In conversation with tattoo artist extraordinaire Jannica Sandström
Dropping out of art school to study environmental science, Jannica Sandström got her first tattoo, a beetle, during one summer spent on a Swedish island “measuring biodiversity by counting insect species”. Captivated, she soon took the ink and needle to her own flesh—just to see if she could do it. Sandström’s practice was quickly propelled by her extreme thirst for knowledge—“or maybe a desire to develop is a better way to put it”—and a vigorously supportive community of like-minded friends. Describing her beloved chosen family as “a modern version of la belle époque”, the artist refuses to compartmentalize her inspiration by pinning it down to a laundry list of sources, instead operating on a highly instinctive plane of expression. An inherently emotional process of transformation, tattooing is “more intimate than sex”, she explains, and so one’s gut feeling is everything. Delicate yet striking, her graceful impressions of mythical creatures, nymphs, goddesses, and flora and fauna adorn the bodies of the lucky ones. Disrupting the stale machismo of the tattoo industry one meticulously executed vision at a time, Sandström brings beauty worthy of the High Renaissance to the ever-changing facades of today’s Berlin.
First, let’s start with the somewhat boring but necessary questions: What is your artistic background? How did you get into tattooing?
I get this question quite often and I really don’t know how to answer it. I’ve always been drawing. I went to art school for a bit in Finland, but dropped out to go study environmental science. Around the time I moved to Berlin I was getting tattooed fairly frequently, and was really intrigued and drawn to trying it myself, so I did—and loved it. I can’t really tell how long I have been tattooing, because I don’t know what the starting point is. Is it when I made my first tattoo, when I started to feel proud of my work, or when it became my main occupation?
In the beginning, I did a lot of semi-shit tattoos at kitchen tables, learning with every tattoo and studying techniques, history, etc. I just felt this super strong need to know more and suck up all available information about tattooing and tattoos. I still feel this extreme need to know, or maybe a desire to develop is a better way to put it. Because I’m self-taught, my tattooing kind of became an extension of my drawings, and the techniques I use are adapted to it.
When did you get your first tattoo, and what is it? Do you recall the motivation behind it ?
It’s a beetle that I got when I was 21—so only 6 years ago—after spending a summer on Gotland, an island outside of Sweden, measuring biodiversity by counting insect species. Insects were kind of my niche interest before tattooing. I used to know how to recognise and name around 200 insect species in both Swedish and Latin. Sadly, I’ve forgotten most of it by now. There wasn’t really that much meaning behind it, more that I like them. The first tattoo I ever did on myself is a line on the inside of my foot. I just wanted to see if I could tattoo, and I could, because it’s still there. The first machine tattoo I did is of a hand on the inside of my leg.
You often use religious images, both Orthodox and Evangelical, as well as referencing art history and nature.
I’m quite an extreme person; it’s mostly all or nothing. So, throughout my life I’ve always had these extreme niche interests. When I was a child, I was obsessed with mythology, a year or two ago or so I revisited this obsession and became more and more fascinated by Renaissance art. The Renaissance led to more religious motifs; it’s a trail of inspiration. Nature has always been something I’ve been drawn to. Maybe because I grew up in Finland surrounded by nature.
Can you tell us a little bit about what inspires your work, and how you’d describe your style?
I don’t really like this question. I feel like it’s impossible to answer it so generally, I will know it when I see it, I get this feeling, and I’ll consciously or unconsciously start adding elements of it to my work. It can be a person, something someone says, something I see, a daydream, whatever really. My chosen family mean the world to me, they are huge sources of inspiration for me. Often, when I draw I kind of draw for them—it makes me think of them, or I literally draw as if it was meant for them. Most of my close friends are dedicating their lives to some sort of creative output, so I feel like we sometimes feed on each other’s inspiration. Kind of like a modern version of Belle Époque.
As for my style, I don’t really want to put my work in some sort of style box, mostly because I don’t know how to. I do what I like and I’m just happy people are getting it and liking it too, or at least understanding that it’s not so serious.
