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Exploring the Bold Beauty of Blackwork Tattoos: An interview with artists Gifford Kasen, Codak Smith and Bryson Ai

Updated: Mar 2

In the world of tattooing, there's a genre that stands out for its boldness, striking contrasts, and designs – Blackwork tattoos. With its roots tracing back centuries and its modern evolution captivating tattoo enthusiasts worldwide, Blackwork tattoos grown from a celebration of culture to to the expression of creativity and individuality. We've had the privilege of chatting with renowned tattoo artists Gifford Kasen, Codak Smith, and Bryson Ai about their approach to Blackwork tattoos. These artists have many variations on the diverse styles within the cross-cultural genre of blackwork tattoos. From the broad scope of the Blackwork genre to their unique artistic visions, their insights shed light on the intricacies of this captivating art form. 

A Brief History:

Blackwork tattooing has a rich history, with origins dating back to ancient civilizations where body art was used for cultural, spiritual, and decorative purposes. In various cultures around the world, black ink was commonly used to create symbolic tattoos that represented heritage, status, and personal beliefs.

Evolution of Style & Versatility in Design: Leg Sleeve by Codak Smith

With their ancient roots, blackwork tattoos have transformed into a distinctive form of artistic expression within the tattoo community. Characterized by various styles, they captivate attention with their striking visual compositions. What sets Blackwork apart is its versatility in design, offering a spectrum of styles. Whether inspired by bold geometric shapes, intricate mandalas, or nature's beauty, Blackwork tattoos provide endless avenues for creative exploration and self-expression.

Calf Piece below by Bryson Ai.

Symbolism and Meaning:

Like all forms of body art, Blackwork tattoos often carry personal significance and symbolism for the wearer. While some opt for purely aesthetic designs, others choose Blackwork tattoos to symbolize aspects of their identity, beliefs, or life experiences. From symbols of strength and resilience to representations of spiritual connection or cultural heritage, Blackwork tattoos can convey a myriad of meanings.

Half sleeve below by Gifford Kasen.

Finding the Right Artist:

When considering a Blackwork tattoo, finding the right artist is crucial. Look for tattooists who specialize in Blackwork and whose portfolio aligns with your aesthetic preferences. Take the time to research different artists, read reviews, and schedule consultations to discuss your ideas and vision for the tattoo. A skilled and experienced artist will work collaboratively with you to create a custom design that reflects your personality and style.

“What is the crossover between the broad term “blackwork” and your style?” 

Sleeve by Codak Smith.

Codak: “Blackwork is a pretty broad blanket term and seems to be the umbrella for any tattoo that is not photographic in nature and utilizes black or various gradations of black as it’s primary focus. So naturally my work which bends the boundary between abstract based graffiti, graphic design, elements of architectural form and composition and geometry is going to fall into this category. I try not to focus on fitting into a style and just do what feels natural and right.”

Legpiece by Gifford Kasen.

Gifford : “Mostly that I use a lot of heavy black and that the shapes are abstract.  I also want the piece to read as a bold shape from a distance with a positive/negative relationship with the skin so that is a major attribute to most blackwork.”

Backpiece by Bryson Ai.

Bryson: “I think for me the crossover lies in the fact that my work can be completed using a single color. That is black. “Blackwork” as a category comes from everything being done within the values that are created not from multiple bottles of assorted inks and opaque grays or colors but with a singular source of black ink. For my work particularly I think of it in very illustrative terms similar to an ink pen where it’s all or nothing.  You have solid black which is 100% pigment and open skin tone which is 0% pigment. The entire range of shading exists

between those two values.”

Are clients connecting with you because they are looking for blackwork or do you find it’s more people searching you out because of your specific style?

Chest Piece by Codak.

Codak: “It’s primarily clients coming to me for my particular style and vision. They may have knowledge of “Blackwork” but are mainly looking for my vision.”

Bryson: “I feel because the umbrella term “blackwork” applies to such a vast majority of tattooers worldwide that most clients end up connecting with my work as an artist due to subject matter. Clients who are looking for blackwork have a wide array of choices even at Logan Square Tattoo for example. The ones who are connecting and enjoying the work I produce versus my fellow coworker’s creations are making the decisions based on not how I tattoo the image but based on what particular images I as an artist work with and create.”

Arm Piece below by Bryson Ai.

