Born on a dark winter’s night to parents of Swiss and Laotian descent, Khamsavan ‘Khamsi’ Wiesner spent his childhood in Embrach (Switzerland) and Portland (USA), before returning to his hometown to make his mark on the local culture, or rather, on the locals themselves. Khamsi has been drawing, designing and creating across a variety of media and materials, from ink and gold foil on handmade paper, to spray paint on walls, markers on cloth, digital pixels on screens and, finally, skin. Susan Platt asks him about the journey.
Images courtesy Khamsavan Wiesner
Welcome, Khamsi. Most of your art is deeply rooted in Japanese design and reminiscent of the ukiyo-e style, the most prominent example of which is Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’. Tell us about your fascination with that ancient style. How did you first encounter it and what drew you to it?
I guess being half Asian led to it naturally. As a kid I was always surrounded by all these great Southeast Asian mythological creatures: dragons, temple guardians and Buddha statues in my home. I didn’t think of it much as a kid of course, it was just there, it was normal.
When I first started getting tattoos in my late teens and early twenties, I was mostly interested in 1940s-1950s tattooing—classic Americana motifs, sailor stuff. It really spoke to me because of the classic look and simplicity, and I knew it was timeless.
And then one day I was looking at this book full of Japanese tattoos, and it instantly hit me. Wow! These full-body suits are amazing, the designs are huge and timeless, and these beautiful flowers and dramatic scenes of nature and animals and mythical creatures—it’s more than just a tattoo, it tells a story. The design becomes a part of the person who wears it. Japanese waves, I love them, you can make them fit to any form or any spot on the body. It will always flow and look great (if they’re drawn correctly). I instantly knew: this is something special. This is high-end. It looks awe-inspiring. The look hasn’t changed for 200 years and still looks great today, and this is Asian, so kind of part of me!
When I got serious about collecting tattoos, I wanted a Japanese sleeve (full arm) which I eventually got done around 2007-2008, just when I began my apprenticeship. I started studying Japanese tattooing more deeply and this inevitably led me to ukiyo-e, as traditional Japanese tattooing is directly derived from it.
The names of Japanese tattooists almost always have the word ‘Hori’ in front (e.g. Horinaka, Horimasa, Horikazu) which means ‘to carve’. Because ukiyo-e was a carved woodblock printing technique, Japanese tattooists see it as almost the same thing—to carve into skin. A trip to Japan deepened my fascination with almost everything Japanese. They just do everything perfectly, whether it’s painting, cooking, clothing, pottery or gardening. Whatever they touch, they make it perfect! This I admire greatly because I see myself and my so-called art as very imperfect. (Although there is a place in Japanese culture for the imperfect—to read up on that subject, I recommend In Praise of Shadows by Tanizaki Jun’ichirō.)
I’d never go so far as to call myself a specialist in Japanese tattooing. It’s just what interests me most and I’m striving to make great-looking Japanese tattoos whenever customers let me—but I’m just a general tattooist, really.
The motto underneath your logo reads: Tradition & passion. How do these virtues come into play for you and what you do?
Tattooing does have a tradition in Western culture, just not in Switzerland. If you look at the countries that went to sea, they have a very deeply rooted tattoo culture. Celts or Vikings, for example. Think of Ötzi: he wears the oldest tattoos known to mankind. So, to me, it very much has a tradition in Western culture and that’s why I chose it. I’m continuing a tradition, a tradition handed down from master to apprentice. Because there is no school where you can learn it, you have to be taught by someone who is willing to teach you. Apprenticeship is as traditional as it gets. As for passion, I feel that in order to be(come) a good tattooist you have to be passionate about it. And people that get tattoos are usually passionate about their tattoos as well, so that seemed fitting.
As an artist working with so many different media, what drew you to human skin as canvas? What challenges does an artist face when working with living tissue and how do you tackle them?
I was very interested in this romantic ideal of being a tattooist, being free and drawing every day. Plus I thought I’d be worshipped by all women, but that turned out to be fake news! I was already well-covered (with tattoos) when I started tattooing nearly a decade ago, and I had been drawing since I was a kid, so that step felt quite natural to me. And I was caught up in a no-future job with miserable pay and I was 28. So I said: f**k this, I have to do what I’ve always wanted to do, and now is the time or I’ll regret it for the rest of my life.
Human skin as a canvas? It’s unforgiving. Every person’s skin is different. So you never know how difficult a tattoo is going to be when you start a new piece. And you have different skin types on different parts of the body. It moves and breathes, so it can be like a rollercoaster. Plus, you cause the customer pain. Everybody reacts differently, so you always have to adjust. You’re also not very free in designing—because of the customers’ wishes and some design rules—for the tattoo to look good and last through the ages.
