattoo model.” Well, most of these young women are not getting paid to be in tattoo magazines, and like most modeling, it's not a lifetime sustaining career choice. What's particularly upsetting for me is that, in the past, you used to see more diverse tattooed women in magazines. It was a lot about how good the tattoos were. Now, many magazines largely feature only “hot chicks” and it doesn't matter what their tattoos look like. That's one of the bad things of the mainstreaming and the mass commercialization of tattooing. In that regard, now we follow the general norms of mainstream media.
In addition to these young women, we also see young men getting heavily tattooed in a very sort time period. What is your opinion on this?
It is the Justin Bieber effect, where tattoos start from the wrist up, instead of shoulder down. It's about the show. I put the responsibility on the tattooers too for this. In the past, you couldn't get a neck or a hand tattoo unless you had a massive tattoo coverage on your body. Now, it doesn't matter.
With all this said, I believe that we are experiencing a really wonderful and exciting time in tattooing, and I'm grateful to be a part of it.
Interview & photos (portrait & books) by Ino Mei.
Back photo by Craig Burton.
Tattoo by Sulu'ape Pili Mo'o / photo from “Black Tattoo Art 2” / Author Marisa Kakoulas / Edition Reuss.
Tattoo by Xed Lehead at Divine Canvas Tattoo / photo from “Black Tattoo Art 2” / Author Marisa Kakoulas / Edition Reuss.
Tattoo by Loic Lavenu aka XOIL / photo from “Black Tattoo Art 2” / Author Marisa Kakoulas / Edition Reuss.
Tattoo by Gerhard Wiesbeck at Time Travelling Tattoo / photo from “Black Tattoo Art 2” / Author Marisa Kakoulas / Edition Reuss.
Tattoo by Peter Schachner at Lard Yao Tattoo / photo from “Black Tattoo Art 2” / Author Marisa Kakoulas / Edition Reuss.
Tattoo by Thomas Hooper at Rock of Ages Tattoo / photo from “Black Tattoo Art 2” / Author Marisa Kakoulas / Edition Reuss.
Tattoo by Volko Merschky and Simone Pfaff at Buena Vista Tattoo Club / photo from “Black Tattoo Art 2” / Author Marisa Kakoulas / Edition Reuss.
Tattoo by Tomas Tomas at Into You Tattoo / photo from “Black Tattoo Art 2” / Author Marisa Kakoulas / Edition Reuss.
Tattoo by Nazareno Tubaro / photo from “Black Tattoo Art 2” / Author Marisa Kakoulas / Edition Reuss.
Tattoo by Patrick Huettlinger / photo from “Black Tattoo Art 2” / Author Marisa Kakoulas / Edition Reuss.
Tattoo by Daniel DiMattia at Calypso Tattoo / photo from “Black Tattoo Art 2” / Author Marisa Kakoulas / Edition Reuss.
Tattoo by Roxx at 2Spirit Tattoo / photo from “Black Tattoo Art 2” / Author Marisa Kakoulas / Edition Reuss.