It is widely accepted that tattoo is now considered to be an art form. Many tattooists are accomplished artists, producing outstanding drawings and paintings and they deftly transfer their skills from paper and canvas to living bodies. And being an artist, I am in awe of them. The new breed of tattooist can produce outstanding realism, complex patterns, designs, and incredible tonal work, in five or six hours on a living, sometimes moving, body, that I would struggle to render on an inert, well-prepped, flat canvas in a week. Sydney based tattoo artist Maija Arminen is one such artist.
Her award winning tattoo artwork is keenly sought after by discerning lovers of tattoo who approach their marks like fine art, collecting tattoos on their skin in the same way that a collector would amass canvases and sculptures by an artist they love. And like any in demand artist, Maija Arminen is booked up months in advance. Informed by her love of Art Nouveau, Maija’s designs incorporate sinuous, curving line work and decorative pattern. She fuses these with incredible detail and a stunning colour palette and this makes her work unmistakably unique. Maija’s designs are lyrical and flow over the body with an expressive rhythm, often incorporating magnificent florals, rendered sometimes with adroit realism and sometimes in stylized form. This experienced artist can also render outstanding realism and has won awards at tattoo conventions for her jaw dropping realist tattoos.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m a 35 year old Finnish born tattoo artist living in Newtown Sydney with my Finnish partner and two cats. I have been here for a bit over six years now. I grew up in the darkness of a small village in Eastern Finland, so I really appreciate the Australian weather.
Do you have a background in art? Artistic family? Art training?
I have drawn and painted all my life. My family has been full of hobby artists and artisans, so paints and fabrics and sewing machines and all sorts of art courses were always available. I have a degree in costume design, and worked in that industry for couple of years, but changed to tattooing as I felt it wasn’t right kind of creative for me.
Describe Maija Arminen, as a person for us.
I’m a sloppy perfectionist who loves any cuisine with tomatoes and cheese. If I’m not tattooing or drawing, I’m usually vintage shopping, drinking wine or watching movies.
How would you describe yourself as an artist?
I see myself somewhere between artist and artisan. Most of time in tattooing the subject matter and the meaning comes from the client. And in that sense I feel tattooing suits me very well as I have always felt, especially when I was trying to paint when was younger, that I need to have something worthy to say, and I didn’t. Now when I’m working on a ‘tattoo’ painting I have accepted that it’s alright for it to be just decorative, and through that understanding I often realise that I actually have something to say through my paintings, but it’s subtle, it’s not like I need to save the world with every art piece.
Have you always been a tattooist? How does one become a tattooist?
I have been tattooing for 9 years. Many tattoo artists these days have some sort of background in art and design, but there is no formal education for tattooing. The best way to learn is to get an apprenticeship in a tattoo shop, and to be ready to work hard and forget your social life.
I know you have some tattooists who you admire and find inspirational. Could you tell us who they are and what it is you love about their work?
If I made a list it would be huge starting from the artist that I work alongside at the Little Tokyo tattoo. There are so many different styles and skills to love and admire and be inspired by, in tattooing. I do appreciate any well-executed tattoo. Some artists create clever designs that fit the body perfectly, and some artists have mastered the perfect technique, solid lines, the smoothest shading. And the best ones have the both, the art and the skills.
Your designs and artwork have an Art Nouveau influence. Explain what drew you to Art Nouveau as a style and what elements you like about it? Do you have a particular Art Nouveau artist you like? What elements of Art Nouveau design do you incorporate into your into your artwork and tattoo work?
To me Art Nouveau works especially well as a basis for tattoo designs, as it is beautiful and flows. It sits nicely on a body, and it’s a decorative art style that suits tattooing. I love Mucha, but also Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela who’s style is more raw. I used to intentionally look for Art Nouveau to influence my work, but it has become more naturally incorporated into my style now, and perhaps next step is to try to move away from it a bit to make it more unique.
Your works on paper are incredibly detailed and complex. Can you explain your process in developing an artwork from start to finish and tell us how long it takes?
I usually work in stages, from the first really rough idea and composition sketch to a more refined one, that is usually on several sheets and small pieces of paper. I try to let the shapes lead me and not to think about the theme or subject matter too much, just trying to relax and let it all happen.
When I’m happy with the individual parts of the art work separately I’ll put them together on paper with pencil. Then it’s time for ink and nib pen and lot of patience. After I’ve completed all the dots and lines I colour it in with watercolours and keep my fingers crossed that I don’t ruin it at this stage. I’m pretty comfortable with my colour choices, and quick ipad mock ups help, but watercolour as a medium is still not my best mate.
