With nearly 3 decades of tattooing experience under his belt, Jocke Hultman is probably the epitome of everything good about the traditional ideas of tattooing. He skipped school, but doesn’t regret it now. He has travelled around the world for more time than stayed at home, probably. Doesn’t regret that too. Born in the land of Nordic Gods, he has always fascinated by the cultures of the East. And has a star at the Hollywood Walk of Fame. You don’t believe me, do you?
One of the biggest names in the world of tattooing, Jocke has lived every tattoo artist’s dream. He is well travelled, well-versed with global cultures, art from different parts of the world, and he does amazing tattoos. Recently, Shubham Nag from Tattoo Cultr met up with the legend for what turned out to be a gruesomely long interview for the intern who was transcribing it. Here are parts of what transpired during that conversation…
You started out in 1988 and it’s been 29 years now. All these years of tattooing, what’s the biggest gift that you’ve got from this industry?
The biggest gift, and this may sound corny, but the biggest gift is all these friends that I have all over the world. I was kinda joking about this back in Sweden, that if I’m getting tired of being at home right now, then I can just send an email to some friend wherever I wanna go and there I can go and work.
So, the entire world is your home right now. Give us a little history, Hultman tattoo family is one of the pioneer tattoo families in the world. Tell us more about the background and history of the Hultman tattoo family.
It started with me, of course. I was 16 and I fell in love with tattoos when I was 9; my best friend’s elder brother got an eagle tattoo and I was like, ‘Woah! I wanna have that!’ Then, when I turned maybe 13 or something, I started to draw a lot, I have been drawing all my life though but when people had like concerts or whatever, I would make the posters and then at 16, I finally started. When I got my older son, I told him, ‘Please, can you get an education before you start?’ because he was tagging with me since he was 7 and he had decided that he wants to be a tattoo artist but I told him to please have an education because I didn’t have it. I quit school and decided tattooing was what I wanna do.
When did you quit school and decide this is what I’m doing?
’88… and I was 16 back then. Not everyone in my family, but most of them and relatives told me to more or less, ‘Fuck off!’ because back in the day, it was mostly junkies or outcasts that made tattoos and I said I wanna do it anyway and I did. My son was living with his mom back then and he was 16 as well. He called me up and said, ‘I can’t do this school thing, you know.’ I was thinking and I told him, ‘Okay, you can take one year off, and let’s go back to school before you get to the studio.’ But he moved back with me, and everything was going so good for him. He was like turning so good, so fast. He’s been with me everywhere; I used to live in Taiwan as well, I used to live in New York, in Arizona and almost every time he’s been with me. So, he practically grew up in the studios, and then he strayed away and people were like, ‘Wow! Mike was drawing in the beginning, and then he got a little bit cocky though…’
*my dad is a tattoo artist…*
Yeah… something like that, he would gloat. He would go, ‘Yeah man look at my work…’ because you know so many people came and told him. ‘Wow it looks so good!’ No one told him that maybe you need to practice on that. Everyone just told him, ‘Oh wow!’ but he has learned it the hard way because I told him you can be my apprentice though, but you can’t make a tattoo until you’re 18. My sister, she’s also working in the studio but she’s making nails and stuff like that, but anyway, we’re trying to keep it family. I have two more people working in my shop, that’s actually my kids as well. I have another son, and he’s turning 15 now. He has been nagging me about being an artist as well, but I’m like, ‘Please, please can you be the first one in the family to have an education.’
Looking back at things, you, now your son and your sister, deep down do you have any regrets that you skipped education?
No, none what so ever.
A bad tattoo can be fixed, but if the machine is wrong, the setting is wrong then you can cut the skin or get scars and a scar is a scar; you can’t change that.
When you started out, to whom did you go for an apprenticeship or to study the craft?
At that time, there was no one because back then when I went to tattoo artists and told them if I could learn, I actually got guns drawn out and was told to get the fuck out. They didn’t wanna pass on any secrets! Then, I met an English guy who taught me the ground rules of tattooing. So, I stayed with him for three months and I had to get back to Sweden again because I was 16, I ran away from home.
These many years and you’ve seen tattooing in different parts of the world, in different cultures and conditions. What is the biggest change that you have witnessed in the tattoo industry in all these years?
The biggest change, if I look at the customers now, is that they know what they want and it isn’t all about going bigger, they concentrate on making it really nice. On the other side I see, on the community aspect, the whole world is accepting it in a different way, but still, I have had people who didn’t accept us at all. When I go for a security check at the airport, I know it takes me an hour more than my friends and that’s the way it is, I just have to accept it.
This sort of stigma of an outcast that is associated with tattooed people and tattoo artists, have you seen it mellow down over the years?
Yeah, more and more, absolutely. Cheers to that!
I have always been interested in the East. I have never cared much about our Nordic Gods. I know Thor is the God with the hammer! That’s the only thing I know.
So, on your website you say your tattoos in most cases are reflection of your sense and feelings, can you illustrate on that point please?