As for the final product—the tattoo, once it heals i.e. how it’s going to look on the skin of your customer for the rest of his or her life—a big part of that is out of your hands once the person walks out of the shop, because they are responsible for taking care of your/their artwork during healing. Some people really do take care and others don’t. Even if I did a good job, the tattoo still might look like crap because it healed up badly. That’s why I always tell customers to return after a month or so. So actually, being a tattooist causes a lot of stress and it would be easier to just be a painter working on canvas. Tattooing isn’t easy, even after almost 10 years.
For many people, getting a tattoo is tied in with a personal story, the image a reminder of something or someone they care for or stand for. How far into the story do you as the creator of the image go? Can you tell us about the journey you embark on creating your art, or share a story that influenced and changed you along the way?
I don’t really care about the so-called story of the tattoo because it’s mostly the same for almost everyone. I put design before meaning. The story part wasn’t a thing at all before the TV show Miami Ink came along in the mid-2000s. The show ran under the motto ‘Every tattoo has a story’, a kind of excuse to have a reality show about tattooing. Customers breaking down and crying after every tattoo … It turned out to be a huge success. If you’re interested in tattooing as a craft and art form, I recommend Tattoo Age on Vice.com and The Gypsy Gentleman on Vimeo.
But actually, often the customers who want their tattoo to have the most meaning usually get tattoos that are more common e.g. stars that represent their kids, birth dates, names, infinity signs, lilies with filigree, feathers with birds flying out the top … Stuff you can find on Google. It’s fine with me, I’m not an artist—I’m a service man—so I will do these kinds of tattoos, no problem.
In Japanese tattooing, it’s a different story. Customers seem to care more about the look, so I really like when they want something that looks great and timeless, and give us the freedom to just do our thing because they know they’ll get the best tattoo. It will automatically become meaningful to the wearer after some years anyway, no point in packing a design with meaning.
There are some stories that really touch me, though. For example, I had a young couple come in who had lost their baby shortly before it was due. They brought in the footprint of their baby, to get it tattooed, along with a heartbreaking and beautiful poem. Even though the design wasn’t anything special, this obviously was very, very important to them, to help them commemorate and heal, and as a parent it meant a lot to me to be able to do this for them. But usually I don’t ask, I just want to do a good tattoo that looks great, that’s most important to me.
Staying in the story realm, how do you perceive the representation of your calling in other arts, such as film and literature?
I can’t remember seeing it really badly portrayed in film. My daughter and I watched the latest Disney film Moana which is set in Polynesia, so all the characters are tattooed. There’s a scene where this young dude is getting his first tattoo with the ol’ stick and tapping technique and it was depicted completely correctly and it was a funny scene too. So they did their research, which nowadays is really easy because the information is freely available. Actually this tells you that tattooing has completely arrived in the mainstream, if it’s in a Disney film! Also there’s this really great book called The Electric Michelangelo, which is a love story about a tattooist and his muse, and the tattooing is depicted with great respect. What really makes me run for the hills sometimes is how tattooing is written about in the news. About 90% of the time they get it plain wrong because they’re just out for some sensationalist stuff. So what you read about tattooing in, for example, 20Minuten could be BS. And also, you should disregard anything you see on shows such as Ink Master, it has nothing to do with reality, or at least mine.
In that vein, what fictional character would you love to do a tattoo for, what design would you choose and why?
That’s a hard one. I’ve read too many books and I tend to forget what they’re about after a while, or the stories just get all mixed up in my head. So I’ll just go with the book I’m reading right this moment, which is Sabbath’s Theater by Philip Roth. It’s apparently one of the great works of American literature, but really so far it’s just porno! But very witty and funny and I just love the main character, Mickey Sabbath—he’s outrageous. I’m reading this book on my morning and evening commute, and he’s so absurd that it makes me giggle out loud and people on the train look at me like I’m crazy. So I would go with him and I’d probably do a big-breasted classic nude 40s-style pin-up on him, because he’s a dirty old man with solely one single thing on his mind, haha!
And if you could choose any fictional character to design and create a tattoo for you, who would that be, what design would they choose and why?
Calvin from Robert Watterson’s comic strip, Calvin & Hobbes! Calvin’s mind is just out there, he hasn’t been restricted by life and adulthood yet. He’s super creative and in his own world, and he doesn’t care much what others think of him. And he’s witty. So if I just let him do his thing, he’d probably design some cool tiger (obviously) or a self-portrait as Spaceman Spiff, or a super-cool design of Spaceman Spiff’s Death Ray Zorcher.
And finally, the Woolf special question: What is one of your favourite works of fiction and why?
One book I have kept over the years—and I’ve gifted a few times already—is Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan. I talked about this book with a few people and the thing about it is, you can’t really put a finger on what’s so good about it. There’s not even much happening in the story. It’s more the mood of the book. It’s very real and kind of sad, but not very sad, yet not happy at all. It made me feel melancholy. Not a lot of books do that to me.