Most tattoo artists I have interviewed have a quite similar story: they had from a young age a connection to tattoos and have been drawing and painting their whole lives. Chaim’s story took me by surprise, not only because it differs so much from what we usually hear but also because when I contacted him to do this interview I had a lot of questions in mind, but never expected to receive from him a sort of autobiography with a nuance of art manifest. It all starts in a really simple way: “My name is Chaim Machlev and I am 33 years old. I started tattooing 2 years ago, spring 2012.”
Chaim was born and raised in Tel Aviv, Israel. He was not a popular child and spent most of his time in front of a computer. He had no artistic background, did not use to draw or create art in any way besides what he describes as playing guitar as a hobby. He worked as a project manager in an IT company where he was in charge of 22 workers. He says he had a “pretty confortable life, from a materialistic point of view and never felt attracted to tattoos until the moment he thought about getting one.”
There is a point in life in which everyone thinks about getting a tattoo, the reasons can vary, or it may be no reason at all – it just happens. The problem is: many people still carry negative thoughts about tattoos. Chaim talks about some pre-judgments about tattooed people and how tattoos can still be categorized as being connected to drugs and crime. But as he explains, when you get your first tattoo you loose all of that, purely because:
Getting a tattoo had a strong impact on Chaim’s live. He describes the experience as being “extremely spiritual”. It was 3 years ago in Tel Aviv and he says he’s still trying to understand it. From that moment on, Chaim couldn’t stop thinking about tattoos:
“I started seeing it on my dreams, and for every person that I saw I thought about lines that went thru their bodies. How would it be, to be the one that decides which lines flows better in every individual – to dedicate my life to the experience of changing the human body. There was no running from it, and a decision had to be made.”
Chaim decided to leave his job and become a tattoo artist in 2012. In his words:
“Every second that I thought about being a tattoo artist I felt a shiver running down my spin, it showed me that it was the right thing to do”
He sold everything he had and moved to Berlin in the search of an “open door”. He had never been there, but had a good feeling about the city. According to Chaim getting to Berlin was easy, finding a place to live and a tattoo shop that would take him was the hard part. It was 3 months of couch surfing between apartments and wandering through Studios in order to find an opportunity. As he explains: “I had no portfolio to show and no experience in drawing, just a lot of motivation and a lot of hope.” Finally, he found a place that opened its doors to him. He was given a little room in the back to practice and cleaned the studio in exchange from it.
Chaim’s first tattoo was done on a friend and it turned out pretty good:
“When it comes to reality and you hold a tattoo machine for the first time in your hand, and aim it towards someone, you don’t really know how to gain the confidence to do it so you find yourself trusting just your instincts. Those instincts can become habits throughout time and experience.”
It took him about two months to start feeling some security and get some customers. He always had a problem tattooing in front of other people. For him it all is a very intimate process. Chaim writes: “the experience of getting tattooed can bring up a lot of different feelings in many levels: pain, happiness, satisfaction, trust, hope, love, hate…”
“It is hard going to conventions and tattooing in front of people.”
Chaim has a private studio in Berlin and feels that to fulfil the process of tattooing is to have with the client a “positive spiritual experience” and it is impossible to tattoo more then one person a day. His designs are made according to the body structure of the client, he does not prepare sketches before the appointment because he thinks that something can look great on paper but still not fit someone’s body. Chaim thinks it is important to keep an open mind as he tell us that the designs he loves the most were created for people that came to him without any idea of what they wanted but with a strong will to be tattooed by him.
The process of designing a tattoo can take longer then the tattooing process itself. Chaim draws, many times, directly on the person’s body. It can be really hard to find the perfect design for someone and even more with geometric designs. He explain that:
“Our body is not symmetric and to put a symmetric design on a non-symmetric object can end up looking like a placing a sticker.”
Since he never had any artistic education, he cannot draw as efficient as other tattoo artists, but he feels that he compensates that with “a lot of computerised designs made with strong passion.” If he had the time to develop his drawing skills he would be focusing on organic motives, animals andBuddhist figures. Chaim gets his inspiration from nature and he believes that it is the most honest thing we can get inspired from.
“For me art is all about sharing and creating new stimulations to people’s senses.”
He feels that when standing in front of an art piece some people waste more energy trying to understand to which gender it is connected and under which category it can be defined instead of enjoying it. The problem in the art world, in his eyes is: “that there are a lot of artists that enjoy the title of being an artist much more then developing themselves artistically which is a never ending process. “
He rather have his style of tattooing undefined, he choses not to give it a name or a category but he recognizes a duality in his designs, as in his own personality: “minimalistic lines – the computer kid inside of me, and very detailed mandalas – the spiritual man inside of me.” He has adopted a Buddhist way of life after travelling though India for one year. It is visible on his designs the influence of his believes and the paths he chose to take in life.
“It is very interesting how cold lines and dots can have life and a unique behaviour.”
Chaim’s colour of choice is black. For him it looks better on the skin then any other colour and it is the only one that will be forever “timeless in a timeless design.” He feels that as the biggest challenge when tattooing: “your creation, in the end of the day, is so permanent and immortal and it is not even yours, when that person walks out of your studio you might never see him/her again. You are at one moment everything and at the next nothing.”
Many of Chaim’s clients travel to Berlin just to get tattooed by him. He gets a lot of requests from people that never have been tattooed and sometimes are afraid of it. Most of those people have seen his work somewhere in the Internet and felt connected to it because in their eyes it is a different approach to what has been agreed to be tattooing. They see it as more of an art form.
There is nothing wrong with going to a shop and picking a design from a book, but he believes that there is also another way, more spiritual and abstract of tattooing that takes much more energy and trust. For him it is important to spread the word about what he calls a “modern-undefined-category free-tattooing”.
He wants that this interview helps people open their eyes to the beautiful art of tattooing.
He considers himself a really shy person but he chooses to give interviews because he believes there are some interesting aspects in his story that will affect people emotionally. He finishes his text talking about dreams. For those who think that dreams are unachievable and tend to give up before even trying here is his advice: “if I could manage to be a tattoo artist that people actually travel to get tattooed from, then everyone can be whatever they want.”
“I understood pretty quickly that there is no other way to learn tattooing then to truly dedicate yourself to it. Like any dream you just have to fight for it, if not fighting for your dreams then what will you fight for?”
Chaim Machlev tattoos at his private Studio Dots to Lines in Berlin, Germany.
Text: Marina Sell Revision and Edition: Ricardo Valle Photos: Chaim’s Archive and Portfolio