The Berlin tattoo scene seems to be pretty tight knit and mutually supportive. Why do you think Berlin is such a great place for an artistic community?
Sure, but there are sides to that. There are also a lot of tattoo dudes here too. A breed I try to avoid. You know the ones that use tattooing as some sort of dick extension and produce versions of each other’s work and it’s all kind of lame or missing something. It’s a very harsh statement, but they are the one that historically had monopoly on the tattoo scene, so every time a girl or someone queer learns to tattoo, I think both me and my friends really cheer them on, because that means a dilution of these tattoo dudes in the tattoo scene; so, we try to support them.
I have friends who tattoo here and they are amazing artists; they have my full support, and I know I have theirs. I’ve always felt that success is nothing unless you can help friends reach it too and share it, so I’m trying to actively make sure that I support my friends with whatever they want to do. Kindness will get us both way further than any competitive environment would. I also think many of us struggle with similar struggles, so together we are able to provide support to each other while helping ourselves, whether the struggle is money issues, people flaking on appointments, bureaucracy, Instagram, or not feeling good enough… I’ve never felt that I couldn’t be vulnerable among them, or not say how I feel or think; if I have a question about techniques or whatever, I can always ask. It’s beautiful. I feel like others want me to see them as competition or concurrence, but I haven’t ever really felt or seen anyone of them like that.
What’s it like being a tattoo artist in that particular city?
Most of my friends here work with something creative, some of them tattoo, but I don’t think it’s because of the city. I think we would have been drawn to each other in any city, or any world really. I feel that likeminded people will eventually be drawn to each other like magnets; for us, it just happened to be in Berlin that we met. I think Berlin just made it easier, it was a place that until recently was very welcoming for people craving to live life slightly differently to the norms in the rest of Europe, maybe the world, with its cheap rents and sort of a make-what-you-want-of-it attitude. But I’ve really seen a change in the last year or so: nothing is affordable anymore and it’s not because it’s overpopulated. I feel like Berlin has lost a bit of its soul, and with it some of the fire souls that made the city unique. A lot of that was already long gone before I even got here. If I had a time machine, one of the places I would want to visit is Berlin in the ’80s, and experience the extreme buzzing creativity that this city housed. Today, I feel like gentrification is becoming a serious problem. Open offices are replacing weird small stores, and everything is more polished and organised now. It’s getting harder to explore the city and its madness, because it’s harder to find it today. I love that Berlin is—or was—as messy and unorganised as me, but I don’t find this chaos that often anymore. I can also appreciate that the city is so damn ugly in certain places, I don’t know why. Maybe an ugly background makes it easier to appreciate beauty or to create beauty. I moved to Wedding some time ago and I don’t think I’ll be leaving this area. Here it’s still kind of messy.
Since you operate on both sides of the trade—tattooing and getting tattooed fairly often—how has this duality affected your relationships with people, and to you body? Is it ever an emotional experience ?
Tattooing is such an intimate experience, more intimate than sex. You are literally changing someone’s body together with the person. Therefore, I feel like it’s so important that you have a connection with, or at least trust in, the person you are tattooing or being tattooed by. I find that it’s an extremely emotional experience, there are all these very primal reactions involved in tattooing: it hurts, your body registers it as a threat and you have to put mind over the pain and get through it, and then you get this high, a rush of adrenaline. You’ve also got this bond with this person you’ve been tattooed by, and you’ve marked the day you got tattooed. It’s like an emotional stamp from that day; you have what you were feeling that day and what was going on in your life.
But you can also choose to not see it like that; it can also just be permanent jewellery. It’s up to you. I always feel this new wave of love for my body after getting tattooed. As a woman, you are also so often taught to not love your body, and to have this experience that showers you in self-love is so powerful. It’s a fuck you to all the negative bullshit we’ve been programmed to accept. With tattoos you are also given an opportunity to decorate areas of your body that you may struggle to love at the time.
The theme for our new issue is paranormal: we are exploring intuition as part of the everyday yet radical and mythical, and the value of ritual in making the self. What role does instinct play in your life and work?