Gifford: “It seems like most people are interested more in the style I’m doing and that's what draws them in.  However they often use terms like blackwork and ink wash to describe that kind of work, so I think it at very least lends to the lexicon to describe what they are looking for.  I guess on a broader scale- where a lot of my designs are coming from are influences from my background in biomech style tattooing, but a lot of these clients are starting with blackwork as their jumping off point and the ink wash thing I’m doing is sort of meeting them in the middle.”

Thigh piece by Gifford Kasen.

With the recent popularity of blackwork and blackout tattooing, what helps you stand apart in your work as well as your approach?

Leg Piece by Codak Smith.

Codak: “I mean I feel like my experience as a working artist for so many years comes through in the work. That my clients can bring so many different ideas / Concepts to me and can feel safe knowing I will put my best foot forward every time and really invest myself in their project. All the while sticking true to my vision and direction as an artist.”

Bryson: “For me I feel the process of art is so intensely personal. What I look at, listen to, read about, the places I go, the things I research about in my down time (as unrelated as they may feel to my work at the time) all worm their way into the final product of my tattoos. Part of my process and a way I feel I can help myself stand out is by ignoring the trends and turning toward outside / unorthodox resources in order to find new inspiration. Two artists who are told to draw the same subject matter but placed in different environments and sourcing from separate references will have completely incomparable and unique results. This is my goal to find and feed my brain “out of the box” references and inspirations so that as a byproduct my work comes out as incomparable and unique to the rest.”

Gifford: “For me it’s approaching it from this very organic and freeform design process.  I conceptualize this work with ink wash paintings, so its sort of a loose uncontrolled design that is focused on large shapes and flow, and then I start refining and pulling out patterns and texture from there.  So it is really influenced by my biomechanical design process and hunting for organic shapes that will harmonize well with the body.  With the inkwash it gets away from using outlines and becomes less illustrative than my other tattoo work and through that becomes it’s own unique thing.”

Ink wash & final product below by Gifford Kasen.

The New Tribal?

This is a fun question! As trends come and go, the question arises: Is Blackwork the new tribal? With its bold aesthetic and abstract allure, Blackwork tattoos evoke echoes of tribal artistry. Yet, they stand as a testament to modern creativity, transcending labels and embracing individuality. Let’s see what our artists said when asked, Is 90’s tribal ever coming back or is blackwork the new tribal?

Codak: “I’m not sure 90’s tribal ever fully left and it doesn’t really matter much to me if it does or not. Styles come and go, get reinvented and evolve all the time so…Maybe? Also to be real if a tribal style is not being done by an artist who belongs to the indigenous culture that the style came from, is it really tribal or merely an aesthetic interpretation?”

Backpiece by Codak Smith.

Bryson: “I’d say as much as people are ashamed to admit it… Yeah blackwork specifically the abstract or ornamental kind is the “new tribal.” Trends in fashion and art are cyclical in nature and with the late 90s and y2k style in full swing revival so is this style of tattoo. People love to ask what my specific blend of abstract blackwork is called, whether it is “cyber-sigilism” or “agro-goth” or “neo-tribal.” My simple truth and answer to that question is that I honestly have no clue… Call it what you want but one thing is for certain it is 100% big, spikey, black, and abstract in all the right ways.”

Backpiece below by Bryson Ai.

Gifford: “Man I hope so.  Big bold 90’s tribal was tight and a statement piece.  It got sort of watered down when it turned into smaller pieces and armbands/tramp stamps and that’s probably more what you’re asking…. So I hope that's not the case.  I do everything in a way that can’t really be executed on a small scale, so it is really only for the people that want to commit and therefore probably escapes the chances of becoming a fad piece.  Either way, time has shown that bold black work holds up and looks great basically forever, so maybe the subtle aesthetics change, but the idea of blackwork isn’t going anywhere.”

Chest piece by Gifford Kasen.

Caring for Your Blackwork Tattoo:

Once you've gotten your Blackwork tattoo, proper aftercare is essential to ensure its longevity and vibrancy. Follow your artist's instructions for cleaning and moisturizing the tattooed area, avoid exposure to direct sunlight and abrasive clothing, and refrain from picking or scratching at the tattoo as it heals. With attentive care, your Blackwork tattoo will continue to look bold and beautiful for years to come.

Embrace the Journey:

Blackwork tattoos represent a captivating fusion of artistry, symbolism, and self-expression. Whether you're drawn to their bold aesthetic, intricate designs, or cultural significance, Blackwork tattoos offer a timeless canvas for creative exploration. As you embark on your tattoo journey, embrace the opportunity to celebrate your individuality and adorn your body with a work of art that speaks to your soul.

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