What do you call your style of tattoo work? What are your favourite pieces to create? What do you love about being a tattooist and what do you find most challenging?
I try not to put myself in any category, as it is limiting. My tattoos have been called realism, oil painting style and sometimes even neo-traditional. At the moment, my ideal tattoo project is large scale creative piece that is beautiful, but with some sort of twist.
What can I say; I get to do what I love, with nice people. The only thing that makes it feel like work is the deadlines. I love tattoos, but I also find tattooing hard. You have to try to do your best every day, even if the canvas is moving, sun damaged, or the client doesn’t look after the final product.
Explain the similarities and differences in creating art on paper and on the human body. I would imagine there is a certain amount of pressure in creating art in a live situation, on someone’s body. How do you prepare mentally each day for a tattoo session?
The design project is the same. You have more control over the pieces on paper; there are fewer variables that are out of your control. You can finish a painting whenever you want, but clients sometimes take a long break and come back after few years to complete a tattoo.
When doing art on a human body you have to treat the canvas with respect, but also have be bit ballsy about it. Just trust your vision trust your skills. You have a limited amount of time to tattoo over the same spot, so you better get it right straight away.
For me it helps if I know that I’m well prepared. It’s easy to be confident when you know your work.
Can you describe the process of creating a tattoo for a client? Essentially, it is a commissioned artwork every time, so there has to be a large degree of collaboration. Is it important for you to retain your style and be creative in your own right? Do you find your clients are very prescriptive, or, knowing your style are happy for you to create one of your designs with greater freedom?
When starting a new project I like meet with the client face to face for consultation. It’s so much easier to draw for some one that you have met and got a glimpse of their personality. In general, the client gives me the theme or subject matter and possibly things they want to include in the tattoo, but the rest is usually for me to come up with.
The preparation process varies on the style of the tattoo. When I’m creating a realistic style tattoo it’s usually based on a reference photo, so I can put it together on an iPad or computer. I used to do lot of realistic work, and I still find them technically interesting to do, but I find drawing my own designs or combinations of realism and drawing more creatively satisfying.
After I’ve finished the design we usually meet again with the client before the tattoo appointment to check that we are both happy with it.
These days I do get a fair bit of freedom with the designs and I believe that that is the best way to get best possible tattoo. It’s so important to choose your artist carefully and then trust them. Sometimes I have to do the choosing too, if I don’t feel that I’m the best person for the job or have different visual views to the client I try recommend someone else. Everybody deserves an artist that is fully committed to doing their tattoo.
Who is getting a Maija tattoo these days? What do you think people look for in a tattoo? How do you see the practice and art form has changed over the years? What do you think is exciting about tattooing now and where do you think the practice is heading?
Any one really. My clientele consists of slightly more women than men, in all age groups. I think the people coming to me are looking to get something unique and beautiful. But beautiful in broader sense not just cute.
I’ve been tattooing only 9 years, so I haven’t really seen the old days in the industry. I would say the biggest changes in my time have been development of easy to use rotary machines, which has enabled skilled artists to learn medium of tattooing much quicker than before. Sharing my work on social media for anyone to see in real time is a newer practice. Both have brought both negatives and positives to the industry.
At the moment, I’m very excited to see the diversity of styles coming up. People are trying new things and thinking tattoo in a new way.
I know you have been successful in competing at tattoo conventions. Tell us about the benefits you see in entering competition. Do you find competition work particularly stressful?
The main reason to take part in a competition is to show and promote your work to a large audience, and also to see other artists’ work. It’s like taking part in a conversation with the tattoo industry. Winning is always fun, but it’s not the only goal. And lately I have trying to put my vanity aside and doing designs that I love to show, instead of styles that have previously been successful in the competitions. I am naturally competitive person. It gives my work an extra kick when I know people are watching.
You were telling me about the course you are currently undertaking at the Julian Ashton School. Describe the course so far. Why did you decide to take a formal class and what do you hope to get out of it?
It all comes down to drawing skills and what better way to improve your skills than classic training. I’m only doing it as a weekend thing but I have enjoyed it a lot. I haven’t done this type of drawing for a while, and it’s always bit terrifying in the beginning… but I have slowly learned to get rid of the fear and just see it as an ‘art workout’.
This year Maija has already been seen creating her wonderful tattoos live at Rites of Passage in Melbourne, she can be seen in action at Rites of Passage in Sydney later in the year and at this point she is hoping to tattoo at a couple of the European expos this year as well. She can be found tattooing most days at Little Tokyo Temple of Art in Sydney. You can follow Maija @maija_tattoo on Instagram and @maijatattooart on Facebook.