I sometimes play with the idea of all the stories in, for example, Iliad, Kalevala, Odyssey and the Bible being real events; that humans killed all the magic in the world with greed and evil in the same way that they are killing the nature and the planet now. It’s a crazy thought, but it’s fun to play with and I think it’s a reason I’m drawn to these motifs. Intuition plays a huge role in my life and my art. I base most on my decisions on it, I try to listen to my feelings or my heart to guide my way through my somewhat messy life. It also plays a huge role in my tattoos, there is no real logic to what I’m drawn to. Certain motifs just spark this feeling in me, and then I know that that is what I want to tattoo or draw, paint, embroider.
And do you adhere to any rituals, whether mundane or special?
I’ve never ever managed to keep up any sort of routine, and I feel like rituals are routines but with more meaning or soul to them. Maybe I do have rituals that I’m not aware of, but they are not conscious.
If you’re having a terrible, awful day, what little—or big—thing can you do to instantly make yourself feel better?
I am a very anxious being, strongly ruled by my emotions. Which means some days are real bad, but I can usually turn it around by taking a walk or just going outside. I just have to find a way to prove to myself that the world is bigger than me. That’s usually the cure. And I have a dog, which really helps, taking him for a long walk often gives me the distance to my own life that I then need. Caring for something that isn’t me. It’s a pretty basic answer but it works.
When I get bad news, or when I am struggling with whatever life threw at me and it feels really tough, I always try to remind myself that all this bad energy is not permanent. If something bad happens, it’s because it’s making room for something good to happen; it’s all about the balance between good and bad, the easy and the hard I guess. But “balanced” doesn’t mean fair. You might have amazing luck with always catching the bus every morning, even when you are late, but then you lose your keys.
Are you at all a superficial and/or a spiritual person? How do those tendencies manifest?
I think I am. I’m always searching for patterns and I definitely believe in energies and magnetism that certain things, places or people have. I’m certain that things maybe don’t always happen for a reason, but maintain some universal balance. I’m quite unaware of my surroundings and very clumsy, which often leads to me having different freak accidents. A good friend of mine often jokes that if I ever would be completely bruise/wound free, he would suspect that I’d been replaced. Still, with all these accidents and near death situations, I’ve never seriously hurt myself, no bone has been broken and all wounds were kind of minor. I feel like this has to be proof of some sort of guardian spirit or angel watching over me.
I also feel like reincarnation has to happen to some extent, I feel like life sometimes feels too familiar for the 27 years I’ve been alive. It’s a feeling I can’t really explain, just an idea that I sometimes spin off—maybe that’s why I’m drawn to the old paintings and mythology.
Back to tattoo talk—do you have a favourite tattoo adorning your body?
No, not really, it changes all the time.
And the least favourite one? Actually, “least favourite” is a bit dismissive—maybe the most awkward one? I feel like everyone who has a few tattoos has an ugly (but loved!) child one, so to speak…
For sure, I definitely have a bunch of shit ones, or maybe they are just boring. I have one between my breasts that I got before I was tattooing that I got in a studio and the experience was so horrible that it put a mark on the tattoo. I got it in some sort of drop-in tattoo shop when I had just moved to Berlin. I explained and sketched to the guy what I wanted done, and he said, OK, come back tomorrow and let’s do it. I come back the next day and everything is set up, the design he did is nothing like what we had talked about the day before. It’s like three times bigger, heavy and horrible. He puts so much pressure on me about getting started, and I can feel that it’s not right but there is no room for me complain. So I did it and now it’s there, annoying me. But, in a way, it’s a good thing that I have this experience, because it reminds me to never put any of this pressure on my clients. It’s their body, they decide, I just help them make the decision and if our visions don’t overlap, it’s better that they go to someone else.
Have you ever thought of tattoos as accessories?
I’ve always viewed tattoos as permanent jewellery, but not solely; they’re also a way to treat yourself and celebrate your body. I wouldn’t force this definition on others though, and I don’t think it has to be more serious than that. Basically, it’s your body and the tattoos should mean to you what you define them as.