“I don’t know… I got my first tattoo when I was thirteen! Then, uh, I was hanging around tattoo artists that were slightly older than I, and so, from the age of like thirteen, I started getting tattooed, started hanging out with people that were doing tattoos. I always wanted to get into it, you know. But, at the time, I was too young and it was not really like something very serious. So, I left it and then more life experiences after life experiences, travel after travel, I came back to tattooing by finding an apprenticeship, and there it started.”
Yes, that’s how it started for Raph Cemo, a French tattoo artist making waves on the internet. Oh, what a dull way of introducing a fucking genius like Raph! For those of you not familiar with him, let me introduce you to an artist who has created a seamless line of thought, energy, and imagery in tattooing that has baffled the minds of tattoo enthusiasts across the internet and IRL. He can be called a phenomenon, he can be labelled a tattoo auteur, but he fits more in soulful forms that my language is not adept at, yet.
I caught up with Raph for a brief chat last month, during the Nepal Inked Tattoo Festival. He was tattooing fellow artist, Bimal Rai aka Eek Glass Pani, when I got 20 minutes to sit beside him, and ask some questions. Having read up on him, I knew that Raph comes from a graffiti background, before dedicating himself to tattooing. “I mean graffiti and tattooing is very different to me. When I started, my mentor at the time just told me to completely forget graffiti. It’s completely different, you know. I realized that graffiti now, for me, is the least that I can do, you know. It’s a way out. It’s way more free. It’s a free expression on a wall with spray paint. My understanding of the two art forms are very different from each other. It is only now, after ten years of tattooing, that I have started incorporating like some phases of the graffiti knowledge that I have. Yet, I treat it as two different mediums. Tattooing is its own, and has to be so.”
Raph’s tattooing is visually stunning, but when you truly delve into figuring the artist’s mind, you sort of want to know what is the basic idea or emotion or sense that they attach to tattooing. “It’s a ritual. A ceremony. It’s embellishing people through a ceremony. It can be more or less intense depending on the people, you know. It’s a connection between me and the person I tattoo. It’s almost like a transfer of energies. A to and fro between me and the person under my needle. I need to hold their hands and be with them, take them across the thresholds of pain and mental strength. And, when they are participative in that process, then we are both transcending at some levels, you know. So yeah, tattooing is essentially a lot about the transfer of energies…”
And that is so true. Like just open Instagram, and scroll through his feed, and you will realise that Raph is always trying to find something new within his own self. In this age of styles in tattooing, everybody craves to have a signature tattooing style that people know them for. When it comes to Raph Cemo, how would he describe his tattooing?
“I actually get that question, but I can’t even tell because it’s me. You know what I mean? It’s just me drawing, you know. So, I don’t know, organic, ornamental, like I don’t even know. It’s more like just me. Earlier, I had mythological elements in my tattoos which were based on my impressions from Nepali, Tibetan cultures, but now, I don’t put anything related to any religion anymore as imagery, which I used to before. So now, I just try to like do more organic, but as my work inspiration, obviously, my travels, and then mainly nature. It’s difficult to explain my style, because I am made up of the experiences I have had, and my ideas stem from a mix of all of these experiences. I can’t segregate them into different pockets, so I make my way by using them all together.”
When you think of it, Raph’s tattooing is symbolic of how tattooing is progressing globally. He finds takers for his brand of tattooing wherever he travels to. And individual tattoo cultures of countries across the world have different histories and backgrounds, but in this age of the connected global village, people from any part of the tattooverse can relate to Raph’s art because it represents a symbiosis of impressions of cultures and nature. He is juxtaposing a lot of random visual memory strains, and creating something unique out of it all. Almost an equivalent of what we seek in the idea of individual expression.
“I see it (tattooing) more as a ritual of endowment where you’re just embellishing people with what art you can provide, you know. I don’t know, it has changed so much that it brings so many questions into the world that we live in right now. It’s an art form, a way of marking yourself, it’s a way of identifying yourself, changing yourself – I think it has many functions. And, everyone treats it differently. Which is why also whenever I talk to people who want a tattoo from me, I always ask to know a little bit about who they are, what they like and why they like it. Just to get a little bit in the head of the people. But now when people come to me, I already know they like my work, so I just ask them where they want to get tattooed. It’s like a friend(ly) conversation like, ‘where do you wanna get tattooed?’ Easy.”
Raph is someone who is very clear-headed when it comes to his ideas of art, artistry, tattoos, craftsmanship. He is well-versed with his interpretations of the unique nature of all aspects of his work, and also what he seeks personally out of tattooing. When I asked him about his idea of being spontaneous…
“I think spontaneity is more of about mileage. Years and years of going around, learning, just sponging myself with information. I don’t think you can really understand it fully until you have really experienced enough, you know. I know some people that believe they are better than others, but realistically, we are at the level that we are. We’re all good at tattooing. It’s more about who you are and experiencing the life you’ve had that brings a person to a setup, a ceremony. Then you can accept it better.
“For example, I’ll never do books of design. All my designs are done by hand. In my mind, every single one is a work for my people. I don’t use computer. I could do T-shirts, prints and things like these. I used to do it. But no, now it’s just drawing, tattooing, painting. But painting’s different than the tattoo. I try to respect the individual qualities and demands of tattooing and painting. And for doing that, you need the balance of good and bad. Everywhere. You need balance. Where there is good, there is bad, you know. Where there is bad, there is good.
“At the root of it, it is about the connections with people. Energy. Just knowing that I helped someone feel good about their body. And (made them) happy for what they’re wearing. Just seeing the people be proud of their tattoo makes me happy. And to achieve this level of satisfaction in what I do, I have my ways of doing my job. I pretty much never do consultations. But ninety nine percent of the time, I am prepared. Yeah, always. I do some freehand for some stuff, but I always have (the) design ready. Always. And, everything has to flow with and fit the body.”
That sort of summed up all the questions I had in my mind during our conversation, as I could see how he illustrated his method to madness there. While Raph Cemo understands what the transcendental nature of tattooing is, he has also set a structure for his tattooing process that is natural and well-planned at the same time. Just like his art.