Karma Yeshe Konchok is an Australia-hailing tattoo artist and owner of infamous London-based studio Dharma Tattoo who produces enveloping, “over-sized” Japanese tattoos, as well as soft, Tibetan-inspired offerings that reflect his Buddhist practice, and give second-life to the nameless works that litter his studies. Here, Yeshe speaks to his first tattoo – applied with a tool built from a sea-urchin’s spine, how punk gifted him his fascination with his now-core art-form and to his religious beliefs that have allowed him to see the beauty in what he does.
Can you speak to your birth-place and background in art?
I was born in a small town called Ballarat, about 3-hours outside of Melbourne in Australia. My parents moved around a bit, so even though I was born there I ended up spending most of my life in Australia in the south-east suburbs, an hour from Melbourne. I wasn’t really exposed to art as a child. My father paints a little, but he never really shared that, and I wasn’t really that interested. Tattooing is what got me into art. My neighbour was an old war vet, and he was really heavily tattooed. That’s when I first fell in love with tattoos. I was about 10 or 11 years-old. From there, I started drawing a lot and took art classes in high-school. I was only interested in making art that looked punk, and when I stared to get tattooed at 14, those were the sort of tattoos I started getting. It all made sense really, blue-collar-type tattoos. Hard work, low income, always angry – I loved it!
What are your first memories of tattooing?
Mt first memories of tattoos were seeing them in this newspaper called the Herald Sun. There was a photo of a guy with a green mohican and a skull and crossed-bones on his arm. I asked my Mum, “What is this guy?” She responded, “a Punk”. That was it – I had tunnel-vision for Punk and tattoos! That was in ’96, then in ‘99 I did my first tattoo on myself. It was this little star on my leg, which is now gone. I still have the set up now. It was a sewing needle, tied with fishing line to a sea urchin spine. It sounds weird, but it worked!
When I first started getting tattooed in shops, it was just by local guys, biker shop tattooers, and it was great. They were the guys who made me think tattoo shops were cool. I got my first tattoo at this shop called Australian Tattoo Co. It was an awful place, but it was perfect. I went in after school this one time, paid $30 and got some Old English initials. That experience really was the point that I realised I would never work in some white-collar job, and that tattooing was what I wanted to do.
What influenced the decision to open Dharma, and how has running the shop influenced your work?
Deciding to open Dharma came as a pretty logical step. I was working at Good Times and had been there for around 4-years. It was great, but I had always wanted to have my own place since day one, and it just came to a point where I had been tattooing for almost 10-years, and I was ready. I was also wanting to work in a street shop style environment again. I had been hidden away on the first-floor for years and I missed the day-to-day foot traffic that I had grown used to. I love the fact that at Dharma we have so many locals who drop by for a chat or just to hang-out almost every day of the week. It feels like an extension of my home, sometimes.
When we first opened, I was working 7 days a week and trying to figure out how to run a shop at the same time. My wife was doing an amazing job running the desk and all the behind the scenes stuff, but working out how to run the day-to-day of the shop was difficult. Once I slowed down a bit and tattooed less, it became way easier but it was at least a year of trial-and-error. There were so many errors. I think during that whole period, because I was so focused on trying to get the shop up and running, as well as becoming a father, I learnt to draw much, much faster. Instead of making a drawing, making changes, making more changes, looking over it again and then finally tattooing it, I developed a system where I draw something maybe a week before the tattoo – only roughly, and then revisit it just before I tattoo it. That seems to work best for me now.
Can you speak to your relationship with Buddhism?
My life had taken a lot of pretty major turns within the first year of opening Dharma. Obviously, opening the shop was a big one. Being responsible for the running of a shop was a massive pressure. For years, I would make suggestions and get frustrated with how shops I worked in were ran and suddenly it was time for me to put my money where my mouth was. Then, a year after we opened, my son was born. That was the biggest change in my life, and the best by far. It was at that same time I decide to take my Buddhist practice and study seriously. Not just meditation, or reading books, but committing to living life as a Buddhist. Aside from my son and wife, Buddhism in the most important thing in the world to me. It gives me the ability to be able to be calm, collected and make rational decisions – not get angry or frustrated, which used to be a big problem for me. It has taught me to truly listen. I wasn’t the world’s worst guy or anything, but I could be a real pain and a bit obnoxious – more than I’d want to admit. My day-to-day relationship with Buddhism though is a simple one that consists of meditation, prayer and study, and most importantly the practice of compassion and loving-kindness. I’m by no means “enlightened” or anything close to that, but I sure am a lot happier.