It’s like I tell my customers always, of course I’m gonna do my best today, I can only deliver absolutely the best but if I wake up tomorrow and you call me and I feel I can’t make it today I will tell you, ‘I’m so sorry, I know you’ve been waiting for long but I can’t do it today because I don’t feel it.’ For some people that may sound kinda like a rock star but that’s not what it is. I want to be able to meet you in 10 years’ time and see you in the eyes and look at your tattoo and know I did the best I could that day. So, if I feel good, I can make it. I know it sounds kind of weird, but that’s the way it is for me, though. It doesn’t matter if you want to have a small piece, or if you want to have your full sleeve in Japanese, I have to feel it. I prefer to meet you before you get your tattoo done so that I make some sort of connection with you.
I was reading this blog where this writer writes that tattooing is probably the only profession where an artist can leave the professionalism behind and just carry forward with the artistry. Do you agree with such a statement?
Yeah, I do. At the same time you need to be professional as well because you have all these diseases that you can get people when you’re not careful. But yes, I do agree with that.
And over these years of tattooing so many people, if you were to pick out one memory of one tattoo that you did, which one would that be?
That would be my older son’s back piece. It was a geisha’s face all over the back and I got to spend so many hours with my son just talking.
You’ve seen tattooing in the west where from our perspective, the skin is lighter and is an advantage because fair skin lets you have a better contrast and you’ve seen tattooing in South East Asia as well. Apart from the skin tone, that has turned out to be a difference, do you see any other cultural difference in terms of how tattooing is approached in these parts of world?
Yeah, I see it like this – here in Asia, people are more open. They come and say, ‘I want to have a koi fish on my arm like this’ and they’re showing a picture. But if I say that we do it in any other way, it would be better and I talk about it to them, they would say, ‘Wow you’re right, that would look good.’ But in Sweden, okay now I’ve been tattooing for so many years, of course they listen to me now, but before, it was harder to make people realize that I know. It’s necessary for me to respect what they want but at the same time they need to respect that I don’t wanna make it like that because when you go later and show it to people saying it’s my work and I can’t put my name behind it, that is why I don’t wanna do it. And then I get a little bit angry and they get hurt I think, but I never experience that here.
That is great for us, thank you!
Who has been the biggest inspiration for you as a tattoo artist?
Fillip Leu… yeah
Have you ever gotten a chance to meet the legend?
Yeah, I’ve met him but I have never gotten tattooed by him though.
Can you give us a little window into what that experience was like?
For me it was like, I was kinda star struck at first. Then, when he shook my hand and we spoke, I was like, ‘Woah!’ Every word he said I took it straight to my heart. He said hello and I was like, ‘Wow he said hello… wait, wait what was the meaning (laughs his head off)…’ and then he showed me some drawings.
What sort of tattoos have you specialized in all these years?
I am specializing in black and grey and Japanese…
How did you get introduced to the magic of Japanese tattooing?
I have always been interested in the East. I have never cared much about our Nordic Gods. I know Thor is the God with the hammer! That’s the only thing I know. So I have always been interested in that kinda stuff. Of course, I think it all started with dragons and Samurais, and then it just grew and then my mentor, he was really, really into oriental. So, he showed me and that was like wow! So, I made my first back piece in 1994, first oriental piece and ever since that, that’s the only thing that I ever wanna do. Of course, I do everything but this is what I specialize in.
In a debate between Japanese traditional and realism, which side would you choose and why?
Japanese, because for me, I’m not saying that realism isn’t tattooing, it is, but for me you need to have solid lines, good black work and good shading and flow; it has to follow the body. So for me, of course, Japanese but I’m not saying realism is not great work; it is great work as well. I can really take my hat off for the people who do it because, ‘Wow!’ but it’s not my kinda stuff.
On Indian shores, we get to see artists who practice for two years, they move out and they open their own studio which ultimately probably results in bad ink on people at the end of the day. What’s your advice to younger artists on that?
My advice is to get an apprenticeship. For me, even though I didn’t do it but back in the day that door wasn’t open. The only way to do it right is to have an apprenticeship because during the three years I had with my son I tried to teach him everything about the machines, but it doesn’t matter because everyone is like ‘Oh he draws so well, he can tattoo.’ No, not okay. A bad tattoo can be fixed, but if the machine is wrong, the setting is wrong then you can cut the skin or get scars and a scar is a scar; you can’t change that. So for me, to say anything about anyone who want to come in to the tattoo industry, seek out apprenticeship and to do that yes, go and annoy a tattoo artist and visit him, show your drawing, show that you are full of new ideas, show that you draw…draw…draw, not just pick up like a picture and come back with another six weeks later.
Back in the day, what was your practice skin?
Dead pigs and water melons! Water melons because they are big so I could get my hands on them. And then, dead pig skin, but it was so smelly. So yeah, you know back in the day in Sweden, I had to wait for three months, every three months there was a bike magazine, they used to ride bikes from America and come to my small town, and if I were lucky and there would be some kinda bike meeting with some tattoos on it, that was the only thing. There were no tattoo magazines, there was nothing on the library, and there was no internet! So actually I was hand writing letters to those guys, like then I knew that it took from the Sweden to the States, it took like 5 weeks to come back and then you would wait… ah Monday maybe it’s coming, but no! But then it would come on Thursday and you’d be like wow! It’s Christmas!