Brody Polinsky is a Berlin-based tattoo artist and queer activist who creates spontaneous ornamental work out of his private, inclusive space UNIV ERSE. In conversation with Nine Mag, Brody demystifies his beginnings in tattooing, the intentions behind UNIV ERSE and how he sees his bold, pattern-grid world evolving.
Can you tell me about your relationship with tattooing?
It has been an obsession, and one that grows stronger every day. It kicked off in 1992 when my cousin started getting tattooed by a biker in this small city we lived in called Edmonton. I started to put together these modern, tribal-influenced designs around that time. Realising I could draw on people permanently got me stoked. Come 1995, I had convinced my cousin’s best friend to tattoo one of my drawings on my calf, and I was off to the races. In parallel, I was struggling with addiction – masking my sexual self coming through. I have always chosen to take the hard approach, but finally got clean in 2002 and rebuilt my self-worth. Gratefully in 2008, Jay Tierney apprenticed me at his studio in Vancouver and, not long after, I hit the road – moving around the world. For the last 4-years I have made Berlin my home and built UNIV ERSE STUDIO: a private queer space.
Your tattoos have an incredible sense of history to them, but I feel as if I’ve seen nothing quite like them before. Can you speak to the tension between timelessness and innovation when it comes to your work?
I draw what comes out of me each day with the client present. I only ever know where on the body they intend to be tattooed. Each pattern is singular: only for one person – to see how far I can go with this aesthetic and creative process. I have seen a lot of the world, and payed attention to tattooing in most cultures, yet do not use reference. Being blissfully ignorant and attempting to have my authentic-self be present each day is the challenge. It is all about the ritual – trust and pain, of home or the road. These days home is my chosen place to be. I burnt out and had to step back some.
Your Berlin-based studio UNIV ERSE has worked hard to create a safe tattoo-related environment for everyone – regardless of how they identify. What inspired such a space?
The world of tattooing is massive, and often hyper-masculine and homophobic. I have never felt I could occupy my space in said world comfortably. I first came into creating private studio spaces while living in New York, and then in Toronto, which led me to the calmness I was seeking without knowing it. I know that I offer my best self each day by having folks arrive alone and without their friends. We drink some tea, listen to an album, and go from there. I have spent years tattooing in ways each different space dictates, and subject to what the people in that space are accepting of and sensitive to – with each dynamic affecting the tattooing. My skin is not very thick, and as years go by in recovery, I see how I can be a better human to myself and then, by proxy, to the world around me.
Can you speak to your attraction to pattern-work?
My first love of tattooing came through creepin’ as many hours as I could at my friend’s studio in Edmonton – trying to soak it up through every pore. I was taken by Alex Binnie’s approach to tattooing and the clients he would work on. I found out much later that his bold, black body-work was tattooed heavily on the gay community in London at that time. That spoke to me loudly. The scale and placement and brashness of the photography still sticks in my mind, even though Japanese-work was then the most coveted by the tattooers I looked up to.
Skateboarding seems to be as much a part of your life as tattooing. How has it influenced what you do?
I have skated for 30-years, thank fuck! I would have not made it though life otherwise. It is my only fail-safe shut-off switch. All of my chosen communities have taught me to tow the line, keep my head down and show my true-self. As far as the DIY aspect of skateboarding and the individual expression you access, and the music, it was a gift – like a double-edged sword worth swallowing.
Clients are trusting you more and more with incredibly high-stakes projects – from palm tattoos to powerful full-leg pieces. How do you see your work evolving?
Anticipating that anyone could identify and feel safe at the studio, I set the intention to work on large-scale body projects. Having built the studio and settled in slowly, everyone started to understand my motivations clearly. It is an honour when anyone wants a tattoo – especially on their hands and feet. Those are my most favourite parts of the body to work with. Having two-days to complete a project is a step towards four-day, with the client having the stamina and the experience not just being a marathon of torture. Friends have been suggesting I mix solid black-work with what I do with patterns, which I can sense is coming down the line. It’s a trip to catch a new idea and run with it for a stretch. I move on when I burn ideas out.
What’s does the future of UNIV ERSE hold?
As far as UNIV ERSE goes, that’s the project where I get to be a designer and contribute my energy to having a voice beyond marking skin permanently. Tattooing is a very special two-way exchange which I am comfortable with. However, making things for UNIV ERSE is a one-way exchange. The idea is that other people create a dialog between themselves. I want UNIV ERSE to perpetuate inclusivity.