You’ve spent most of your tattoo-career focusing on large-scale Japanese tattooing – a form of tattooing notorious for its timeless power. What is it you are trying to achieve with your work?
I still remember the magazine where I first saw Japanese tattooing. It featured Horiyoshi III’s work quite heavily. I couldn’t get over how strong it looked on the body. The whole body was tattooed with just the most beautiful imagery in vibrant colours on a beautiful black-and-grey background. My mind was blown. At the time, I couldn’t really work out exactly what it was that I liked about it, but I knew I wanted to tattoo like that. When I started tattooing I spent many years just trying to replicate what I saw – not trying to understand why things were done, just copying what I saw and hoping for the best. Usually, it didn’t turn out so well. A big turning point for me was meeting Stuart Archibald. This was in 2009, I would say – I’m never too sure of my timelines. He gave me some great advice and questioned me on one or two things that altered the way I looked at my tattooing. From there, I started to think about how to put things on the body, how they would move, what would be visible from different angles and things like that. From there, I think my tattooing grew. I then decided, once I started to get bigger work coming in, that I wanted it all to be “over-sized”, almost. It was always going to be clear and bold, not in regards to line weight because I have never been a fan of heavy lines, but in terms of the image and how it sits on the body. I have never been worried about trying to add loads of tiny details, or too many “tricks” as tattooers say. I just want my stuff to be readable, clear and to look the same a long time down the line.
Now, I am moving away from doing so much Japanese work. I still love it and enjoy doing it, but I am focusing much more on Tibetan Buddhist imagery. I guess I am still trying to apply it in the same way I would a Japanese tattoo, but the subject matter is different. Japanese tattooing is so vast, and to try to do things “the right way” is so hard. There are so many rules, and it’s so hard to make it look authentic. When it comes to Tibetan Buddhist imagery, it’s much more natural for me. The things I draw, paint or tattoo are part of my everyday life. I guess what I’m really trying to do now is to merge my life, religion and tattooing into one. They are no longer separate entities but instead are all working together.
There’s a historic immediacy and significant mysticism to what you do. Where did you draw inspiration from when starting out in tattooing, and where are you currently sourcing influence?
Obviously, my very first influences were the same as most westerners who got into Japanese tattoos 15 years ago. Horiyoshi, Filip, Mick, McStay, Runbendall, Henning, O’Donnell, and then for the lucky few who stumbled upon him somehow, Roper. And if you don’t know Roper, now’s your chance to look him up! After tattooing for a few years, I found out that all these guys had the same thing in common: books! So, I started collecting – first tattoo books, and then Japanese art books. I love Japanese folklore, so that’s where I took a lot of my early inspirations. Things like ghosts, severed heads and demons were all I wanted to tattoo for the longest time. Samurai and geishas never interested me at all. It all seemed a little boring like I had seen them so many times already. I guess it was only a couple of years ago now that my influences started to change.
Pretty much everything I now reference is from old texts or books I have studied. Not only are Buddhist texts amazing, they are always filled with incredible art-work. However, most art-work is used as aids for our practice, so it’s not very common for the artist to sign their work or even be noted in the book. It’s more important that the image is a correct and respectful interpretation of whoever is in the painting. I find that this is why I feel such a close connection to the work that I am doing at the moment. When I was doing mainly Japanese tattoos, I felt a lot of competition in my work. I was always trying to be better than someone and put a lot of pressure on myself. The reality is, no one will ever be better than Filip, so we can all relax. Now, because I not only have a connection to this Buddhist imagery, but I have also studied it, there is no competition for me. Instead, I can see the beauty in what I have done and I can see it in what others have done. Producing great tattoos is not exclusive to one person and that’s a great thing I have learnt.
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